Californian model, author and body image activist Katie Willcox has a message for the women and girls of the world: love your body! Reject unrealistic media images and embrace the contentment that comes with authentic, glowing good health.
Being labelled ‘plus-sized’ was a tough gig for Katie Willcox as she embarked on her modelling career aged 17. By industry standards, the tag simply meant she was larger than an Australian size 8, but it served little comfort to a young woman who had grown up in a culture where thin was synonymous with beautiful – and beauty, in a superficial and media-saturated world, promised so much more.
Willcox was encouraged to pile on the kilos for plus-sized jobs, while regular modelling work remained scarce when she shed the excess to achieve a healthier weight. Relentless pressure to conform to unrealistic standards left her questioning her desire for health, happiness and success. Was it simply out of reach?
Her quest for an answer spanned a career of 13 years – and five dress sizes – during which Willcox, now 31, grew wise to the deceptive practices of the beauty industry and started a movement embodying the message ‘Healthy is the new skinny’. She aims to educate girls to deconstruct the motives of media and advertising, establish strong self-identities and connect positively with their body image.
Willcox is CEO of Natural Model Management, a Los Angeles company that promotes healthy models with proportions closer to those of the average woman, and her latest adventure as a first-time mother, to six-month-old daughter True, has strengthened her resolve to create a future where being healthy, not skinny, is the ideal.
Fernwood caught up with the California native to talk all things body image ahead of the release of her book, Healthy is the New Skinny ($22.95, Hay House).
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
"I grew up in a small town in the United States called Casper, in Wyoming. I was shy, sporty and a little bit goofy. I always felt like I was different. I was labelled as 'difficult' because I wasn’t ever content with the norm or doing what everyone else was doing. When I began modelling, I got to travel all over the country. I currently live between Palm Springs and Los Angeles."
Was modelling your first career?
"Yes. I began modelling at 17 years old. It was my first job and it prepared me for my career as the CEO of my own agency."
How did you respond to being categorised as a ‘plus-sized’ model, despite being a healthy weight for your height?
"My first instinct was to take offence. The term 'plus-sized' carried such a negative connotation and I thought that by being labelled 'plus', people would consider me to be overweight or fat. But I learned that in the industry, all it meant was I was in a category of women over size 4 (Australian size 8). Anything 6 and above is considered plus-sized."
Describe your experience in modelling: what lessons have you taken away from that world?
"Prior to starting my career, I would look at TV ads and flip through magazines imagining how perfect these models’ lives must be. The media glamorises the idea of being a model and paints a perfect picture of the industry. Becoming a model was a big reality check. I quickly learned that this was a career and nothing more. It did not guarantee me the perfect life that was perceived in the media."
What prompted you to take action and tackle the cultural issues that affect body image?
"The messaging we all receive through various media on a daily basis is that skinny is better. This leaves many women feeling that in order to be valued or loved, they must look like the media’s portrayal of beauty. This thought process can lead women down an unhealthy road of attempting to perfect their bodies at all costs in order to validate their worth in society. I experienced this myself; I’ve been size 6 and size 14 (Australian sizes 10 and 18), and everything in between. It wasn’t until I started to value myself – and most importantly, my health – that I realised just how damaging the media’s focus on female beauty and the skinny beauty ideal really is to our society. I would constantly hear other models say things like, 'I have to get my measurements down.' I would look at these extremely thin models and think, 'What? How are you supposed to do that? That is ridiculous. They shouldn’t force models to be skinny … healthy should be the new skinny!'"
What are some of the deceptive practices in media and advertising that influence self-image?
"As I started to dive deeper and question why I had believed that by changing my body I would solve my problems and like myself, I began to pay closer attention to media messaging all around me. I started to really look for the agenda and ask, 'What are they selling me?' I realised that the media is constantly lying to me in attempts to catch me at a vulnerable moment that will result in me spending money. I [also] learned that the media has the power to create symbolic images or phrases that connect to our natural human desires on a subconscious level. The skinny beauty ideal is the set standard for girls and women represented in the media. When we are constantly exposed to messaging that glamorises and advertises the beauty of thin white women, the more likely these images can be stored in our subconscious as the beauty norm; thus promoting something we should aspire to. This image of ideal beauty also represents the idea of being special, important, glamorous, expensive, successful, happy and, most importantly, lovable. This makes the connection that if we are thin, we are worthy of success, love and happiness."
What are your philosophies on food and exercise? Do you have favourite ingredients or recipes?
"I feel that there are too many rules when it comes to food and exercise. When it really comes down to it, it’s about listening to your body and what makes you actually feel good. It’s important to have a basic understanding of nutrition and to use food as a means to fuel your body. Too often, people view exercising as a punishment, when it should be the complete opposite. I feel it’s important to work out because you love your body! Working out doesn’t have to be a bad experience, which is why it’s important for people to find activities that are fun and make them feel good. I’m a big fan of taking comfort foods from when I grew up and making them healthy. I’m a huge fan of soups and salads. I have a ton of recipes on my blog at katiehwillcox.com."
How do you relax and unwind?
"Being the CEO of two thriving companies, I try to squeeze in as much fun as I can! I love spending time with my husband and six-month-old girl, True. We love road trips, swimming, riding ATVs (all-terrain vehicles, or quad bikes) in the desert, watching Netflix and, most of all, laughing!"
How has your decision to embody and promote self-acceptance affected you?
"Embracing my true self has been a learning experience over the last 13 years. I’ve learned so much through my time as a model, CEO, and now a mother. Different stages of my life have brought me different experiences with my body and I’m thankful for each. My level of contentment has grown immensely since I’ve embodied the ideal of authentic health and self-love."
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Words Chelsea Roffey