When I was 15 years old, my agent at the time sent me to a photographer’s apartment for a test shoot. It was one of my first tests, and I headed over there not knowing what to expect, but eager to start my career and impress my new agency. The photographer, a French Canadian straight man at least twice my age, didn’t speak English, and my French skills were basic at best. We were alone in his apartment.
“Though this outfit choice made me uncomfortable, I complied. That was the first time I said yes to something when I would have rather said no.”
He rummaged through the clothes I had brought, and pulled up a blazer. Then he went into his bedroom and returned with a pair of his own jeans. That was what he decided I should wear: an open blazer with nothing underneath it, and his jeans, left unbuttoned. Though this outfit choice made me uncomfortable, I complied. That was the first time I said yes to something when I would have rather said no. After shooting a few frames on his balcony, he motioned for me to follow him inside, because he wanted to take a few photos of me on his bed.
That story ends there. Aside from asking me to prematurely show off cleavage and pose on a bed, nothing sinister actually happened. But as an insecure 15-year-old, it felt sinister enough. I had never been alone with a strange, older man before. My agency put the photos in my book.
“Aside from asking me to prematurely show off cleavage and pose on a bed, nothing sinister actually happened. But as an insecure 15-year-old, it felt sinister enough.”
At that young age, I felt similarly uncomfortable at my most of my first shoots, like when I was told to meet a photographer for the first time at a subway station on the other side of town, or when another photographer insisted on giving me a back massage. But, being so eager to do well, I never spoke up or said no, not even to my (then) agent, who set up these appointments. I stopped modeling shortly after. My agency didn’t fight it — I probably looked too stiff in my photos anyway.
When I returned to modeling at 19, I had much more self-esteem and strength, and so I thought I would be better able to assert myself. I started with a new (and significantly better) agency, and did my first test shoots with full teams. I started to work regularly, and felt comfortable in front of the camera, discovering that I really enjoyed posing and performing for photos. So when I was eventually asked by my Paris agent if I would “tastefully” pose topless, I said ‘sure!’, and even enjoyed the liberation of it. But, along with this gradual comfort came a gradual compliance with other people’s behavior. I realize now that the uncomfortable moments never really disappeared; they just evolved into an ever-widening acceptance of what was expected of me on set. I am in my early twenties and I still find it difficult to say ‘no,’ because it’s become quite easy for me to say ‘yes.’
“When a photographer makes a really crude remark about my breasts or my butt, I force a nervous laugh and try to pretend it didn’t happen.”
I love modeling. As I’ve written before in my Blackbook column, I find performing in front of a camera thrilling and often empowering. And I understand that models, by definition, are commodities; we are visual tools used to sell products. And I don’t have a problem with that fundamental reality of the job. But one thing that I am aware of in doing my job is how often I am asked to be the one to remain professional and deal with it. When an important photographer asks to go for a drink, and my agent says that I should do it, I don’t say no. When a photographer makes a really crude remark about my breasts or my butt, I force a nervous laugh and try to pretend it didn’t happen. When a stylist takes it upon himself to rub lotion on my breasts, instead of letting me do it myself, I don’t intervene. When I shoot in public and have to endure a barrage of catcalls and degrading remarks from strangers on the street, I ‘ignore’ them. It’s a lot less trouble.
In most other professions, there are very clear parameters determining right and wrong behavior, but looking at my career as a model, I realize that I’ve become the easy-to-work-with, comfortable-with-her-body ideal, and that I’ve broadened my own parameters of comfort to include moments that should make me feel squeamish, but now don’t.
“Some of the most crucial advances in women’s rights in the last half century have been the right to safety and professionalism in the workplace.”
Some of the most crucial advances in women’s rights in the last half century have been the right to safety and professionalism in the workplace. These fundamental tenets of human rights are especially vital in the modeling industry, where many of the workers are still children, some of whom have difficulties articulating themselves in English. I am lucky that my modeling experiences thus far haven’t been too dangerous or violating, and that I have had a great team at my defense, but even those minor, subtle instances of harassment need to be recognized. There are so many young girls and boys who need protection, and who need the right to say no in any capacity.