You know how every time you get too comfortable with yourself, secure with your identity and your shortcomings, strengths flaws etc. etc., you'll suddenly out of nowhere for whatever reason find yourself plopped into a strange unfamiliar new context that challenges all you thought and believed and assumed was true? Well in modeling that place is called Paris. After a lifetime of holding as a self-evident truth that she was thin, our anonymous model Tatiana journeyed to Paris and learned that the opposite was, in fact, the case. How Tatiana learned to adjust to the harsh reality of her fat, in a very special Modelslips, after the jump.
Today's Modelslips is entirely spurred by one commenter's question. See how questions are important? E-mail yours to: Tatiana.Anymodel@gmail.com
You seem to be extremely well-adjusted and body-positive. Has working as a model ever caused you to doubt yourself to the point that you've considered engaging (or have engaged) in the sort of self-destructive behaviors that so many models fall victim to? Things like smoking to kill appetite, drugs (same reasons, I suppose), or anorexia/bulimia?
Other commentators as of late have pointed to a time in recent memory when, they say, a US size 6-8 woman was standard on the runway; other writers have said that there was a time when models took up space. I don't remember this time. Models have always seemed to me universally skinny, small-breasted and towering, with their big eyes, sharp cheekbones, and protruding hipbones.
As an adolescent, I had no trouble recognizing my body type in theirs. My measurements were 32-24-34 — perfect for scaring my doctor, sending my BMI farther into the chart's nether regions with every inch I grew, and, at least theoretically, the kind of editorial and runway work that requires one to fit into the one-off, uniformly sized sample clothes designers make for their collections' first outings. I had years of periods that came as if I were on Seasonale (I wasn't) and the friend who was my secret crush probably never realized how badly he hurt my feelings when he gave me the nickname that would stick to me through high school — Death. I ate whatever I wanted in whatever quantities I wanted, and didn't even play an all-year sport. For a time, I happened to be as thin as is currently considered ideal in one Western industry.
Until, one day, sometime in college, I wasn't.
When a New York agency expressed interest in representing me, on the proviso that I trim my 26-inch waist and 37-inch hips to some more reasonable approximation of a waif, I went home by way of the library and checked out the first diet book I'd ever looked at. Three months of eating probably not enough and doing lots of yoga and weight training (which didn't help me lose weight, except insofar as muscle gain speeds metabolism, but which did give me quick results that kept me from dropping the whole exercise regime in frustration) earned me a 23-inch waist and 35-inch hips. The same agency expressed reservations about my hip measurement, but I went to fashion week and made decent bookings anyway. This was enough to merit my going on to Paris.
At the other end of a transatlantic flight, I was dropped off at an office to sign a contract in a language I don't read. Then I was introduced to a man who grabbed me by my hips and made loud exclamations in a language I don't speak. Two of the bookers giggled from across the room.
"Your 'eeps, Tatiana," he sneered, exhaling cigarette smoke. "Zey are not ze 'eeps of uh mo-duhl."
He then banned me from show castings. I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.
I went to the apartment where I was to stay, I lugged my suitcase up six flights of stairs when it wouldn't fit in the tiny elevator, and I crawled under the covers of my living room cot and cried.
The next morning, when, jetlagged, I awoke at 5 a.m., I started looking up calorie counts for the foods I most often consume. I trawled the web for low-calorie, low-fat, high-fiber, high-protein, generally nutritious food. I found diets that should have horrified me alluring. I wondered whether I should consume 1400 calories a day or if I could knock it down to 1200 without provoking ketosis. Not going to castings meant I had a lot of free time, and no chance of getting any work meant I had the excuse of poverty to explain the paucity of my diet.
I exercised on the hard tile floor of the kitchen. With four room-mates filling the living room as well as the ostensible bedroom, it was the only room in the tiny apartment where there was any privacy. It did occur to me, as I did my daily 20 minutes of yoga, my daily two sets each of 20 sit-ups, my lunges with 20 pound weights, my squats, bicep curls, and tricep extensions, that trying to get my measurements within the parameters that were so comfortable when I was 14, was slightly sick. What kind of industry would demand an adult woman forever maintain the dimensions of girlhood? I often thought about this as I counted my push-ups.
I keep a document I created during this period on my desktop. It's titled "1 cup of oatmeal with brown sugar.doc" — my preferred breakfast, even though it is one that doesn't exist in France, was the first food item I thought to analyze — and it contains about 12 pages, single-spaced, of recipes, calorie counts, diet tips ("Drinking COLD water burns extra cals bc your body must use energy to bring the water up to body temp") and other esoterica of a not-quite-right mind. I lasted about two weeks in this phase — long enough to knock a half-inch off my hips and quell the objections of the smoker and get grudgingly sent to a few castings — and I never had body dysmorphia or any of the other diagnostic criteria of a true eating disorder. But I keep 1 cup of oatmeal with brown sugar.doc on my desktop to remind me how easy it is in this industry to slip into disordered eating. You have so little else to do besides watch your weight, and so many opportunities for self-denial.
That was over a year ago, and I mostly remember it as my little Paris freak-out; my reaction to a new and strange and isolating industry and one mean man. I eat more or less what I want now, and I've found that my bookings have grown as a function of my book, and bear little relationship to my measurements, whether actual or those stated on my cards. But there is a tiny way in which I feel the subjective experience of modeling dovetails with the subjective experience of an eating disorder sufferer — at least one area of theoretical accord that underlies the two.
The experience of being a model is largely one of reducing the body to symbol. When you see a model, you don't think "woman": you think "body" and its component parts. "Lips" are here symbolic of "Yves Saint Laurent perfume." "Face" means "David Yurman jewelry." "Legs" on this page represent "Dolce and Gabbana ready-to-wear."
A version of this happens live. Walking the runway is an experience like being in a diving bell: you can see the world around you, but your usual connection with it has been artificially suppressed. You must stare straight ahead, part your lips slightly, and not make eye contact. You have to look through the people who are staring at you and barking commands at you from the photographers' pit. You have to occasionally scan where those people might plausibly be, but never see them. You are, needless to say, mute, but also physically unresponsive to your surroundings. And you expect no response from them.
In 1993, during a Vivienne Westwood show in Paris, Naomi Campbell fell on the runway. The only impressive thing about this, or any other runway fall I'm aware of (save one: Karen Elson's tumble at Zac Posen this February), is that nobody — neither the other models nor the front-row audience members who sit within inches of them — ever goes to help the stricken model, even when they have tumbled from 8" platform shoes such as those Campbell was wearing, shoes that can break, and have broken, the wearer's ankles. Because a fall is not supposed to happen, the production can never acknowledge a fall when one occurs.
Reducing the body to symbol is of course what the anorexic or the bulimia sufferer does. (Or the serious athlete, for that matter.) We remake our bodies as monuments: to hungers overcome, to perceived strengths, to a gendered, formal ideal we've sized up or down to. Bodies no longer communicate want or need: we subject them to our desires, and take pleasure in their submission.
I certainly enjoyed every inch I ever lost.
I also very much enjoy walking on the runway.
But there is one way in which this industry has taught me to take less of an obsessive interest in how I measure up, appearance-wise. The feedback you receive as a model is breathtaking in its contradictions, vehemence, and beside-the-point meanderings. My shoulders, too broad for one client, will be criticized for their narrowness by another. I have been told I have too many freckles, and also too few. I've been too pale, too tan, too old, too young, too brown, too red, too blonde. I'm too tall or too short. My feet are too big or not big enough. At first, this was unsettling, and kind of withering, but it soon became white noise — when a casting agent shares advice with me ("Tie your hair back for castings!" "Walk more smoothly!" "Work out so you have some arm muscle!") I thank him or her politely and do precisely nothing — because I know the next will want to see unfettered hair, a cocky swagger of a walk, and arms that aren't as "bulky" with muscle as mine. It all cancels out, and I'm left with the conclusion that the client will cast whomever they will cast and they'll know it as soon as the right model walks in the door and nothing in my power will change that. The best I can do is show up.
It's a strangely liberating conclusion to have drawn from fashion.