What It’s Like To Be A Model

Money and beauty are the two qualities our culture values the most. I didn’t have the former, but having left home age 15 I figured I had to use what I had to get it. I had done my first modelling job aged 14, and after high school I went to seek my fortune in Paris. I had a one-way ticket, the address of a friend-of-a-friend whom I could stay with for a week, some photos and a list of agencies.

The magazines and couture houses didn’t all pounce at once. Map and carnet in hand, I trudged from agent to agent in my platform heels, hoping to be discovered. Some were kind, saying that one of my photos wasn’t bad, but that they’d fulfilled their “ethnic quota” of 1 and didn’t have room for another Asian model on their books. The look that sold best, they explained, was the button-nosed blonde, of which they had more than 20.

If an agency thought I showed promise, they asked me to strip down to my underwear. This is standard practice, since it’s your skin and muscle tone that are for sale, after all. If your breasts are generous enough you could earn well in underwear ads; if you’re tall and angular, you might do catwalk or upscale magazines; if you’re shorter and childlike, maybe you’ll wow the Japanese market. There are also separate markets for various body bits – hands, faces, bums. (The latter is a bit of a French specialty, since their mainstream advertising market is one of the more pornographic liberal.)

I stood in the chilly air between the desks and office chairs in only underwear and heels. It was an odd introduction to office work. The agents discussed my body as if I wasn’t there, while I tried to stop my brain from going on strike by contemplating international politics. “You’re very shy, aren’t you!” they said. I smiled awkwardly. I wasn’t shy, exactly. I just felt very, very wrong.

But a series of events in my life had taught me that feeling wrong was normal. I’d been grabbed in malls, trains, buses, holiday homes. Wearing baggy jeans and t-shirts didn’t stop anyone. I tried staying at home, but a stalker tried to break into my bedroom at 3am.

You’d think I was drop-dead gorgeous to warrant all this attention. But I wasn’t; I’d call myself “average attractive”. God knows how much worse things must have been for girls who were far better-looking than me. Or perhaps the playing field levelled out, and everyone over “average attractive” got an equal amount of harassment.

I began to hate my body for attracting men who thought they had the right to violate me. Because of my body, I was endangered and degraded. I reacted with a perverse logic: if other people devalued me, then I would devalue myself even more, in an attempt to control the situation by out-doing them. Obviously this is a terrible idea, but I felt desperate and it was all I could think to do at the time. It’s a common reaction among people who are abused.

A few girls cut themselves to try to block out the pain of being objectified. I could understand their reasons. Thankfully my reaction was less severe, on the surface anyway. When my face broke out in spots I tried to discipline it with harsh chemicals, the drying effects of which are still apparent now. I bound my body in restrictive clothes, sent electric currents into my pores, tore hair out en masse and trussed my feet into painful high heels until they bled. What’s odd to me now is how most women will be able to relate to treating their bodies this way.

Subconsciously what I’d learned was that my body was public property. That is how I was treated, so that was how I figured it must be. I didn’t know of any alternatives. Our spirit is childlike in its innocence: if you’re treated a certain way, you believe that that’s what your place in the universe is. It takes tremendous presence of mind – “A Child Called It” comes to mind – to project yourself beyond how others treat you, particularly if you’ve never known anything else.

This post isn’t just about modelling. The majority of women I know, and some men, have reacted in similar ways when judged on their surface appearance. Interestingly the effects were the same, regardless of whether they were judged as attractive or unattractive. The mind distances itself from the body, when the two are not taken together.

In another perverse twist of logic, my sense of ambition mingled with low self-esteem. If my body was going to be public property, I wanted to at least succeed at it. So I “farmed it out” to the advertising industry, in an attempt to let them have it. Unfortunately that didn’t work, since I simply wasn’t attractive enough to make a good living as a model! I find that funny now, but at the time it flattened my already low self esteem: I couldn’t even be good at being an object. On the market, my worth was less than a sofa table.

Beauty provides a superficial sort of love; even if it’s only your appearance that’s being appreciated, for most people that feels good. But attracting other people’s greed to the point where your privacy is invaded, is at the far end of the scale. It’s like wishing you were a billionaire and your dream coming true, and then being forced to wander around with an armful of gold in a poor and violent neighbourhood. You would soon take your wish back.

Particularly men said to me “it must be great to attract the opposite sex so easily”. They wanted to be attractive so their sexual appetite could be met without too much effort. If I was like them, I guess it would have been an advantage. But the avalanche of other people’s ‘want’ began before I’d developed any sense of my own sexuality. I didn’t have the luxury of time to figure out what kind of people I was attracted to, what I wanted to do with them, and what it felt like to be ready to do it. Before any of that self-awareness started, I was on defense by necessity, like a child soldier firing up the artillery.

I didn’t turn into a sexist man-hater just because a minority were abusive; there must be female abusers too, I thought, it’s just that as a straight female I didn’t find out about it. I had crushes and if it was mutual, they developed into relationships.

Relationships were tempestuous however because of my heightened defense mechanism. I was unable to switch off my day-to-day awareness and tune into the trust and vulnerability that’s necessary for intimate connection. Insecure and frightened, I played games and rarely let my guard down. Hurting others is one of the things that I regret the most.

It’s a common reaction to treat your body as the cheap object you’ve been taught it is, by giving it away to whoever wants it. I’m grateful that I had sufficient goodness in my childhood to stop me from much of this, but still, I gave my body to more people than I would have wanted to. I believed that sex was meaningless, and that I was supposed to give my body to people I wasn’t attracted to. My faulty logic sprang from the many people who had imposed their will over mine.

If the onslaught had started when I was an adult, aged 25 say, my self esteem would have had a chance to form fully, without being overpowered while it was still growing. I would have been healthy enough to say ‘no’ to what I didn’t want, and strong enough to hit back when someone tried to take advantage. But our culture finds young girls attractive. They’re so young they haven’t necessarily figured out how to stand up for themselves, and that makes them prime material for predators.

In some of the model photos that ordinary men find attractive, the girl is as young as 12; she’s been made up and styled to look like an adult. Very frequently, she’s only 16. A decent man much older than that wouldn’t dream of accosting her in person; but in the twisted world of commerce, where our value is determined by how much money we can bring in, adult men are manipulated to be attracted to girls whose mental age in many ways is still that of a child.

I will always appreciate the handful of men who after coming to chat me up, turned on their heels when I told them my age. Those who persevered had a different look in their eyes; hardened, cynical, sleazy. It’s one of the things I wish I didn’t remember.

As young women we didn’t talk about it much amongst ourselves, not at the time. Most of us didn’t realise how wrong it was – because it was so prevalent, and because nobody else was saying that it was wrong. We shouted at the perpetrators when we could, and tried to hit them back, but they’d laugh and were bigger and stronger than us. Mostly we thought the way we were treated was normal and that it should be accepted. We were always being told how lucky we were to have the gift of physical beauty. We worried about sounding spoiled if we complained.

I tried telling my parents, and am still not sure why they didn’t react at the time – my best guess is that they couldn’t find it in themselves to accept the horror of it. Or maybe they simply didn’t think it was a big deal. The tolerance for abuse varies enormously from generation to generation. If you’ve survived war, you’re less likely to think much of someone grabbing your crotch. My mother had grown up without legal recourse and equal rights, and had learned to make the best of it. Mostly what I was taught was acceptance and stoicism; a quiet stubborness. If an older boy was aggressive and controlling towards me, I was told to understand and accept it and just get on with my life.

Why am I telling you all this on a blog about spirituality? Because we’re all involved in the worship of beauty, and knowing the consequences of the way you treat others helps you both get the end result you want. Of course most people reading this don’t commit assault, but most of us have degraded others in more minor ways, such as speaking dismissively of colleagues and clients; giving partners the cold shoulder because they don’t give us what we want; or openly grading people on an attractiveness scale. All of these have a destructive effect more often than we like to admit. People tend to remember a single comment for the rest of their lives.

Think less about what you want from others, and more about why you want it in the first place. That leads to self-awareness, which in turn leads to a more genuine confidence. Genuine confidence holds itself with grace, humility and kindness. And that makes people love you, in a real way.

Remember that in the body of the person you covet, there is a heart and a brain and dreams and wishes, probably fragile, even if they try to appear strong. Treat everyone with the same respect that you would afford those whom you hold in the highest esteem – even if they’re wearing revealing clothes. At least now you know why.

Instead of reaching for what you want, develop the patience to wait for the person to come and give it to you freely. If they don’t, try not to take it personally, because it isn’t. Accept and respect their choice and move on.

I hear that modelling isn’t all bad. Girls who are thicker-skinned than me have said how much they appreciated the opportunities it gave them. The profession probably doesn’t have more predators than any other. The main problem with it I think is that we’re effectively selling the sexuality of very young people. Getting involved was my choice, but it was the choice of a child. I’m hoping that those who are responsible for children will be able to give them better support, having read about what it can be like.

I don’t mean that you should keep kids indoors for fear of assault. Freedom and fresh air makes them stronger, and they need it to thrive. Just provide an emotionally stable and consistent environment for as long as they want it, while keeping your ears wide open for anything they want to tell you. Treat them with enough respect and understanding, that they grow up knowing that they can come to you if there’s trouble. Find opportunities to teach them how to deal assertively with others (keeping in mind though that assertiveness is not the same as aggression).

If they want to be models, have a good chat with them about why. Maybe there are other ways that they can fulfil their need for self-esteem or cash on the side. They probably don’t know what modelling is like; try to help them get a realistic and balanced picture. Go with them when they start out, and talk it through together afterwards. Don’t impose your fears and beliefs on them, rather give them the space to build confidence in their own intuition, which might be different from yours. Their confidence and intuitive decision-making could one day save their lives.

As for me, I moved to the UK because British men treated me the most respectfully (in other words they mostly ignored me and that made me happy). I continued the unhealthy relationship dynamics for 15 years, until I finally gave up and went to live in a monastery. The monks didn’t hit on me and I finally had the space and time to sort my head and heart out. I made my peace.

Is it ok to let our daughters do this, when in terms of sexual experience they’re still children?


More on modelling and media

Article  CNN: I get what I don’t deserve. Model Cameron Russell explains why we need to open up the media to conscience.

Blog  Carre Otis on the truth of modelling

The common experience of assault

Documentaries  Girl Model and Picture Me (links open the official trailers on youtube. Picture Me is available in the US only.)

Books  Beauty disrupted by Carre Otis. A well written and touching memoir

Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls by Dr Mary Pipher

Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman. The industry manual for how to piece fragmented psyches back together

Interviews  Was Kate Moss exploited?

We might need to see you without your bra. Model Sara Ziff in the Guardian


13th November 2012

Comments (3)

  1. an interesting new perspective – seeing models as victims of the beauty industry, as people sick of attracting attention for the wrong reasons

  2. yeh… I imagine they come across as arrogant and stone-cold most of the time…

    also it’s hard to see them as victims, when they’re “choosing” to do what they do. although, that’s the argument that’s used for prostitution being wholesome.

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