There was something about that picture. When laying out the September 2009 issue of Glamour, designers pasted photographs on the wall, looking for the right one to illustrate a story on body confidence. One of them caught everybody’s eye: a nude photograph of plus-size model Lizzie Miller that revealed a roll of belly fat. There was a gut reaction, you might say. “Every female designer and editor who walked by would say, ‘Oh, I love that picture,’ ” recalled Glamour Editor Cindi Leive. “We loved the look on her face, the joy in the way she was laughing, and the fact that she was not sucking her stomach in. The belly is a part of the body women struggle with. Lizzie had an attitude that said, ‘I don’t need to suck in my stomach; I am the sexiest thing in the world just as is.’ ” The 3-by-3-inch picture ran in the magazine, and hours after it hit the streets, Glamour began receiving e-mails from women and men, some of it snarky but most of it saying, “I love the woman on Page 194.” Times editorial writer Marjorie Miller (no relation) spoke with the model about, well, her exposure. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Did you see the photograph before it appeared in Glamour?
No, my friend told me it was there. As she texted me I was walking home and I picked up a copy of the magazine. At first I thought, “Aw man, why’d they have to choose that shot? That’s not a flattering angle.” You’re your own worst critic, of course. Why does my mind go right to my belly instead of looking at the whole picture? But you know, the reaction to this little picture goes two ways. People have been writing me and telling me how the picture made them feel so much better about themselves. And the letters have made me feel even more comfortable in my skin.
You were heavy as a child. How, then, did you decide to become a model?
I started gaining weight when I was 8 years old. When I was 12 years old, I joined Weight Watchers and lost 60 pounds. After that, people would come up to me and ask me if I modeled. Finally my mom said, “Lizzie, maybe you should consider this.” About a month later, I heard an announcement on the radio for a model search, you want to be a model, blah, blah, and I thought, “I’m tall, about 5-11. Yes, I do.” That summer my dad and I came out here to the East Coast, and I got signed with Wilhelmina Models.
Was there a class system among models? Was it better to be skinny?
At first, when I was about 16, I definitely felt a division. Models are either straight-size or plus-size, and the people who worked on the straight-size side of things definitely did not make me feel warm or welcome. There was a little prejudice, but none of those people are still there. There are still some people who don’t consider plus-size modeling a real career, but now it’s definitely changing.
How did it feel when you were you 16, as a teenager, being judged that way?
I felt intimidated. It was discouraging. But I stuck with the people who were dealing with me fairly and directly.
What kind of jobs were you doing before this photo came out?
Mostly catalog or mailers. I would do a catwalk once in awhile, but there are very few plus-size fashion shows. I did some editorial too. My first job for Glamour was a do’s-and-don’ts fashion spread. It showed what to wear and not wear for different body types.
Have you been pretty happy with the way you look for the last few years, or is it a struggle?
You know how they talk about the freshman 15 your first year in college? Well, when I first moved to New York after graduating from high school at 17, I put on the freshman 30. I was in a new place, 3,000 miles away from home, I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t working out. But then, half a year later, I got myself together and lost the weight again. In high school, a guy once said to me that people would have to look away in disgust if I wore short shorts or a skirt to school because my legs were so fat and ugly. For the longest time, until about two years ago, every time I put on a dress or shorts I would think about that. It was like a little tape recorder in my head. It took me a long time to shut that out. But in the last two years, I have come to terms with my body. I found out what I like and what makes me happy. Working out makes me feel good, and it makes my body look better. Of course, you have those days when you just feel bad or you don’t look good in something. But I’ve really come a long way.
Do you ever think about the irony of how at the very time Americans are getting heavier and heavier, models are getting thinner and thinner?
It’s tough. My mom told me this story yesterday. Her friend’s daughter, a 10-year-old girl, went to her mom crying because she felt fat. Her mom showed her my picture, and it made her feel better, but it’s crazy that a girl that young is crying about being fat. The models do keep getting skinnier. I guess people want to see someone richer or better-looking than they are so they can aspire to that, but really, those images end up making them feel worse about themselves. I would like to be the woman who shows them a more realistic way to look at their bodies. When I was losing weight, if I had tried to look like Heidi Klum, I would have gotten really discouraged. I’m never going to be that skinny. But when I saw Beyonce and JLo, I thought, “Wow, I could lose weight and look like them. They look good.”
Do you think black and Latino women are given more leeway to be round than Asian and white women?
That’s what I’m trying to change. I’m trying be the white woman who shows that curvy is sexy in any culture.
How do you instill confidence in girls about their bodies?
You need to help them see that they shouldn’t compare themselves to others. You have to look inside to be confident. I hang around with models who are very skinny, and I could get insecure. But I know I’m never going to be that thin, and I’m OK with that. It’s important for girls to see women out there who are confident and can show them it’s OK to look like this. It’s acceptable. It’s beautiful.
Do you remember that particular picture being shot?
I’m friends with the photographer’s assistant, and I think we were just joking around. I was just laughing, fooling around, having a good time on set. I never would have thought five years ago that I would have the nerve to do a shoot nude. That was my first nude shoot ever. I was surprised, but I felt very comfortable. Everyone was very professional. I remember a long time ago I read in a magazine that you should get yourself comfortable in a bikini by wearing it around the house before wearing it to the beach. I did that before the shoot, trying to get comfortable not having clothes on. I think Walter Chin caught me when I forgot for a second that we where shooting and I was just laughing, not thinking straighten this, do that.
Was that photo good for you work-wise?
The month of September is going to be the most I’ve ever worked in a month. For clients who had come close to using me before, this was the final push. This little picture is getting recognition and I’m loving it. Bring it on, I’m ready to work.