On the train a few weeks ago, a man next to me asked, "Do you model?" Caught off guard, I laughed a little and told him no. "Why not? You could," he persisted. I was tempted to set him straight and say, "No, you'd be surprised. I really couldn't." Instead, I smiled and opened the book in my lap. This is the story I could've told him:
A few months ago I was contacted by a scout for a modeling development agency. Intrigued, mostly by the money-making potential, I set up an appointment to see if this was really possible. First, my mother and I met with a man who was screening candidates for L, the woman in charge; his job was to send in only the tall enough, pretty enough, serious enough candidates. He asked us if we had any concerns, and we brought up a potentially deal-breaking question: "Will you ask me to lose weight?" In a superb non-answer, he launched into a spiel about his daughter, a successful young model, who loved the business so much that the sacrifices and effort were worth it. His justification was this: You can eat all the cake you want when, in five or ten years, you're too old to model anyway. It was a reasonable proposition, and I thought to myself, You could do that. For enough money, you could forgo pasta and desserts.
He sent us in to meet L, who said she "loved my look," but was, justifiably, worried that I didn't have "a passion for the industry." I'm not starstruck by supermodels or excited by high fashion and I didn't pretend to be. In fact, I am disturbed and angered by the way beauty is presented and sold as standard, inflexible, and ultimately unachievable. I didn't tell her this, of course. I didn't tell her that what I am actually passionate about is counteracting the volatile messages we send to girls about how they should think of and treat their bodies.
When we brought up the question of weight loss with L, she took my measurements: hips 38, waist 26, chest 31. Writing these numbers down, she said to me "Well, you're too small to be a plus size model." While my mother and I glanced at each other, amused and stifling laughter, she continued, "but that's where you're measuring right now. A short model would have to have 34 inch hips, but since you're so tall you might get away with 35."
Throughout my childhood I was told that I was too skinny -- people assumed that I was sick, relatives fretted over me at meals, doctors instructed me to eat extra fatty foods. The fact that my hips measured like a plus size model was first hilarious, and then a little horrifying. Thinking of all the girls and women who have said to me, "God, you're so skinny, how do you do it? I wish I could look like that," and hearing that my body "measures plus size" according to the modeling industry, I realized how heartbreakingly true it is that our standard image of beauty is unattainable. I was also reminded that if I entered this industry, I would become a part of the media machine that brainwashes girls and women into believing in that standard of beauty.
L likened the regimen of a model to that of an Olympic athlete. She said they were doing all the same things -- exercising, eating healthily. And then she asked if I exercised regularly. I told her I run track, but I that I wasn't in season then. When I am in season, my legs and butt don't get smaller, they get bigger, more muscular, and I told her this. "Yeah," she nodded, "we do have a couple girls who are runners, and it is a problem." But models are just like Olympic athletes, right? I guess not like Olympic track stars.
Finally she asked me if I was willing to try to "get those measurements down" (no one in that office ever simply said "lose weight"). I have heard the horror stories about eating disorders among models, about girls starving themselves and losing jobs for gaining weight. But I am comfortable with my body and had resolved that I wouldn't let that happen to me. I started to explain just that. "Look," I told her, "I'm not worried about the industry making me sick, because I'm confident enough in myself that I wouldn't let it--" She scrunched her eyebrows and interrupted, "I don't think this industry makes people sick. Making people feel insecure about their bodies... everything does that, high school does that!"
She made the fashion industry out to be just some innocent bystander, not a powerful driving force in how we conceptualize and standardize beauty. And the scary thing is, she seemed entirely convinced by her own delusion, of her industry's innocence. I was stunned, but I was also trying to convince her that I was a viable potential client, so I didn't fight her on it. I went on: "Really what I probably should do is talk to my pediatrician about whether or not I could safely lose that much weight." At this too, L recoiled. "That seems a little extreme," she protested. I told her it wasn't, that I wouldn't feel comfortable dieting if I didn't check with my doctor, who for years told me I was teetering on the edge of underweight. We ended the meeting with an agreement that I would try to slim down my hips before we did anything else. If I could do this, we would talk runway training and casting calls.
That night I ate dinner at an Italian restaurant with my mom. I ordered a big pasta dish with walnuts and four kinds of cheese, and I ate every piece. With each bite, I thought about what it would mean to have to get down to, and maintain, 35" hips. For the next few days I saw everything I ate in that context. Once I realized that even the thought of measurements was making me stop myself from eating, even it was only snack foods I avoided, I abandoned the idea of modeling altogether. I didn't want to think about food that way. I was genuinely scared by how quickly I had begun to monitor and alter my eating habits. Considering the way my body works, I should be worried about eating too little, not eating too much. According to a BMI calculator, made by the CDC, if I lost any more than 10 pounds I would be considered underweight.
I love my body. I love it especially when I'm in shape and it's powerful, tough with muscles. I realize I am in the privileged position of having, by some trick of the genetic lottery, the type of body our society has deemed attractive. But that isn't why I love my body. I love it because body-positivity is a radical act of love. When I was in ninth grade I was stick thin, model thin, 34-inch-hips thin. In theory I knew everyone should love their bodies, but I hated looking scrawny and weak. I love my body now because I realized that everyone should, and so I convinced myself to. I love my body because it's strong and runs fast and does everything it's supposed to do, not because it fits into a certain size pant.
I might have been able to shed 4 inches off my hips and stay healthy. I might have been able to find a modeling agency with more liberal standards. But I am happy I didn't try to. For me, it wasn't worth putting myself in that food-wary mindset every minute of every day. It wasn't worth being complicit in an industry that I find so morally reprehensible. It wasn't worth trying to slim down the body that I have come to love so much. There are people inside the industry who are making strides to expose and remedy the toxicity of it, and they are doing great things. But we have a long way to go. In some ways, L was right that "everything" is making us sick. The messages about our bodies come from the media and are reinforced constantly from every direction. And that makes it all of our responsibilities to reject the images of beauty pumped out by the media from all sides, and to lovingly correct those around us when they succumb to that media barrage.