I am a relatively new reader of No Signposts in the Sea, but once I discovered it, it quickly became a favorite daily read. Its author – who goes by The Waves – possesses an absolutely inspired sense of personal style, a sharp wit, and gobs of curiosity. Her posts inevitably lead me to ponder topics I’d never pondered before, or look at well-worn ideas in new light.
She’s posted in the past about her days as a model, and I found her perspective fascinating. (She is the model shown in the photographs throughout this post.) My views on modeling, how designers view and treat the female form, and implications for non-model women are based solely on my own experience which falls wholly outside the fashion industry. So I asked her to write up her thoughts on how her experiences shaped her. She’s been brutally honest and extremely thoughtful in her ruminations on her time as a model and how model bodies play into body image issues for all women, and I think her insights will spark a lively conversation.
Models, Their Bodies, and Me
When Sal asked me to write a guest post about models and their role in the body image debate, I didn’t hesitate for a moment.The timing couldn’t have been better: the casting of curvier models like Elle MacPherson and Laetitia Casta on the Louis Vuitton fall runway, or Doutzen Kroes at Prada, has finally encouraged the fashion world to discuss the problems related to the exclusive use of very young and very thin models. Usually it is only the world outside the fashion industry that has a problem with models’ bodies, and it is welcoming news that the industry itself is discussing what models’ bodies really mean.
For as long as we can remember, we have been told that models need to be thin because sample sizes are small. Model agencies deny responsibility because designers want thin models. Designers blame the industry, whatever that means. Money is certainly an issue, because smaller sample sizes mean less fabric and less work. But the role of models themselves is not really discussed at all. If anything, they have become the target of some serious public “body hate.”
A recent article in the New York Times Magazine referred to models as “prepubescent women with stick figures” and “Eastern European starvelings.” Around every fashion week, tabloids and blogs start their seasonal campaigns against thin models. Pictures of protruding hip bones, of thighs skinnier than most people’s calves allow the members of the general public to categorize themselves as normal and models as sick, ugly, unwomanly and creepy. We have all heard statements like “models aren’t real women, real women have curves,” “all models have eating disorders,” “designers use thin models because they are all gay, no real man would ever think they are attractive,” and “models look like concentration camp victims.”
In addition to this type of generic slander, I have heard these types of statements about myself, straight to my face, and let me tell you, it doesn’t feel nice. I have been told that no man would want to sleep with me. People have grabbed my hip bones and wrists as if my body was public property, and told me that I was way, way too skinny for my own good, and the good of others. I have been told that I was ugly because I was so thin. I have been accused of triggering eating disorders in others.
I started modeling in 1998, at the age of 19, at 5’11” (180 cm) and 120 pounds (55 kg). I grew up hating my body. I was always too tall and too thin. I loathed every encounter with the school nurse (she used to ask if my parents fed me), and by the time I was 13, I had acknowledged the fact that I was labeled a freak by the society around me. I can’t even remember how many times I have been asked (sometimes by total strangers on the street) if I had an eating disorder. Both of my parents are tall and thin, as are my siblings, but my body was the freakiest of all. I felt abnormal, and now in hindsight I wonder if I felt like that only because of the mean comments people made. I have a feeling I would have developed a more normal relationship with my body if I had been allowed to be who I was.
I entered the world of modeling because I was able to. I had the body. I was also looking for an environment where I wouldn’t stand out so much. I wanted to hear I was beautiful, and it was obvious that the society around me wasn’t going to do that anytime soon. For the next five years or so, my modeling jobs took me to Milan, London, Vienna, Istanbul, you name it. I spent five days a week traveling the complex public transportation systems of big cities, running from casting to casting, essentially using my freakish body to get work. I never made it big, but I made enough money to support myself.
Unlike famous models, your every-day-model does random small catalogue or magazine shoots, auditions for TV commercials, walks runways for obscure designers and does showroom modeling for department store buyers. On the days you are not booked for a job (and those days are much, much more numerous), you see client after client, and listen to them criticize your body. I learned quickly that my torso was too long, that I was too old, and that my skin wasn’t quite clear enough. My hip measurement was acceptable at 35.4 inches (90 cm), but less would have been preferable.
Unlike a lot of other girls, I soon developed a self-protection mechanism in order to deal with the harsh critique. I distanced my personality from my body, and learned to consider my body as a tool. I was, quite literally, a clothing hanger, and acknowledging that helped me deal with the pressures of the industry. If and when I didn’t book a particular job, I didn’t blame my imperfections. Instead I accepted that my tool wasn’t what the client was looking for. I was lucky to be old enough to know how to deal with the realities of the industry. Whatever positive feedback I received, I devoured it and used it to build up my non-existent self-esteem. In time, I became pretty good at the job, and I learned to see that I was beautiful.
There were many girls who weren’t quite as fortunate. Consider the fact that a vast majority of models are in their teens, and you get the idea how well their self-esteem has developed. A lot of them grew up in an environment where they were told they were ugly, disgustingly thin and boyish. For some, like myself, the world of modeling offers the occasional opportunity to feel beautiful, to feel normal. When you are surrounded by girls that look like you, you don’t notice your own freakishness all that much.
For others, the industry isn’t all that kind. When you are told, say, five times a day (no kidding) that your hips are too wide, you become awfully self-conscious. The critique can eat you alive if you don’t have a mechanism or support to deal with it. A lot of models have left home when they were 15, they haven’t even finished school yet, they don’t have basic skills to take care of themselves, and they miss their parents, who really don’t understand what the everyday life of a model can be. I saw many young models lose weight not because they used appetite suppressants, but because they didn’t know how to cook, or they were so busy running from casting to casting that they simply didn’t have time to eat. I lost weight too, just because it was so difficult not to. Models get drunk, they smoke and sometimes even do drugs, but the way I see it, not in order to lose weight. They do it because they are bored, they are not happy and they live in a constant limbo of not knowing what the next day brings. According to my experience, the majority of models are naturally thin. I saw just as many eating disorders in my high school as I did in the countless model apartments I lived in. Having said that, I have a feeling that the pressure to stay thin might be way more drastic in the world of high-end modeling than on the grass-root level.
The world of modeling is a strange little bubble. You work because you look a certain way, and you keep doing it because every once in a while you are told that you are the most beautiful girl in the world. The high you get from a successful photo shoot is difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. The emotional toll can be devastating too, but for some, modeling can also provide a shelter from the critique that comes from the world outside the industry. It is easier to hear “you are not right for this job because you don’t have boobs” than “you are too thin to be beautiful.” The girls whose confidence improves due to modeling get hooked on the industry because it makes them feel accepted. Essentially, you feel like you belong because you look like a freak. In the meantime, the rest of the world will continue telling you you don’t belong because of the way you look.
When I hear people say that models are ugly, disgustingly thin, unhealthy and that they promote eating disorders, I can’t help but take it personally. Women have been made to feel bad about their bodies for centuries, and I refuse to believe it is “the other woman’s” fault. I am not going to take the blame, and neither is my body. During my years of modeling, I got to know dozens and dozens of young models, and they are so much more than their figures. Even if models seem to be “free game” for criticism due to the apparent superficiality of their work, they are real young women. They are people who have lives to live. They have boyfriends. They fight with their parents. They struggle with what they want to do in the future. They have dreams outside the world of modeling. They have body issues just like every young woman does, and they hurt. Models hear so much criticism because of the nature of their work, that it seems profoundly unfair to me for them to be accused of giving a bad example to young girls worldwide. During my modeling career I met some models who had issues with eating, but I never met a single model who promoted eating disorders. If there is a body image they have time to be concerned about, it is their own. If anything, the direct public slander of young models’ bodies makes them turn inward even more; They are more inclined to stay in their comfort zone, in the model bubble, for as long as the society around them is only interested in telling them how unnatural and unwomanly they are.
Now in hindsight, I consider myself very lucky to have been afforded the possibility to work as a model. Having said that, if I had a teenage daughter, I’d think very long and hard whether I’d allow her to enter the industry. It is easy and beneficial for some, but difficult and destructive for others. Even if my experiences within the industry were mostly positive, there are times when I wonder what allowed me to come out of the industry stronger than I was going in. Maybe I was just lucky. I sometimes also feel embarrassed by my past. Models are often labeled stupid, ignorant and superficial, and even to this day (I am now 32 and haven’t done a professional photo shoot in seven years) I sometimes have to fight those preconceived notions. I have two university degrees, and at times I still get noticed because of my modeling career as opposed to my brain. People still think they can criticize my weight.
In recent years I have become a full supporter of a more inclusive future for modeling, and I hope there will be a day when we see different shapes, sizes and races in the pages of fashion magazines and on the runways. Perhaps a more inclusive range of body shapes would make the industry less critical of the bodies it employs. But for now, the tall and thin models that stomp down the runway now are not to blame for the ills of an entire industry. They are people just like you and me, and they deserve some respect. These girls deserve to feel beautiful just like everyone else.
This doesn’t mean we should just sit and let the fashion industry get away with using a single definition for what a model body is. By supporting an all-inclusive future for the profession of modeling, we should aim at making everyone feel good about themselves and their bodies. Rather than calling young, thin models sick and disgusting by definition, we ought to focus on putting pressure on the industry as a whole. Instead of attacking models, we should be writing letters to the editors of fashion magazines and fashion designers. Say: “I want to see diversity.” One letter here and there is not going to make a difference, but maybe a thousand would. Maybe ten thousand. We have a voice and we should use it.