“I’m already being generous,” the agent says, visibly exasperated. She’s just measured my waist and hips in a room filled with my bookers and I’m trying to keep it together, though I know she’s not happy with my proportions. I’m 24 and I finally like my body, but I feel that familiar panic pressing down on my chest — I’ve let myself go, I’m a looming colossus in a world of ethereal teenage beauties, I’ve submitted to carbohydrates.

“It’s just that I don’t want to get into, you know, an eating disorder situation.” I’m trying to travel — one of the great perks of modeling — but I’m discouraged by how much I need to whittle myself down to be acceptable to agencies in Tokyo and Shanghai. Doing mostly print work in Honolulu and now, Los Angeles, I’ve been able to stay healthy and generally slim enough for clients. When I first began modeling  I tried to lose more weight, but my blood pressure got so low I couldn’t stand up without getting dizzy, and all I could think about was food.

“Are you prone to that? Is that a problem for you?” She looks concerned, but irked.

“No, no! I mean, getting that thin, for me that’s risky. I just want to make sure I’m taking care of myself in the long term. Like I don’t want to lose so much weight I get osteoporosis when I’m 60.” I feel self-conscious and I’m trying really hard not to start nervously blathering on about the clinical risks of underweight. But I’m proud of myself for standing my ground in a situation that, a few years ago, would have shamed me into eating grapes for a week.

“Okay, well get to 36 if you’re OK with that and we’ll see how you look, maybe it will work. There’s also Istanbul — they like their girls to look a little curvier.”

Especially because there are legions of girls willing to supplant you, who won’t make it an issue.

After my modeling career ends, I want be a dietitian. I’m currently on a leave of absence from the food science program at the University of Hawaii. I’m aware that skinny-at-all-costs can really harm the body, so to be pushed in that direction feels careless and infuriating. But when you make your living achieving the kind of thinness the industry terms “aspirational” — as though it were the standard all women should use as a gauge of self-worth — the importance of building bone density before the age of 30 isn’t really at the top of anyone’s list of concerns. Especially because there are legions of girls willing to supplant you, who won’t make it an issue.

We models are supposed to have total control over our bodies, like, “That’s fine, I’ll just disappear for a week and come back all lithe and my face will be thinner like you asked.” Like we just sup green juice from biodegradable cups at Naturewell and sweat attractively during hot yoga until we look acceptably slim and toned. Our ideal is a woman who is indifferent to food and who will nosh absentmindedly on greens and grilled chicken, forgetting to finish everything on her plate. She’s so busy living her enviable life that she subsists on modest handfuls of almonds. She is backlit and perfect at all times, and I have never met her.

One time I just drank Odwalla and fizzy water all day, but I got home and ate cereal for the duration of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is three hours of cereal. Another time I got food poisoning after eating tacos in Mexico. My boyfriend was unnerved by how much I didn’t mind being sick. I told him to go to hell; his livelihood didn’t depend on his ability not to consume tacos.

Sometimes I can be who they want, and sometimes I can’t. And I need to be OK with that because otherwise I will slowly begin to hate myself.

In real life people will say, “You’re so pretty!” In the fashion industry, they say “I like your look.” Here lies a fundamental truth about modeling. You internalize that your body isn’t you anymore, it’s a product you’re pushing. That’s why it seems so natural for agents or clients to openly criticize your hips, or hair, or teeth, or jaw, whatever aspect of you deviates from idealized beauty. You’re in the big leagues and if you don’t like it you can take your ball and your big ass and go home. You are so replaceable you’ve practically already been replaced by the stockpile of girls who look just like you.

I got into modeling relatively late, at age 20, so I was fairly mature and confident. Since I started modeling I’ve walked that fine line between healthful and disordered eating, but I never fell off the deep end because I’m passionate about food science, and I have a family and friends who care for me and look out for my wellbeing. I think without this, I’d have done anything to please my agents. I’m surprised how little health matters in the modeling world unless it is a means to thinness.

In March, Israel enacted legislation requiring models to produce a current medical report confirming that their Body Mass Index (BMI) is at least 18.5, the cutoff for underweight. Israel’s modeling industry could serve as a petrie dish for larger markets that might eventually choose to follow suit. BMI is controversial because while it’s quite useful statistically, it can become problematic when applied to individuals; for instance, it doesn’t account for body composition or sex.

I hope one day healthy bodies, in all their diversity, are recognized in advertising.

Most working fashion models are are genetically predisposed to being lanky. Measuring in at north of 5’9″ and south of 125 pounds, many models have less than an 18.5 BMI, which would disqualify many models from continuing to work. Whether banning girls whose BMIs are considered too low will benefit the models themselves, their health and careers, is still unclear.

I hope one day healthy bodies, in all their diversity, are recognized in advertising. We need to reject the idea that starvation is glamorous, and an important first step is protecting models from having to choose between their livelihoods and their health. I hope agencies choose to provide nutrition counseling for their girls, especially when they are making such strict demands that can irreparably tax and harm the human body. Amenorrhea (lack of menstruation), reproductive harm, bone loss, and eating disorders are all tied to underweight and they should be acknowledged as a very real effect of excessive dieting.

As I turn to leave my agency, I say goodnight to one of my bookers. She’s heard the whole thing — she touches my shoulder and says, “You look great.” I’m filled with thankfulness that I have some support, that someone appreciates that it hurts when your body is critiqued. I imagine they’re all evaluating me as I walk out, but I know I’m prepared to take care of myself.

19 Responses to When Your Look is Your Livelihood: Finding Balance

  1. gerard gueho says:

    Hi,
    The goal of any agency should be the health and the well-being of her models. Model Alliance makes a generous and remarkable work but may be that the best way to know its values in the middle of fashion would be to create her models’ own agency. You do not believe? regard, gérard

  2. deborah sanders says:

    Kudos to the founders of Model Alliance. This was long overdue.

    I especially like Kate’s comment: “I hope one day healthy bodies, in all their diversity, are recognized in advertising.”

    The only thing is, we have to go from to hoping to doing. There should be no reason for a heathy women to be denied a job that she can perform. It has to be a violation of a woman’s civil rights.

  3. Carol-Anne Blackwell says:

    I liked her quote:

    “Sometimes I can be who they want, and sometimes I can’t. And I need to be OK with that because otherwise I will slowly begin to hate myself.”

    That is the attitude that we should strongly imply upon new models…one of balance.

  4. Jessica says:

    Brilliant writing and a topic of upmost concern. It’s my mission to one day revolutionise the world of the modelling industry through healthy eating and exercise so your article is very inspiring. Well done!

  5. Emily Nolan says:

    This is an excellent article! Thanks for posting

  6. Teresa Moore says:

    Great article. So honest and relevant. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Pamela Miller says:

    As the mother of a model, I am so happy to see this “you have to lose more inches” coming out! My daughter is 17 and every time she visits the agency the scout measures her in front of everyone and tells her she is to big for top agency’s in New York and Europe. My daughter is 5″91/2″ and her measurements are 33-25-351/2 The scout went as far as to tell her to drink a certain tea every day for two weeks to help lose weight…and than twice a week each week. My daughter is such a happy person and everytime she leaves this scout…she is crying. My daughter is signed with an agent here and one in Europe and the European Agent tells her the opposite and says she is perfect.

    I have taught physical fitness and nutricien for 30 plus years and spend more time lately repairing the mental damage my daughter goes through when she see’s this scout. I have told the scout I disagree with what she is telling my daughter to do…my daughter also disagree’s and plans to stay on the “healthy” routine she is currently using. She eats the proper food and exercises everyday.

    Thank you Model Alliance for standing up and bringing this to the public eye!

  8. S says:

    I agree whole heartily with everything you’ve said. I am so happy that this story was posted.
    Seeing ones body as an object is one of the major issues with modeling. I started modeling at 15. It’s weird because even now, when someone says I’m pretty I don’t take it as a compliment. This is because I have been trained to be completely disconnected from my body and appearance. Along with that, I agree with your comments on diet. It is not easy! Yes, there is amazing incentive (travel, glamour, etc.) but that only makes it harder. By making it your JOB to be skinny there is that much more pressure put onto you and no one works well under that pressure. I have been in markets where agencies cut pocket money to get a girl to lose weight. This is literally asking her to starve for without the money she has no means to buy food. Although a lot agencies today are more aware of the eating-disorder risks and are more compassionate towards their models, there are agencies that are not. It need’s to be standard that nutrition is taught to models ESPECIALLY to the younger girls. There are healthy ways to maintain a “models body” but cutting pocket money or making fun of a girls “curvy” (always an insult in the modeling world) hips, the client/agency is doing sometimes irreversible damage to the girls mind.
    Thanks for bringing this issue forward, Kate!

  9. I have a foundation called Feed The Models. I hold events to raise awareness and money to help models with eating disorders get treatment. I LOVE this article! Its good to hear from a model that acknowledges the industry pressures do exist but still didn’t give into them. Please join our FB page and help us in our efforts to Feed The Models. facebook.com/FeedTheModels Twitter- @Feed_The_Models

  10. Taya says:

    Fantastic article! Filled with truth and great sense of humor throughout. My favorite: “I’ve walked that fine line between healthful and disordered eating, but I never fell off the deep end”. Definitely feel you on that!

  11. Elizabeth W says:

    Great article, Kate.
    I enjoyed reading it especially when you discuss that, as a model, your body is your “product” and how easy it is for young women to become objects. Do you think your background in nutrition makes you better able to resist becoming caught up in the self loathing behaviors and twisted thinking? Keep up the good work. I will pass your article on to some girls I know.

  12. Sarah says:

    Thank you! You have taken the words out of my mouth. I am almost 30 and have been modeling since age 15, unfortunately I was too young and unsure if myself and listened to everything my bookers said like they were gods, and it led me down so many mistaken paths of abuse on my body. I have spent the last 3 years undoing all the damage with the help of many great holistic drs and healers, but still it is a challenge not to go back to my eating disordered thinking when faced with all the very young and thin girls I see everyday…plus my own critiques of my body….it is so refreshing to see models talking about this because it really isn’t something we sit around and discuss… Thank you thank you thank you!

  13. Caitlin Flores says:

    Yes! Not only is health an issue for models, but also for young girls who emulate models. You are indeed a woman girls should look up to, one who puts health first.

  14. Harold says:

    Brilliant.

  15. Johanna says:

    three hours of cereal and sweat attractively during hot yoga hahaha I love this article! Awesome perspective, your journalism background shines through. I like your points on how your body is product you’re pushing and how its still unclear whether the bmi ban will actually help models long term… love your writing Katie!

  16. Brittany says:

    Love you so much Kate, and this is an excellent article. If there’s anyone I trust that would be strong and maintain a healthy attitude about this, its you.

  17. dina says:

    im sick of reading that girls have to be 16 to start modeling and by 20 its too late.20 should be young if women started modeling at 25 the whole industry would be different and nobody would boss models around!

  18. Michael McLaughlin says:

    This is a great story Kate (calling you that will take some getting used to). Stick to your guns. Some of my fellow PHS officers who are dietitians will really appreciate your attitude and spirit. I’ll forward this article to them. They will love it. Take care and be safe.

  19. Casey Evans says:

    Wow,
    Great to here someone coming from the same background as a Hawaii based model and student. It’s nice to be reminded that most models struggle with finding a balance. Really interesting, great job Kate.

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