Butter, sugar, and carbs aren’t really part of the diet of a real-life mannequin.
by Jenny Bahn
“Did you have cookies this weekend?”
I remember the line like I remember the specifics of anything vaguely traumatic, like how my boyfriend was chewing so lazily when he dumped me over a Subway sandwich back in 2010, or the way my mom told me with flat finality over the phone four years ago, “Well, Nana died.”
They’re the tent poles in your personal history, the crystal clear moments to which all the other fuzzier details clump loosely around. But the cookie thing didn’t have to do with getting broken up with or someone dying; it had to do with my life as a fit model, those years when I was paid to remain a static size 2 in perpetuity. Did I have cookies that weekend? No. I hadn’t had cookies in over a decade, because butter, sugar, and carbs aren’t really part of the diet of a real-life mannequin.
For the most part, nearly every piece of clothing you own spent months in pre-production. A designer stands in a studio littered with unfinished samples and sheets of paper patterns, fitting every sweater, pant, and dress on someone’s body, pinning fabric in and letting it out. From that perfect-as-possible original, the piece goes into production, scaled appropriately so that it can be worn universally. But the basic shape, the proportions — that belongs to one person, a person who stood for countless hours staring at themselves critically in the mirror in front of them while the designer and their assistants hummed and hawed over shape, size, and whether or not you’re fitting into the clothes Monday that you fit into on Friday. A person like me.
And while you the consumer might have benefited from the exercise by having a shirt that fit you perfectly, I walked away with food paranoia and an unhealthy awareness of every expanding inch of my body.
There’s a whole spectrum of modeling jobs out there. Unless you’re Gisele, you basically do whatever gigs are offered to you to make a decent living. That means Halloween costume shoots, tampon commercials, standing on boxes at presentations for four hours at a time while underfed girls pass out around you like dominos, and, of course, the aforementioned fit modeling, which is about as close to a regular job you can get in the fashion industry as you can get, which means it’s about as close to a regular income that you can get. It might not be glamorous, but it can certainly be lucrative.
But the job doesn’t come without its costs. While the majority of all models — whether you’re shooting the cover of Vogue or playing the mom in a Swiffer ad — must adhere to an absurdly narrow set of measurements, there is some room for natural expansion and contraction. You gain a few pounds before a photo shoot with a regular client in the months between jobs and they’re a little more forgiving. You gain a few pounds over the course of a season’s worth of fittings leading up to a designer’s runway show, that’s a whole different ballgame.
Unless you’re one of those lucky girls totally immune to weight fluctuations no matter what you stuff in your mouth, the pressure to maintain your measurements is crushing. Everything you eat becomes the difference between fitting into those pants they pinned to your body the week previous and, quite literally, a matter of job security. The most (scarily) thin I have ever been was the result of having been temporarily replaced at this same fitting job by another model. Left with no answer as to why, after two years of employment, I had been essentially “let go,” I assumed that I was a fat cow and seriously under-ate until I was rehired again. When making rent is on the line, you’ll rationalize your eating disorder as a cost of doing business.
You’d think these psychological pits were ones you’d fall into only in your younger years, but the strangling anxiety of the industry has a farther reach than that. Some girl awhile back told me about a model in her 50s who had been the in-house fit model for a very famous luxury brand. She had been doing the job for 20 years. Twenty years. As one can imagine, a woman’s natural metabolism changes greatly over that span of time; there is only so much working out and veritable starving one can do to stay the same shape indefinitely. When things began to get out of control, as nature is wont to do, she was left with only one option: liposuction.
Being a woman is hard enough as it is. As if the litany of compare-and-contrast-worthy images we are subjected to by the very industry I have been a part of for so many years isn’t enough, women (and certainly girls) are often our own worst critics. It’s a sort of damaging striving for perfection that spawns ill-advised obsessions with thigh gaps, plastic surgery, and grotesque “thinspo” blogs. Put that type of damaging neuroses into the industry itself and you’ve got a toxic emotional brew, something I convinced myself I was able to manage if only to avoid an impending nervous breakdown anytime anyone walked toward me with a measuring tape.
I didn’t realize the day-to-day impact my career as a fit model had on my life as a whole until I stopped doing it altogether. I found myself more at home in my own skin, less painfully attentive to the way my jeans were baggy one weekend and snug the next. I wasn’t a mannequin anymore; I was a real live girl.
And while the permanent psychological damage is such that I’ll never eat cookies again, at least I’m not berating myself for the extra spoonful of hummus I “indulged” in at lunch. Guess I’ll be measuring out my recovery in tablespoons. Might take awhile.
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