"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.