Misfit by Charli Howard


Charli Howard



February 2018


Charli Howard struggled for years to become the size 6 or under model her (then) agency was demanding. After they finally dropped her, she gained notoriety when her post of protest on Facebook went viral. She is now a highly successful ‘curve’ model known for making a stand against the fashion industry’s obsession with slimness, and for being the public voice of the body-positive movement.

I was keen to read MISFIT, both as a reviewer of YA books and as someone who regularly photographs models and aspiring models.

Told with a free-flowing, highly-readable momentum, her memoir should become required reading for any teenager currently involved in, or with ambitions of becoming involved in, the fashion industry.

At around 250 pages in length, it’s not until page 145 that Charli, encouraged by an ex-boyfriend, makes her first contact with a modelling agency. More than half of the book, in other words, is devoted to her childhood, education and adolescence. Some may feel she over-eggs her early misfit-edness. The first line of the book is “I am not normal” and she is keen to demonstrate how “cray cray” she has been since an early age. Exaggeration is permissible in the name of entertainment, and in order for her story to resonate with readers Howard has clearly realised (or been steered to realise by those helping this book reach its final form) the need to build a narrative.

Maybe it’s not as unusual as she suggests for a 4-year-old to imagine she is a dog, and to keep this up until the age of 6. Many young children imagine things with great intensity and force adults to act in accordance with their ‘delusion’. It’s hardly a sign of not being normal.

Similarly, the story of her disastrous sleepover at a friend’s house when, at her instigation, they climb onto the balcony of a neighbour’s property and smear toothpaste all over the windowpanes – an escapade somewhat magnified when Charli casually throws a hairbrush onto the bed and smashes the screen of a phone belonging to her friend’s father – is surely a fairly typical example of adventurous naughtiness that many of us indulged in between the ages of 8 and 10. To be fair, she does describe herself as a “relatively normal eight-year-old schoolgirl growing up in 90s Britain”. It’s a great story though, and the book would be much the weaker without it.

Charli’s father was in the forces and the family were frequently on the move. While stationed in Germany, Charli is particularly affected by what she remembers as a pervasive sexuality. The school bus travelled each day through “an infamous street full of sex shops”.

Eventually, Charli is sent back to England to stay with her grandparents and attend a boarding school during term time. Even when her mother returns to England, Charli continues to be a boarder.

The picture that emerges from this part of the book and from all the anecdotes both of actual bad behaviour and of being wrongly blamed for other people’s bad behaviour is of a child craving overt love, affirmation and stability from her close family.

In its place, affirmation from her peer-group becomes all-important. Much of her behaviour – pulling the emergency STOP on a train – comes across as attention-seeking. But she does also have a knack for being at the centre of trouble for which she is not principally to blame. The best example of this is when the house of one of her best friends is trashed (£30,000 worth of damage) after it is gate-crashed (a story I remember reading about in the national press).

Born with a pear-shaped body frame she is soon comparing herself unfavourably with her peers and a pattern of eating disorders precedes her involvement with modelling by several years.

There is a telling disconnect between the two main parts of the book. For all the emphasis in the early pages on Charli as headstrong rascal, from the time she makes her first contact with the modelling world her character becomes passively compliant.

A steady relationship with a controlling boyfriend continues alongside a perpetually paranoid involvement with her modelling agency and their obsession with her hip measurement. She is mostly a 36 but continually exhorted to shed sufficient pounds to reduce that to 34 – a theme cleverly picked up on by the book’s cover designers.

The book is dedicated “To all the girls who have ever felt their bodies weren’t good enough”. There are no photographs in the book but scrolling far enough down Charli’s Instagram it is possible to discover images from the time when she was starving herself into an unnatural body condition, complete with gauntness of face, hollowed out cheeks and skeletal upper arms.

MISFIT is highly recommended as a good read and as a wake-up-call to others who may, even now, be travelling down a similar road.

It should also be a warning to model agencies and their bookers to be even more selective in their signings, choosing only those individuals who have a realistic prospect of meeting expectations.

Agencies do have a role to play in managing the young people on their books and encouraging them to keep in good shape and condition, but if models are always as terrified of visiting their agent’s offices as Charli suggests, something is very very wrong.

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