Jenice Armstrong | Plain sense from Tyra

BY NOW, YOU'D think the world would have figured out the difference between fat and phat.

Tyra Banks definitely is in the latter category, despite the vicious insults hurled at her lately. Not that girlfriend is losing sleep over what critics say about the size of her thighs.

At the age of 33, Banks has achieved something that it takes many of us an entire lifetime to do. She's comfortable with her voluptuous body - even if her tight, low-slung jeans do sometimes give her the dreaded muffin top.

At a time when there's beginning to be serious talk about regulating the size of models who appear to be starving themselves, it's refreshing to hear one of the industry's biggest superstars talking freely about her own issues with weight. And instead of being ridiculed the way she has been, the former Sports Illustrated swimsuit covergirl should be applauded.

How many celebrities who've based entire careers on their looks flaunt their imperfections like she does? I've heard her talk about having had cellulite since she was 13 and about having a dimply backside even during her Victoria's Secret days.

Unlike many of the lollipop-headed celebrities we've become accustomed to seeing on the red carpet, Banks isn't into starving herself to conform to an artificial ideal. In all the interviews with her I've read, Banks gives the appearance of being a woman at peace with her curves.

And although she hasn't fully resolved it yet, Banks at least recognizes the inconsistencies between what she preaches and the ultra-thin wannabes who turn up each season to compete on her hit reality show, "America's Next Top Model."

Still, at this weight- and celebrity-obsessed moment in our culture, you'd be hard-pressed to dream up a better role model than Banks for young girls struggling with body-image issues. She understands the connection between the fashion industry's insistence on promoting rail-thin teenagers as the ultimate in beauty and female insecurities. In this week's People, whose cover she graces, Banks says, "I get so much mail from young girls who say, 'I look up to you, you're not as skinny as everyone else, I think you're beautiful.'

"So when they say that my body is 'ugly' and 'disgusting,' what does that make those girls feel?" she continues.

Since trading the catwalk for a TV career, Banks' weight has crept up at a rate of about 5 pounds a year. As a result, she weighs 161 pounds. But keep in mind that she's 5-foot-10. That's a lot of body to distribute the weight over.

But it wasn't enough to protect her from having an unflattering photo taken of her in a swimsuit that popped up on the Internet. Word spread quickly that she'd gained 40 pounds. The mocking headlines were cruel: "America's Next Top Waddle." "Tyra Porkchop." "Tyra Banks is Fat."

Stung by all the harsh criticism, Banks fought back by going on "Larry King Live" and by putting on a bright-red swimsuit for her People magazine cover shoot. On her show today (2 p.m. on CW57) she will go onstage wearing the brown, one-piece swimsuit that sparked the furor in the first place. Also during the show, the mother of a Brazilian model who died of anorexia Nov. 14 will deliver a taped message. Although Ana Carolina Reston was 21 years old, she weighed just 88 pounds at her death.

Maybe, after the show airs, Banks can close this chapter of Thigh-ra-gate. If only it were as easy to end America's obsession with being thin. *

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