Melinda Parrish is a plus size model and writer who focuses on the importance of acceptance, balance, and healthy body image, issues that women face every day. You can explore her work and read her blog at http://www.melparrish.com/#plussizemodel
MS: I was reading your bio on your website, and you talked about how you were in the Navy but then you had this transition to becoming a model. How did that come about?
One of my clients actually scouted me, someone working for the Department of Defense as a civil servant has a daughter who has modeled, so when he met me he asked if I’d ever thought about being a full-figured model. I got to know him and the backstory, and it seemed legitimate, so I finally explored it. I wasn’t sure if I would like it, I had dabbled with it in high school and I wasn’t passionate about it. I think a lot of people have a perception that when you’re modeling you’re being objectified and it’s a little bit disempowering, but my experience in the plus size modeling world has been the opposite of that. It’s been extremely empowering and the environment’s very nurturing. It has forced me to tap into my feminine side more, which I struggled with because that’s a side I had never really explored.
MS: Let’s start from the beginning, could give me some background on your Navy experience?
Navy life for me meant the Naval Academy. Everyone who goes there, you have to take a core curriculum that is essentially an engineering degree, so even though I majored in English, the majority of classes I took were math-, science-, and engineering-oriented. I was an athlete, I rode crew, and was supposed to go on a ship after graduation but I’d had a couple back surgeries because of injuries related to my sport. So they kept me in the English department for a year and a half and got commissioned and I was medically discharged from there, so I never had the experience of going in combat.
MS: What about the people, was it very male-dominated, was it supportive for women?
There are a lot of resources for women, and there are more now than there were. Culturally, it’s tough because it’s a male-dominated institution and it has been for many years. Despite the fact that there are resources and people trying to make a more balanced environment, it’s very much not and it wasn’t when I was there. So I was very aware that I was a woman and I was in the minority. Differences were constantly being thrust upon you, so you get a little bit of a complex. Even about my body, I remember looking in the mirror and wishing I looked like a boy. It wasn’t anyone telling me that, it was just a byproduct of that environment.
The military is definitely trying to adapt and become more friendly to women and people of other races, but it’s an organization that for hundreds of years has been mostly white men. It’s still evolving and growing and there are times where you feel ostracized or isolated, and it’s not because they’re mean people shoving that down your throat, it’s just the world you’re in.
MS: Transitioning to your current job, you mentioned it’s actually very supportive for plus size models. How is that, what kind of support do you get from the fashion world?
I think just by virtue of the fact that, in plus size fashion, we know we’re marketing to women who have grown up feeling bad about their bodies. So I think there’s an underlying supportive and nurturing quality to everything you do. Whereas in the normal fashion world, the marketing perspective there is about how inaccessible they are. In plus, it’s the opposite. We’re welcoming you, and people really resonate with everything on a very personal level. Women are looking to be encouraged and supported, so it’s very different from the stereotypical fashion environment.
MS: What about the people that you work with?
Almost everybody that I’ve interacted with in the fashion world has been super positive, super supportive, super kind, thoughtful and considerate. Totally the opposite of what I expected. I feel like, as opposed to in my previous work life, I can operate with a great amount of integrity in the fashion world, which, again, is counter to what I expected. I get to show up and be 100% myself, the things that I am thinking about and doing and talking about with other people are all things I really care about.
MS: Tell me a little bit about your initiative, #HealthyAtAnySize. I’d love to learn more about why you started it, what inspired you to do this?
The idea for that hashtag and the whole campaign behind it really just came from my personal experience where I felt like I was always trying to lose weight and do crazy things to my body, as opposed to taking care of the body you have now. Take the emphasis off weight loss and trying to change yourself, put the emphasis on just taking good care of your body. Take away all the judgment that you’ve been putting on most choices around food and working out. Get in touch with what does your body actually need, and what do you actually need to take care of yourself. I think once you do all that, it becomes much easier to figure out whatever it is you want.
MS: Have you ever had body image issues growing up?
Everybody commented on my size growing up. And not everybody meant it in a hurtful way, but I was just always aware of my size. In a thousand little ways, it was always a factor. I just knew that I was bigger than everyone else and that’s just the way it was. I always felt like I was big and fat and awful. But I look back at pictures of myself and if you just looked at me and didn’t compare me to the kid next to me, she’s just a kid, maybe she’s got some baby fat, but she’s a normal-looking child. It’s just that I was so much bigger than my peers that I really stood out. So it was definitely an issue.
And at the Academy, you’re very aware of it because you get weighed twice a year. They just want to keep you within height and weight standards. So that was just very public, everyone’s in the gymnasium at the same time watching everyone else get weighed. And then what I mentioned about being really aware of my body as a woman, so I was very aware of that in contrast to my peers. Even job stuff, are they going to see me a certain way?
MS: Do you feel like that’s still something you struggle with even with a supportive network?
The thing that I struggle with now is really trying to live my platform of don’t think about weight loss. As a model, they want you to pretty much stay the same size so no one’s pressuring me to lose or gain weight. You have to be predictable and consistent, so this is interesting contrasted with a lifetime of trying to lose weight. What I struggle with is that I psych myself out a couple days before a photo shoot, I even compare myself to other plus size models. So I try to put the emphasis on don’t go crazy, take care of you. It’s all about balance.
MS: Even within the plus size modeling community, are there judgments?
I don’t think it’s among the models, but there are lots of consumers who have strong opinions about this. Like plus size women on body positivity blogs will be like “she’s not visibly plus”. It’s a shitty reality of the world we live in, we’re going to tear each other down, and I think that’s what’s happening with that. I think there’s also a lot of experimenting with whether or not aspirational to plus size customers means I want to be able to see myself in the models or if we’re still playing with the paradigm of we’re going to show you this in a size 10 but want you to buy it in a size 20. I think everyone’s still trying to figure out what works. And you do see a lot of feedback on that experimentation, but you’re going to hear it both ways. One person’s going to say the size 12 girl is too skinny to model plus, but another person will say the size 20 girl is advocating obesity.
MS: Have you ever gotten hate, or has anyone said certain things that are not so supportive?
I’ve definitely had people say, when I show up on set, that they thought I’d be a little bigger on the bottom, because I still have a more athletic frame. But I also did a shoot and it was two models and two bloggers, and the bloggers were definitely bigger girls and even the other plus model was bigger than me, and everyone was so nice about my body. You get both sides of it, and it’s really a question of context.
MS: What about this idea of being healthy? There are a lot of people who say, if you’re a bigger girl, yeah you should love yourself, but you’re not healthy.
There’s no better example to draw from than the fashion world. You have all these models who technically have a very healthy BMI, but they’re living on cigarettes and champagne. That’s not healthy, and there are problems that are going to show up for them, not related to weight, that could become health issues. For me, I don’t know many people who work out more than I do and who eat healthier than I do. I’ve been within 20 pounds of my current weight my entire life, and when I was 20 pounds lighter I was having fainting spells and doing crazy things to my body and that was probably not healthy for my body. Weight is only one dimension of information about your body and health, and actually a way that I screen the doctors that I want as my medical professionals is, if the first thing they say to me is about my weight, then we’re not okay, because there is so much more to being a healthy human than just your weight.
MS: One thing I want to learn more about is your involvement with the United Village Transformation.
I pretty much act as an ambassador for them, and I just try to share information about the projects that they’re working on. I got involved with them when I was still a young professional in DC. They’re really focused on bringing modern systems of society into rural countries. So education, water and sanitation, cooking and agriculture, and healthcare.
MS: What about some other hobbies you like to do in your free time?
I cook a lot, which maybe is an anti-feminist thing, but when I’m home I cook dinner for my husband every night because I love it and it’s part of my relationship with food and how I ground myself at home and connect here.
I’m not a mother, but I would really like to be, and that’s part of how I’m thinking about my career and making decisions is how long do I want to keep doing this before I have kids, and what do I want to do afterward to be able to be with my family and have that experience of being a very involved mother.
MS: I want to learn more about how you got involved with writing for the Huffington Post?
I just started blogging, and I was trying to do all the things people do when they’re trying to grow their online presence because it helps my modeling work, so I just started writing in a very broad, unedited way about my experiences, which got noticed by Huffington Post and that’s how I started blogging for them. That evolved into much more intentional, focused writing that I was doing for #healthyatanysize, and my writing started being more about fitness and health issues, and that’s when I got in touch with Women’s Running Magazine and Gaiam.
MS: What kind of advice would you give yourself if you were to look back to when you were a kid and just starting to have body image issues and then when you were a student in the Navy?
I think I would give myself the same advice for both. I think the most important thing to understand is that you’re unique, you don’t have to look like or be like everybody else. And the things that are unique about you are the things that make you great, they’re the things that affirm your value.
A FEMINIST, who wants to eventually be an amazing soccer mom with flexible work hours. A CONSULTANT, who is thirsty for flight status and hangry for hotel cookies. A DOG LOVER, who plans to own a German Sheppard, Oreo, and a Golden Retriever, Cheerio. A PROUD TECHIE, who doesn’t enjoy coding. A SELF PROCLAIMED PRACTICAL OPTIMIST, who struggles with the difficult act of staying positive while battling with depression. #PositiveAttitudes