When it comes to America's growing weight problem, apparently familiarity is breeding a reluctant acceptance. However, traces of contempt remain.
Nationwide, about 66 percent of the population is overweight, and more than half of those people are obese. This has created two camps in the war on fat. One side preaches acceptance; the other prescribes tough love.
But in a world where fat is often demonized, even by the overweight, Jennie Runk, 20, of Chesterfield, enjoys an unusual perspective and a story that breaks many stereotypes. She gained weight to become a fashion model and rests unapologetically near the top of the recommended body mass index for her height.
She also exercises daily and says that she's healthier as a plus-sized model than she would have been as a typical college freshman on a high-carb, junk food diet.
Runk has long auburn hair that falls in a thick mass of curls, ocean blue eyes that can mist over into a sea green, a statuesque figure and a wry, charming smile. The combination is often stunning, so she got used to hearing strangers remark, "You should be a model." She'd heard the refrain since she was a small child.
Runk never took the suggestions seriously. She was 14 years old and called herself a "book nerd." She wore a size 8, had an hourglass figure and loved Dr. Pepper and Doritos. At the time, she thought model meant super-skinny.
Then one day she got a very real offer from a local model scouting duo, Mary and Jeff Clarke of Mother Model Management.
For the first time, she had to make a very real decision about her weight. At the time, she weighed too much to be a regular model, but she didn't weigh enough to be a plus-sized model.
Jeff Clarke said that they left the decision to Runk and her family.
"I worried about her self-esteem," says her mom, Karen Runk. "I was worried about eating disorders and worried about girls being told that they are not skinny enough. I didn't want Jennie to have to deal with that."
The women in their family do not normally drift toward waif. Karen is 6 feet tall and said that her ideal size is around a size 18, but at her heaviest she wore a size 24.
Karen said she was relieved when Jennie chose to become a plus-sized model. Jennie estimates that she put on about 10 to 20 pounds to become a size 10-12. Within a year, she had booked an assignment with Vogue. Since then, she has worked for Marie Claire, Cosmo Girl and Seventeen magazines and has been in national campaigns for plus-sized boutiques.
Despite the "plus-sized model" label, Jennie would have a hard time actually shopping in a plus-sized department. Her mother calls her "skinny plus-size."
"When we tell people that she's a plus-sized model, people do double takes," Karen said. "The first thing people see is how beautiful she is, not her dress size."
Some people are not as generous. A recent photo in Glamour magazine of another young, beautiful plus-sized model elicited a barrage of comments that ranged from jubilation to disgust among readers of the magazine and a slew of blogs (including Deb's Style File, at STLtoday.com/stylefile) that referred to the nude photo of Lizzie Miller. In the photo, she is mid-laugh, sitting cross-legged and hunched slightly at the shoulders, but the eye quickly moves to the most unusual thing in the fashion magazine photo: a visible stomach roll.
Among those who derided the photo, this sentiment from an STLtoday.com reader was common: "Having a gut that hangs over like that is an embarrassment and shows a lack of self-respect and self-discipline. Put down the Imos, pick up a piece of fruit."
As a result of vehement reader opinion on both sides, Miller became a poster girl for being fashionably not-skinny.
Glamour was so overwhelmed by the response that the magazine now will feature seven nude, plus-sized models, including Miller and Runk, in their November issue.
Runk said that she didn't have any qualms about the shoot because she's happy to be an example of being confident and happy and healthy at a size closer to the national average. The average American woman is about 5-foot-4, weighs 163 pounds and has a waist measurement of 36.5 inches.
At 5-10 and about 170 pounds (she estimated because she doesn't weigh herself), Runk's measurements are 38-32-44. A typical size 2-4 model is the same height, but weighs up to 50 pounds less and measures closer to 32-26-35.
THE ISSUE OF HEALTH
Miller was praised for her bravery and her ability to be comfortable flaunting an imperfect body, but the vitriol from the other side indicated some believed she was setting a bad example.
"Seeing more overweight people makes it more acceptable, but I have no idea if that makes it harder or easier to lose weight," said Dr. Samuel Klein, who directs the Weight Management Program at Washington University.
He said that a study in the New England Journal of Medicine said that being obese is directly related to whether a person has obese friends and family.
"Social influence is very important," said Klein, who noted that he wouldn't go as far as saying fat was contagious.
But the question will come up more as we welcome our overweight citizens into the mainstream. The Style Channel has been following the journey of Ruby Gettinger, who began the reality series at 477 pounds - though at one point in her life she weighed as much as 700 pounds. She is on a battle to lose the weight and inspire the nation. In the first season, she lost 100 pounds.
This is part of a television weight-loss trend that includes "Dance Your Ass Off" and "The Biggest Loser."
But not everyone on screen is on a journey to shed pounds.
On "More to Love," a 6-foot-3 former college football player weighs in at more than 300 pounds and is looking for love among 20 "voluptuous ladies." On "Ugly Betty" and "Drop Dead Diva," pleasantly plump leading ladies show no anxiety over slimming down.
A reporter with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis recently wrote about the changing appetites of television viewers: "Have a sandwich, Twiggy ... Fat is suddenly fabulous, at least on TV, a realm once thought to be the exclusive playground for stick figures."
Klein said Americans have been gaining weight steadily for more than 100 years. It's not a sudden epidemic, but now that we have more people on the threshold of normal and overweight or overweight and obese, we are simply noticing the trend more.
"Every pound we gain on average is pushing another group of people into the next category," he said. He said that it sounds more alarming each year, and it should.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "American society has become 'obesogenic,' characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods and physical inactivity."
Klein wouldn't say if we were in trouble because more Americans are overweight. It's not as if we're playing a tug-of-war game. The overweight people aren't necessarily pulling their thinner counterparts over the fat line. Everyone is on his or her own journey.
But Karen Runk explained that she thinks people are afraid of overweight people because "they are scared of getting fat, too." Not that it's contagious, but that they are, perhaps, insecure.
"When I was a size 24, I was not comfortable going anywhere because people look at you like you eat a dozen doughnuts every morning," she said. And she noted that people will have really definite opinions about the nude photo spread of her daughter and other plus-sized beauties.
"Some people will say they are gorgeous, and others will be like 'put the doughnuts down,'" Runk said. "It's really feast or famine ... literally."