Before we get started:
This post is based on my experience, and on my interpretation of the events that I experienced. It is not supposed to be a generalization of all modeling agencies, all sufferers of eating disorders or anything else for that matter. Even I am not that cocky. If you’ve had a different experience I would love to hear from you.
Storytelling is important for understanding; anorexia involves complex matrix of conflicting behaviors and reactions that are not well understood and are often judged. It is my intention to use my experiences to illustrate, as I have found that one can understand better when a concept has a context that one can identify with. i.e. I am using this to demonstrate that stereotyping an entire industry as blameful and a assuming a typical “type” of person doesn’t work for eating disorders.
It is also all about causality. I am certain that some (many) sufferers of eating disorders have seen a skinny model, wanted to look like that, gone on a diet, fallen into a negative energy balance (calories in less than calories out). This negative energy balance has reacted with their genetic make-up to spark an eating disorder. Note that through the skinny model sparked the desire to diet, the skinny model did not cause the eating disorder. No, the negative energy balance coupled with the genetics did that. Get my drift?
Anyway, to preface this particular story: I was 21. I had severe anorexia. I truculently avoided any conversation or situation that could potentially render me in a position where I would have to acknowledge my low weight. That’s how one gets around denial: avoidance. But anyway, let’s just say that I was really, painfully, sick.
I was also pissed off: at anyone who tried to tell me I was too thin; at the food I could not eat; at the doctors who told me to “love myself and eat up;” but mostly at myself.
I have resting bitch face anyway, I really do—but anorexia turned this into resting angry, resentful, looks-like-she-wants-to-punch-you bitch face. People would often tell me to “smile,” sometimes complete strangers would mutter the instruction under their breath as they passed me by. I would pretend not to notice.
But I did.
I noticed a lot, I noticed my own misery and I noticed how it affected other people. How can one smile when one has a thousand damming thoughts per minute? On the odd occasion that I would visit the busy high streets of London I felt more concealed, and that my sadness was accepted by the crowds of shoppers fighting for something to buy that might add some color to their self esteem. I had no interest in clothes or spending money. But I liked getting absorbed by the crowds, a calming affect. Hidden.
This happened one time I was shopping on a trip to London with Mum.
The day I was scouted:
When Peter tapped me on the shoulder in TopShop, I jumped out of my skin. He startled me; I walked away in an attempt to lose him in the clothes racks swarmed with babbling teenagers. I did not know what he wanted and—due to my defensive nature—I assumed that his intention was to harm me. My default reaction to anything or anyone new was always one of fear in those days. Upon reflection I can see that it would have been highly unlikely that a pickpocket would tap me on my shoulder. Nor would he be as bold as to follow me around a busy London shop, but my fear masked everything those days and I hurried away from him.
To my distress he followed me. “Excuse me Miss,” he called softly as he swam through shoppers in my wake.
Are all muggers this polite? I slowed, my curiosity in his pursuit of me gradually tipping the scale on my fear.
I turned to face him head on: “What do you want?”
Breathless, he explained “I’m a scout for Next, a London model agency.” He paused, “Well, actually I’m am intern there, I’m at London College of Fashion.”
I stared at him. “So what?”
“I want to take you to my agency, you’re perfect model material.”
Suspicious, I wondered if he was involved in one of those scams that prays on young girls and promises them stardom in return for a ‘processing fee.’
“Leave me alone. I’m not interested.”
“But you …”
“Seriously mate, I’m not giving you any money to take my picture. Go try your vanity scam on someone else.”
He rolled his eyes at me. Surprisingly, him giving me back a little of the attitude I was dishing out was the only thing that caused me to hesitate and listen. I liked him more for that.
“Is your mother with you? I think I’d rather talk to her.”
Coincidentally, as he said that, Mum appeared to the side of me brandishing a hideous pair of purple dungarees for me to try on.
Peter was well dressed, had a great sense of humor and was and a hard person not to like. As a new scout fresh out of London School of Fashion, he had found his first potential model in me, and although he was nervous, he did everything right.
Even after he had stood talking and explaining the process to Mum for half an hour, even after he gave us his card and pleaded that we stop in at the London Next Office, even after Mum seemed to think he was genuine, I was suspicious of him.
What where his motives? Was he trying to lure us into some trap? Mum called the Next office number on the card: a genuine establishment. Okay—he’d not been fibbing about that at least. We made an appointment to go in the following day.
Mum worried that having a model agency show interest in me would potentially fuel the disturbing behavior that I displayed around food my and obsessive exercise schedule. Understandably, she was scared this would make things worse. Rumor had it that skinny models and television shows starring ridiculously thin teenagers caused eating disorders, and while I doubt she ever believed that her tomboy daughter had fallen prey to idealized glamor, she saw it her duty to be concerned.
The media gets constant reprimand for glamorizing emaciated figures of women. I think that the high fashion industry gets it even worse. I often get asked if my eating disorder was an attempt to be thin because I was aspiring to be a supermodel. It was not. Nobody chooses anorexia. It irritates me now that would people think that I was so shallow, but it stuns me that they really believe that even if I had been striving after thinness that I would have been able to take it as far as I did at will. That I would be able to starve myself near to death via willpower alone? Come on! I’m stubborn, but even I have limits.
Anorexia is a complex mental disorder and not to be confused with vanity.
Plus, I never wanted to be a supermodel. I wanted to ride horses. The end.
But here I was, on a trip to London with my Mum, and I had been ‘scouted’ so what the hell. We went in. Uninspired by the fashion world as I was, I found the the prospect of earning money just for standing about in clothes alluring.
Peter had been right: the agency loved me. They thought I had massive potential and were very willing to work with me. I only had to do one thing for them: put on weight.
They politely explained that I needed to put on quite a bit heavier in order to model for them. They throughly explained my potential to earn a ton of cash and have an exciting career if I simply put on weight. Although they admitted that there were some agencies that would take ultra-slim girls, they were not one of them because they prided their reputation for inspiring health and wellness in their models.
Next did a lot to try and help me. They assigned Peter to be my personal contact and check in with me weekly. They worked with me—encouraging me to out on weight, asking if they could help me do so, giving me incentives to eat more and weight goals—for two years. Peter would laugh at me for things like coming into London with dirt under my nails having spent the morning mucking stables, but there were no jovial comments about my weight. He truly wanted me to put on weight; success for me meant success for him also, but I believe that he genuinely cared for my wellbeing,
Despite my desire to make it as a model, my weight continued to drop. I could not do it. I wanted to. I really wanted to. I failed. I did not understand my illness than as I do now, I did not know that anorexia affects the brain’s relationship with food and that it was more than something I could overcome with sheer willpower. I harshly blamed myself. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I control my weight? Why couldn’t I just eat?
Peter sounded so chest-fallen the day that he called me to tell me that the agency had removed me from their list. For me, well, it just was another testament as to how lost and hopeless I was.
The fashion industry did not contribute to my eating disorder. The agency that I worked with showed compassion and genuine concern for my wellbeing. The models that I worked with were all heavier than I and encouraged me to eat at the few test shoots that I did do. Every set had a food buffet offering for us that catered for all manners of food preference. I had all the opportunity and encouragement that I needed to get healthy.
Anorexia was to blame for my failure in the model industry, not the other way around.
Why this matters
Like I said as in the opening, in some cases, wanting to look like the thin supermodel can be an environmental trigger for a person who is genetically predisposed to an eating disorder. But that is not the same as saying that the model industry causes eating disorders. Same is true for trauma, abuse, negative body image, and the many other environmental factors that might cause a person to embark on a diet.
These distinctions matter because if we are only trying to treat or eliminate the environmental factors and ignoring the genetic component, we are telling the person who already has skin cancer to cure herself by staying out of the sun.
If you are interested in further accounts of eating disorders and diet culture, you can find them in my book: Love Fat