Friday, September 18, 2009

Is It Opposite Day Yet?

In the midst of 'new book mania', and enjoying an autobiography/tell-some (but not all) book about the fashion industry by plus-size model Crystal Renn. The book, entitled "Hungry", is an interesting study in contrasts; so much so that it would be borderline irresponsible of me to try to summarize it in some kind of 'review' format right now, before I've had a chance to really digest (pardon the pun) the contents.

Part of my interest in this book comes from the contrast between the way Renn describes both her childhood and her life in the industry with something of an odd yet honorable double-standard: She'll assiduously find good things to say about others, or if she must say something bad, she'll go out of her way either to avoid personally identifying the person she has to bad mouth, finding compensatory values that present that person as more than just a black-hatted 'bad guy', or both (even her biological mother, who gets the worst of this treatment, comes off as sympathetic by the time Renn and her grandmother go to New York to kick off her modeling career). But when it comes to herself, there's little she won't cop to -- she describes her mild OCD as a child which blossoms into full-fledged anorexia when 'discovered' by a modeling scout and told she has to lose dozens of pounds before he'll take a chance on her, she all but paints herself as an exercise-obsessed zombie for the first few years of her modeling life in New York City, and she admits, even after her awakening and acceptance of her body type, being drawn to the odd and the borderline deviant, to the point where I'm expecting that any turn of the page might reveal that Renn has decided to become the 21st century's Bettie Page. She comes across as fiercely honest, at least about her own struggles and flaws, and because of this it's hard not to root for her now that her life seems to have taken a turn for the better and she's getting both positive publicity and personal satisfaction out of her new life choices.

The most amazing part of the book, to me, wasn't the personal revelations or the happily-ever-after ending which sees Renn as, apparently, the first plus-size 'editorial' model (a model who makes art, as opposed to a 'commercial' model who only takes pictures to sell things); it was a lengthy section just before the halfway mark of the book, almost an aside from her narrative about starving herself into shape for her modeling career, where she takes on the concept of 'fat' being equal to 'unhealthy', doing so with a diligence toward relating evidence and following the implications of that evidence to seemingly logical if iconoclastic conclusions that I wondered if Renn hadn't somehow stumbled across Bill James at some point in her bookish youth. When I do decide to discuss the book in greater detail (assuming I get around to it), this section is going to get the lion's share of my attention.

Meanwhile, I thought it might be interesting to point out another double-standard; one that's probably ridiculously obvious, but one I couldn't get out of my head after reading how finally accepting her body's 'natural size' helped bring her entire life into clearer focus.

Renn explains that she's five-feet nine-inches in height, and fluctuates between one-hundred-sixty and one-hundred-seventy-five pounds in weight, depending on mood and other circumstances. This makes her 'plus size' in the modeling world, and while she says that she's neither the largest nor the smallest plus-size model working today, she's significantly larger than the 'straight size' models against whom she now competes for editorial work. In the world of editorial modeling, she's a giant, arguably in both senses. So I thought it would be interesting to compare her with a couple of other 'giants' of roughly similar size from different walks of life:

- Doug Flutie (5' 9", 180 lbs)

Crystal Renn is the same height and about five to twenty pounds lighter than Doug Flutie was during much of the latter's football career. Like Renn, Flutie found success in his chosen profession, though, also like Renn, he didn't find it on what most would assume to be the largest stage of that profession.

As a quarterback at Boston College, Flutie threw arguably the most famous touchdown pass in the history of college football, a pass that won a game against the defending national champions. Flutie also was the first NCAA quarterback to break 10,000 yards passing in his collegiate career, and won the Heisman Trophy as the top college player in 1984.

However, when Flutie graduated, he had extreme difficulty landing and holding a full-time job as an NFL quarterback, largely due to concerns over his size. Flutie, you see, was too small to play quarterback in the NFL.

Flutie was originally taken by the USFL's New Jersey Generals, but after the rival league folded, Flutie finally got a chance to play in the NFL, starting one game for the Chicago Bears in 1986, then one game for the New England Patriots in 1987. (It's hard to know how much Flutie's decision to cross the NFLPA's picket line during the 1987 player's strike to serve as a 'replacement player' harmed Flutie's reputation in the NFL.) After a couple of more seasons with the Patriots, during which time it became clear that the Pats had no interest in declaring Flutie the starter, Flutie decided to leave the NFL and went north to play in the Canadian Football League.

As a CFL quarterback, Flutie came into his own, winning three Grey Cup championships and being lauded as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the Canadian league. His success enabled him to return to the NFL nearly a decade after he left, even earning a starting job with the Buffalo Bills, for whom he won 17 of 25 starts before finally being demoted. Throughout Flutie's two stints in the NFL, commentators would frequently ascribe his mistakes to being too small to see over his linemen.

Doug Flutie, too small to play quarterback.

- Bill Mazeroski (5' 11', 183 lbs)

Renn tells the tale in her memoir of becoming a cheerleader in Clinton, Mississippi, and being utterly unable to do gymnastic handsprings. It would be easy, given the subject of her book, to imagine that Renn was simply 'too big' to be acrobatic (though Renn also describes taking and excelling in martial arts training as a younger child in Florida, which you'd think would be good prep work for a gymnastic career). Any doubt over whether someone of Renn's size can be acrobatic, however, should be settled by this comparison.

Bill Mazeroski is generally, almost universally considered the greatest defensive second-baseman the game of major-league baseball has ever seen. He was not a tremendous hitter; in fact, there were a number of years where Mazeroski hit just barely enough to keep his job. Still, his defense was amazing, and the cornerstone of his defensive skills was his ability to turn the 'pivot' on the double play. This involves fielding a throw from either the shortstop or third baseman, tagging the bag with a runner advancing from first base to force the first out, then 'pivoting' to get a strong throw to first base to force the batter for a second out, completing the double play. In Maz's day, runners from first were routinely taught to try to 'take out' the second baseman on his pivot, especially given that, having to face toward the infielder making the initial throw, the second baseman would not always be in an ideal position to protect himself from a hard-charging baserunner intent on 'breaking up' the double play. (Conversely, when a shortstop would take a throw from second, he was already facing in the same direction as the first baseman, and could thus see the approaching baserunner and position himself appropriately to get out of his way.)

Despite this, Maz turned more double plays than any other second baseman of his era. Not only this, but on a per-game basis, Maz turned more double plays than any other second baseman for which there are reliable box scores, which is to say at least since World War II and possibly since before World War I. His overall outstanding defense, and particularly his agility and quickness on the double play, eventually got him recognized by the Veterans' Committee and Maz was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

Bill Mazeroski, the smoothest, slickest fielder second base has ever known, despite being two inches taller and one-to-two dozen pounds heavier than Crystal Renn.

I could go on -- fans of the Minnesota Vikings will remember Leo Lewis, a wide receiver and punt returner during the 1980s who stood 5'9' and weighed 170 lbs and was known as 'little Leo Lewis' for much of his ten-year career -- but I think this makes the point. In the right context, Renn's size would either be a non-issue or a worrying deficiency, but as a model she's 'plus-sized' and supposed to settle for a life of selling clothes to overweight women.

Clearly she didn't think that was good enough, and I appreciate the results of her rebellion. We could use more like it, in all walks of life.

No comments: