From an early age on we are taught directly or indirectly how to be ideal women. From the media and advertisements that surround us, to the way we are talked to and compliments we receive. We are taught to be cute, small, pretty and perfect. Never be too much, never be too loud, too aggressive, too wild. We’re constantly reminded not to be too much for the world around us.
I don’t know if me telling you about my internal conversation, my self-hate and self-destructive behaviour throughout my teenage years will have any effect on any girl whatsoever. But what I do know is that if someone had told me that trying to be perfect and fit the social norm of an “ideal woman” is pointless, I might not have wasted so much time counting calories and doing steady state cardio.
I can remember the first time the thought of needing to lose weight crossed my mind. I was 12. I can remember looking at my classmates and thinking that they had little tiny stick legs and I didn’t. I remember sitting in front of the mirror at age 12 and thinking that my stomach was sticking out too much. I decided to lose weight. We live in the age of the internet, so information that’s not always valid or good for us is readily available at all times. I googled how to lose weight, I researched calories, I researched models and actresses and I could tell you the exact measurements of every Victoria Secret model. I created different diet systems for myself so I would lose weight, one after the other. I joined a gym and did plain boring cardio every day, not to gain strength but to lose the calories I consumed. I wrote down every single calorie that went into my mouth, and it worked! I stopped eating my school lunches and instead just ate an apple. I lost 15 kg while also becoming 10 cm taller. At that point, I was about 14 years old and people began telling me I should model… So I became obsessed with the idea of modelling and the world of fashion. I joined a modelling agency and started working a little bit. I was modelling on and off during school for about 4 years.
Throughout these years I built up a facade, saying “I’m healthy”. I went through phases of exercising obsessively two times a day while eating what I told myself was healthy, but really all I ate was vegetables. I went through phases of obsessive calorie counting and following rules such as only eating big meals in social contexts. I stopped getting my period for two years straight, even though I wasn’t clinically anorexic. I always ate, but my relationship with food was absolutely sick. I went through phases of telling myself that I was just being really healthy and should let loose a little; because somehow I knew that if I would go on like this for too long, I would become infertile, or worse. Every time I did let loose, I gained weight, and somebody in the fashion industry – be it a photographer, a caster or an agent from an international agency – would either tell me that I should work out more or eat healthier… which actually just means “get your hip measurements down, honey or you won’t be getting work.” I’m not trying to talk bad about the fashion industry because I had many amazing experiences and worked with amazing, creative people. But even though I didn’t really work internationally, and I was sheltered by my amazing agent, I experienced so many situations that, looking back on them, made it impossible for me to outgrow my self-hate, overcome my eating disorder and go through puberty.
You are never good enough. Before every shooting, there was this little voice in my head saying “what if I’m bloated tomorrow”, “what if I don’t fit the sample sizes”, “what if I have a pimple or am simply not good enough”. The pure nature of the job makes it extremely hard, if not impossible, for young girls to have a positive relationship with their body and food. If you are surrounded by adults who basically pay you for being young and skinny, how are you supposed to develop an appreciation for your personal traits or your developing body?
When I was 15, I had a photographer on a test shoot pressure me into taking my shirt off. In the fashion industry, it’s normal that young girls meet adult male photographers for shoots they’re not paid for because you need the pictures for the modelling book you bring to castings. If you think about it from an outsider’s perspective, it’s really strange to send minor girls alone to studios, often even homes, of grown men.
I had a stylist comment on my body, right in front of me, that I had fat legs and therefore should wear the long skirt. I had a photographer tell me that it was hard finding an angle from which I don’t look like a starving monkey. I never was seriously sexually harassed or went through a traumatizing experience – but these small comments still add up. There are even smaller things like getting changed in front of everybody in the studio, or sometimes even on the street if that’s where the shoot is taking place.
Knowing from the first moment that the dress won’t fit you, and the pants won’t go over your butt – moments like these are humiliating, especially if the whole team starts speaking about you in French. I know from the many conversations with other girls in this business that we all feel the same. Even if there are 2 out of 100 girls who are naturally very skinny, they still need to deal with the objectification, the possibility of sexual harassment, and being a teenager in an adult environment, with the knowledge that nobody cares or wants to hear what you have to say. I had a shooting where the stylist later told the make-up artist that my legs were too fat for my upper body proportions; that my legs and hips were not skinny enough. I overheard these exact words, and still had to go back for another day of shooting.
I’m not trying to get anyone to feel bad for models. It can be a lucrative job and everyone who does it could stop. But this industry and the job as a model has an extremely strong magnetic power that makes you want to stay. There is a reason why the world is obsessed with Bella and Gigi, with Kate and Naomi. Being a model gives you the official label of being worthy, of being hot, the official label of being what society tells us is valuable. Models are some of the most insecure people I know. If the only thing people around you focuses on is your looks, it gives you a superficial ego boost while tearing down your inner confidence. I’m not blaming the fashion industry for the eating disorder I experienced, but I’m also not saying it did anything to make it stop. I was not clinically anorexic weighing 40 kilos… but I had five diaries with everything I ate over the course of 5 months. I wasted 4 years trying to fit a mould that nobody can ever really fit into.
This is not only about girls who model. This is about all girls and women around the world because we all have this self-destructive voice in our head – a hateful, harsh dialogue with ourselves. We judge ourselves, we try to make ourselves smaller. We hate our backs, legs, our stomach and arms. We forget that being pretty is just one, very superficial attribute of being human.
I have a little sister, she is 12 years old and I decided that I don’t want her to think that she has to be skinny to be a wonderful woman, or that her looks determine her worth. I have to be an example for her. While I do believe that the fashion industry is changing, we are far away from a sustainable situation. We can keep playing the blame game, the models blame the agencies, the agencies blame the casters, the casters blame the editors, the editors blame the designers and the designers blame the models. But in reality, all of us can decide to change something. Regardless of our position.
What makes me sad is the fact that I most probably won’t ever work on the same level as I did before, at a job that I am really good at, simply because my body isn’t ass small as it used to be. Yes, maybe I will get booked on some sport shoots or personality jobs and those are amazing, and I truly am grateful not only for my amazing booker – who fully understands the problematic state of the industry and always protected me as much as she could – but also for all the amazing, funny, creative and wonderful people I met and worked with.
I love modelling. Yes, it is superficial and shoots are often purely just selling your body. But in between, you have shoots that truly allow you to be part of a creative vision, giving you the chance to perform in front of the camera. In an ideal world, modelling is being a piece of the puzzle when creating visual art. I finished two jobs recently, after not having modelled for at least a year, and both shoots were amazing experiences! I actually had a great time and knew that I didn’t get the job because I was skinny and had perfect skin, but because I am me. It made me sad though because I am still the same person, I still perform just as well, or even better. Who decides that I am not right the way I am? If a person loves themselves, to a certain degree at least, you can see it in their eyes, in the way they move and in their energy. When you are busy working against your body, you can’t possibly display the same energy on set. Honestly I, as a customer, really want to see beautiful, interesting, diverse and strong women. So I should really be a lot more sought after as a model now, than before.
Modelling should be about being beautiful and about the ability to model. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It can’t honestly be true that the whole fashion industry has the same exact taste when it comes to female bodies. How very boring and dumb for a business that prides itself on being innovative and creative.
I know that things are changing, and most people seem to be so ready for it! But Prada still only books size zero girls, and most faces on the runways are still white.
I think the customer, generally speaking, wants to see a representation of diversity. The industry just needs to say fuck this bullshit and finally do it.
I hope that my sister grows up in a world where she is praised for her intelligence and not her facial symmetry. This wish is utopian, but we have to believe that we are able to make positive changes. And even if my sister doesn’t, maybe I’ll have a daughter one day, and maybe she will grow up in that world.
Tell the women in your life that you value their intelligence and their humour, their warmth and their laugh. Don’t tell them they are cute, we know we are, ‘cus that’s what we’ve always been told – and we are so much more.