Over the last few years the modeling industry has taken a lot of flack for promoting and encouraging female body sizes and measurements that are by most standards unhealthy and often unattainable. There has been a movement of “body positivity” which has seen an influx of “plus sized” women into the industry, led by the likes of Ashley Graham, Poloma Elsesser and Felicity Hayward, among others. This movement has not only challenged the conventional fashion body standards, but has also called for more inclusivity and diversity across the board. In the past year alone, the image of Victoria Secret has shifted from the bombshell brand image of Candice Swanepoel to a relatively inclusive and diverse “girl next door” identity.
Now, any movement towards to more inclusivity, more diversity and a creating a norm that the female body is beautiful no matter what is something I can stand behind. HOWEVER, I also believe it’s really important to take the constantly changing tides of this industry with a pinch of salt… Having been a part of the modeling industry since the age of 14, I’ve experienced these trend changes firsthand. And I’d love to share with you three things I have observed and what these experiences ultimately have taught me.
- The pendulum swings both weighs (excuse the pun)
There is not a single model I know (including me) who has not at some point been on the receiving end of a comment about their body. These comments range from the more tender, “Listen, honey, we just think you could lose like one inch off your hips. Take your time. There’s no pressure.”, to the more direct, “Your measurements are a problem. I would recommend hot yoga twice daily and preferably only eat once at lunch time.” (yes, an agent actually said this to a friend of mine), to the more – to put it lightly – inhumane, “Your upper thighs are fat and I just don’t like the way your face holds weight.”. Trust me, none of these are fun to hear and no doubt have an impact on the way we see ourselves.
The fashion industry, fueled by the media, pushes forward this image of very skinny female bodies without any context as to what it actually means to be the women living inside that particular body. By no means am I discounting the fact that there are some perfectly healthy and naturally skinny women who genetically fit the fashion standard, but in the majority of cases, there are detrimental consequences – both psychologically and physically – for the women we see on the covers of our magazines and on our runways. This is true even for the top fashion models (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKd38G338Qw).
As models and as females, the messaging has been clear and simple: the skinnier you are, the better; and if you are feeling good in your body, you probably still have some more weight to lose. So naturally one would think that the growing momentum of the “body positive” movement would have a positive and counteractive impact on this messaging. And indeed, it has. However, this trend change is not without issues of its own. Unfortunately, the pendulum swings both ways.
A little while ago I met a girl who told me her story: she had started out one the conventional (skinny) end of the fashion model spectrum. Upon gaining some weight, her agency decided she could take advantage of the “plus size” trend and encouraged her to gain weight. At a normal healthy weight, she was not “plus size” enough, so was told she wouldn’t work. She gained 20 kilograms (about 44lbs). Her agents were then much happier with her new look, apart from the weight distribution on her face… They recommended she go for plastic surgery to thin out her face as she had picked up weight in her face.
A friend of mine recently recounted an experience she’d had going to a fitting for a well-paying job for a “body positive” lingerie brand. Now, she is a naturally skinny girl and said she actually looked forward to the fitting because the brand promoted all bodies as beautiful and had numerous “plus size” women across their social platforms. She felt confident in her skin and was excited for the opportunity to shoot for this brand. However, upon returning from the fitting, she got a call from her agent saying that she had lost the job because the client had said she was “out of shape” (not true). So much for all bodies are beautiful.
Stories like these are not unique. In some cases – and clearly in the case I just mentioned –fashion brands talking the talk of body positivity is akin to greenwashing. My point in all of this is to say that when you base your personal worth on the opinion of the fashion industry, you will not win.
- Models are some of the most insecure people I have met. Ever.
Needless to say, for the people whose livelihood directly depends on the opinion of the fashion industry, building and nurturing a sense of self-worth and self-love can be tumultuous, to say the least. Yes, these are some of the most beautiful people in the world and those who to the naked eye would seem to “have it all”, but in reality, there is a significant psychological impact from constantly having to think about your external image. I have found – and my fellow models would agree – that models are (ironically) some of the most insecure people you will meet.
I believe this happens on two levels. First, like I have already mentioned, models face the blunt end of the stick when it comes to hearing opinions about their bodies. The standards are completely made up and ever changing. It is an industry in which every opinion counts… except your own. In my personal experience (and I will not speak for others), when you are trying to make a living and build a career, it is very difficult to distinguish between your drive for success, on the one hand, and your body image, on the other hand. Just like my peers who have gone into the world of finance, or accounting, or biology, I have a drive to progress and succeed in my career. The only difference is that it is my body (for so many people, their bodies are the very source of their vulnerability and insecurity) that is being judged. I have had to work very hard to separate these two things in my mind: that I can indeed love myself and my body regardless of how my modeling career progresses.
This brings me to my second point: every person wants to connect and wants to be seen and loved. Models, too, are just ordinary people who seek connection, acceptance and love. There is something about creating an artwork, or writing a novel, that is incredibly vulnerable: when an artist shares their work, they are revealing a part of themselves to the world… and to be seen and judged by the world is a scary thing! Models are very literally putting themselves out there to be seen. Furthermore, each picture is a creative collaboration in which the model plays an important part and leaves his or her stamp on the image. This creates a vulnerability that is taken for granted by many people, especially on social media. People feel they have the right to comment and judge and criticize, not recognizing that on the other end of an image is a person who is just trying their best. It is no wonder that we find so many insecure models.
- Effort does not equate to reward
My final observation is this: in the fashion industry, effort does not equal reward. This can be quite a confronting concept to deal with, especially within our society. We are brought up through our school systems in which, at the age of 6, good behaviour will get you a gold star, and at 18, lots of studying will get you an A. This carries through into our tertiary education. The whole way through we are fed the story that the more gold stars and the more A’s, the better! So naturally, what we come to believe is that more hard work is the key to our success.
In the world of fashion modeling, more hours on the treadmill may very well give you a great body, but then again a client may just not like your face. Professionalism, timeliness and a positive attitude are great pluses, unless the client just doesn’t like your face. Grit, determination and slowly working your way up the ranks is all very well, until the client prefers the face of someone with 400k Instagram followers… You catch my drift. When this picture-perfect linear relationship of effort-reward gets thrown out the door by the fashion industry, it (in my opinion) disrupts a whole worldview.
So, what can we learn?
My writing on the fashion industry may seem harsh, but I have to acknowledge that these are the shadow sides of an industry that is scattered with interesting and wonderful people, exciting opportunities, and most importantly, a number of really important experiences and lessons that I am very grateful to have had.
The fashion industry, in attempt to keep its influential power over consumer decisions, will indeed follow trends towards more inclusivity and diversity. I am not negating the work that many inspiring individuals do because it is their moral imperative, BUT what I am saying is that it is naïve to think that the industry as a whole has your best interests at heart. When we give the industry the power to dictate what is and what isn’t “on trend”, we externalize the source of our own self-worth.
At the end of the day, the fashion industry has taught me to show kindness to and have empathy for every person, even if they seem to ‘have it all’: you never know what kind of pressure they are under. It has taught me that all that glitters is not gold, and this has pushed me to prioritize, focus on and appreciate the things I value: connection, authenticity and honesty. It has pushed me to redefine my worldview of effort-reward and to recognise the inherent value of every person beyond what they “do” and what they achieve.
Most importantly, it has led me into some dark places of self-doubt and insecurity that have forced me to come out the other side. I have realized that there are only a few people whose opinions should matter to me and that, at the end of the day, my self-worth and self-love has to come from me. We are all responsible for internalizing our self-worth, regardless of what any trend or brand or opinion has to say about it.