I went to a casting last week that stood out. Removing a comp card with a flourish and carefully reviewing both sides, a woman directed me to a wall where there was a measuring stick. Measurements are to a comp card what a phone number to a business card: the whole point. It’s not typical to second-guess the comp card at a casting. That being so, the tape measure is one of those little items that’s heavy with significance: it’s the headmaster’s cane or the police lights in the rearview mirror. You only see it if something’s wrong. Over my pants and around my butt it went (your “hip” in the industry is your widest point, wherever that is). As she called out “34,” I quietly took a relieved breath. The typical fashion model averages at 33-34 inches, and a more commercial girl can range between 34.5-36. The measuring felt like a bit of theatre since I am what my card says, but it’s hard to take lightly those couple of inches that could make the difference. Measure in at 36 when your card says something else and your agency might get a call.
I bring this incident up because it’s National Eating Disorder Awareness week; an event that should be a comfort to girls in my line of work, whose livelihood creates pressures towards eating disorders that few women can appreciate. The occasion, however, can tend to be a bit less than supportive. “You don’t have to look like those models!” isn’t a very comforting statement for us models. So I’m going to attempt to do something better.
I first learned of anorexia in grade school. I had never considered such a thing at home. We didn’t do diets in my family. Even in elementary school, girls were blotting their pizza, sipping diet cola and eating fruit cups. Mom sent me to school with Hershey bars and whole milk. She used to say, “If you tell your tummy it can’t have a cookie, it’ll hold on to it when you finally do.” I carried on in blissful ignorance until we were forced to watch a documentary on anorexia in class. From then on, I grew increasingly insecure. It was never that I wanted to be skinnier; I just never, ever wanted to get fat. I didn’t want to get bigger than I already was. Fortunately, I was utterly ignorant and, as cringe-worthy as many of my attempts to diet are in retrospect, I didn’t manage to put myself in any serious danger.
This was before I entered an industry of size and weight, which threatened to undermine everything. My dabbling in an inexplicably strange off-kilter relationship with my food set the tone for how I feel so incredibly opinionated and strong about how food plays a role in my life now. I wouldn’t have been able to maintain these attitudes without a little bit of help and support, without people on the outside to hold me up.
Years ago, I stumbled upon a yoga studio that became one of the many communities that have been a shelter for me, tucked away on the second floor of an aging building on arguably the filthiest street in New York’s East Village. At that point in my life, getting used to modeling and living in NYC, I was alone and vulnerable. When I first walked through that battered door and up the dusty stairwell, I saw before me an offering of dirty shoes, battered by the city’s tough pavement and caked in all the worries and concern that send us marching across it every day. Each student’s bare feet made their way across the same polished wooden floor; the afternoon sun streamed in through the open windows onto a room full of yoga mats so close together that they formed almost a single patchwork quilt of mismatched rectangles. I remember seeing our teacher, Kathryn, walk to the iPod and begin our class. She was a gazelle. Being around models constantly and working in a beauty industry, that gave her legitimacy in my mind. Whatever she had to say, I was gonna DO IT.
Although her appearance stood out to me at first, I would quickly learn as I returned again and again that I was welcomed into a group of people for whom my hips weren’t my most important attribute. I was respected, not because my chart was full of jobs, but just because I was a person. I was reminded that there is a whole city around me full of people who weren’t judging my weight or my diet, even though a few people were. The studio offered me a place where my measurements and looks didn’t matter. Although time passes, teachers move on and my career takes me where it may, that space, those memories and the idea of it all remains close to me. I miss it. The feeling I got the first time Kathryn remembered my name when she noticed me coming back to class meant the world to me. It was recognition for something that wasn’t looks related. Knowing that measurements are not the measure of my worth makes the difference between self-discipline and compulsion. Safe places, which offer a reminder that there is love, respect and compassion that’s not connected to food, can make all the difference for those with an eating disorder. That yoga studio is in my heart forever as my safe place, even when I’m not there. As much as I can, I want this to be a safe, albeit virtual, place for anyone.
We don’t need to tell people that models are an unrealistic image of beauty. It’s clear to most that we are accidents of nature. We need to tell them that you don’t have to be a model to be special or cared for. Trust me, in my life as a model, I feel anything but special and cared for just because of what I do. We need to tell people that they’re loved and that they’re not alone. We need to show them respect without saying, “you look great!” We need to stop leaving people with nothing but diet soda and lettuce to reassure themselves that they are valuable. One person, even a stranger, who cares can outweigh any number of waifish girls in high fashion spreads.