The last time our crew of newly recruited models had gathered in the warmth of the brick-walled room tucked away in a converted warehouse we’d been following our agent Giles up and down a hallway, prancing and swaying our hips to Right Said Fred’s song ‘I’m too sexy’: “I’m a model, you know what I mean, and I do my little turn on the catwalk.”
We lunged and stomped, lunged and stomped, single file and hoping we looked confident as the song played over, and over, and over. Nine to fivers wrapping up their workday in the surrounding offices watched us with a mixture of amusement and pity as they slipped past on their way out the door. A couple of older men slowed to look us up and down: “This is the way to end a workday.” We kept stalking. Heal first, pop the hip, lift the chin. If it doesn’t hurt you’re not doing it right. Pound the floor. Don’t smile. You are a clothes hanger, nobody wants to see your personality.
The invitation to model had felt like an affirmation. Finally, a place where I didn’t stand out. A place where my height and weight—hip bones jutting through my pants, collar bones protruding beneath my shirts—were constantly praised. Look at her legs. Her arms are elegant. Like a cross between Twiggy and Cindy. But watch you don’t gain weight in your stomach. And keep that space between your thighs. They wanted me to go to Japan immediately. “Your look is big there right now.”
The photographer who shot my portfolio was Japanese Canadian; he talked me through shots as though speaking to a just-corralled horse that might leap over the fence at any moment: “Good, nice, keep moving, don’t hold the pose, I’ll let you know if I want you to pause.” He liked the ones where I wore nothing but an oversize cashmere vest and my underwear the best. So did Giles. He’d dressed me first in biker boots, skinny black pants, and a men’s button-up shirt, then a pleated school-girl mini with a white t-shirt, and a purple blouse laced with silver.
I’d been practicing my faces and poses in the mirror for days but hadn’t tried a single thing that said ‘sexy’—sexy was for older women, women with boobs and hips and big hair–so when Giles dressed me in nothing but a vest and pressed me back out beneath the glare of the lights I froze.
The other models weren’t watching me; they were busy texting or reading, flipping through magazines, filing their nails. Giles was praising the make-up artist who’d layered my eyelids with a fawn-coloured brown and dusted my cheeks a carnation pink. But down the hall I heard footsteps coming closer. I stretched the vest down to my hips, dismayed that as I did the neckline pulled down and there was my bra.
The footsteps passed by. Beyond the room through the multi-pane windows the sky was closing in as evening arrived and the photographer was watching his light begin to fade. “Don’t pull it down so far. Look up at the camera.” Click. In that photo, I look terrified.
I think I was terrified nearly the entire time I was a so-called ‘model.’ There’s a difference between the “this is wrong for you” nervous, angsty energy and the excited-nervous energy that comes when we take a leap and do something we feel called to, something our essential self is lit up by. When we’re leaping into love, deep beneath it all there’s a sense of peace. A knowing that this is true, a relief that we’re finally honoring what’s right.
At 14, I was ready to push through the “no” I was getting from my essential self. But my essential self wouldn’t let up; the “this is wrong for you” sensation never stopped. Until, finally, I did. I took my portfolio and left, tucked it away in a drawer, and felt the sense of relief we feel when we stop trying to be something we’re not.
More and more I’m seeing how being free from stress, overwhelm, guilt, insecurities and shame is less about adding on and more about letting go. Freedom is state of mind, a place of peace, and a way of being.
We exist in that place as the deepest truth of who we are–and we can get there by telling our story, by unshackling ourselves from any guilt, shame, or judgement. By telling our story, we free ourselves. And invite others to do the same.