Sometimes strangers stop me on the street and ask if I'm a model.
Put the rotten fruit down while I try to win you back.
I'm tall. And being 5'10 at age 15 turns some heads. But as an adult, the frustrating thing about being asked this question many times over comes from my brief stint with a North Carolina modeling agency in high school. These agencies have a simple formula: Scoop up every junior Amazon possible and hope at least one blossoms into her... let's say "full potential," while under contract. You know, when she is finished growing... basically, when her tits come in.
Unfortunately for Backwoods Models Inc., I was not one of those girls and was summarily dropped from the agency after high school. My tits came in. They were just mediocre at best.
Yes, my 18-year-old heart broke, and my confidence took a hit. But in my mid-20s, I took up distance running and weight-lifting in an attempt to solidify what I saw as my bad-a** approach to life. The brow-furrowing determination that comes with competitive running shaved 10 minutes off my 10K time and 10 pounds from the scale's numbers. So at 29, I am in the best shape of my life.
I love my body. Despite constant messages piped into our brains telling us we're not supposed to, I f*cking love my body.
And then I returned to modeling.
My recent day as a model was fun, but it was a day as someone else. Promotional materials for a DC theater, the shoot was to be from the nose down, with leather pants and a jacket that showed the majority of what I was packing above the waist. My hair was teased to twice its normal volume and my lips looked like they belonged in a Maybelline ad -- disembodied from any semblance of personhood, pointed up at the viewer like an open invitation to stick something -- really anything -- in between them.
I looked hot.
That confidence lasted until I walked into the studio and met the photographers. Two hours of hair, makeup and smugness melted away as I, a solid six feet in heels, stared down at the 5'2, 96-pound Asian women directing the shoot as she knocked me down to size. Humorlessly, she tipped her head up, then down to my feet before closing her eyes and furiously shaking her head.
"No. No. Her boobs. I need them to be WAY bigger."
I wanted to tell her I knew that. I needed her to know that she was not the first person to tell me my breasts were insufficient for her specific needs. That honor belonged to C-cup-packing Casey Westhoff, my little sister who grew out of my bras in 6th grade.
She wasn't the first person who I wanted to impress, only to have them tell me my breasts were too small. That would be a male friend sophomore year who declared "All you need is a handful. And I have big hands."
She wasn't even the first grown woman to tell me my breasts were too small. Because women who fit you for your wedding dress can be f*cking b*tches.
"She needs to be stuffed."
Setting aside the obvious double entendre, at this point, I had a choice to make. I had worked so hard, for so many years, to get to a place where I loved all of my body, or at least affectionately tolerated the parts that pissed me off. Was I going to let one day undo that work? What would my breasts even look like with that much cleavage? Was it even possible?
I realized while pondering my options that I had the attention of the room. An exposed bra will do that, but it became clear they wanted a response. Would I throw the jacket across the room in disgust? Would I melt into a puddle of humiliation and self-loathing? Would I body slam the casting director?
Of course not. We had worked for hours to make me (almost) perfect. It was time for solutions. Garment clips, safety pins, plastic bags stuffed with toilet paper and a good amount of grabbing and pushing up still didn't do the trick, (neither did swearing) so we resorted to actually painting the breasts on.
Standing under studio lights without a shirt while 10 people carefully watch a man paint bronzer onto your cleavage is an experience I would wish on no woman -- and one I wouldn't trade for a second.
Because 15 minutes later, I had breasts. Breasts! The measuring cups by which society determines your worth as a woman, and mine had just gone from tablespoons to mixing bowls.
The casting director almost fainted in relief.
"OK. She's perfect."
But I wasn't perfect.
Because the sad truth about modeling is also its greatest comfort: No matter who you are, they will change you.
My hair was "perfect," but a fan was brought in to make it bigger.
My breasts were "perfect," but an assistant stood by, splashing bits of water on them to make them shine.
I was "perfect," but they will Photoshop the hell out of that image. My guess is the mole on my chin is first to go.
That it is physically impossible for us as women to replicate what we see in magazines, on billboards, on buses, is a fact I've always known... in theory. For me, seeing those soul-crushing reminders that women should look a certain way always hit me like a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down. If the world had wanted a fight, it was going to get one from me.
As I like to tell one friend in particular who was blessed with the sickest rack I've ever seen, I work my a** off for the a** I have. My sculpted calves and cut shoulders give me an endless sense of satisfaction and self-worth that, while I recognize as fleeting in the overall story of my life, push me through that sixth mile and 12th rep every time. For years, what I saw as a steadily narrowing gap between myself and perfection inspired me. As I closed in on "perfect," I ran faster, ate less and prioritized my body over everything else in life. I fought the notion that perfection was impossible.
But my day as a model showed me it's not a fair fight. No amount of mileage or painstaking calorie-counting will help us win a battle fought with professional lighting, editing software and the ability to turn an hour of shooting into one "perfect" image.
It taught me that the joke is on all of us -- on women and on the men who expect perfection from us. The carrot is on a string attached to our heads, and we run for hours on that treadmill to reach it.
I learned that no matter how "perfect" you are, no matter how young or tall or big-haired or supple-lipped, they will find your flaw, and they will fix it. They will always change you.
My best friend calls this notion depressing. Maybe she's right, but I don't see it that way. Because realizing that I can do nothing to reach that ideal frees me; When the game is rigged, there is no expectation to win it.
And though I don't stop trying, though I continue to run and lift and eat avocado instead of fried chicken, I do it now because it makes me a better me. I do it because every part of me is real, and I want the real me to be as strong and beautiful as possible, knowing full well what isn't possible.
Women don't really look like that.
We can't really look like that.
And we don't have to.
My day as a model is proof.