In the fall of 1996, I was scouted. I was nineteen, far from my family, and though I wouldnít have admitted it at the time, very depressed. The scout brought me to a local agency and set up a ìtestî with a photographer and a makeup artist, both women. On the day of the shoot, they slicked my hair straight and clumpy, dressed me in black and told me to look spaced outóìlíair un peu perduîówhich wasnít hard because I was lost. I hated what was happening, how I looked, and yet I just smiled when they praised me for acting sweet and quiet. Inside, I was also reeling from a comment the makeup artist, an aspiring model herself, had made: she was pregnant and hoped she wouldnít lose the baby this time, but she had already gained five pounds, so she would really have to watch her weight.
My story probably isnít that surprising. You might expect to hear shocking tales about skinny models being told to get skinnier. But modelling is also a business where everyone has a story, and no two will be the same. As for mine, I knew almost immediately I wasnít cut out for it (I would wear homemade pirate T-shirts and ripped tights whenever I met with my agent).
My brief stint, however, was time enough to learn that the clichÈ of the anorexic rake is sometimes true, but overindulged. After all, the minimum height requirement is a firm five feet eight, with most girls being five feet nine and over. Combine that height factor with the metabolism of a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old and itís no surprise the girls are so thin (painfully so: todayís models weigh 23 percent less than the average gal).
Of course, this only underlines the fact that images of beauty presented in the media are beyond reach for all but a very small percentage of women, most of whom were born with the standard. Yes, a girl can be sent home from Paris if she gets ìfatî (i.e., if she puts on an extra inch or two around the hips), but the few models I knew with weight ìproblemsî managed them without extreme dieting: regular exercise and healthy eating sufficed.
Or they did what I did. They said screw it and quit. Being told to drop some weight from my five-foot-nine, 115-pound frameóthe intended effect being, as far as I could see, to make my thighs appear practically fleshlessówas the last straw.
Sadly, though, all too many young girls are telling themselves that they need to get thinner. The Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute warns that aggressive dieting is being carried out by girls as young as nine. American statistics are no different. In 2003, Teen magazine reported that 35 percent of girls aged six to twelve have tried at least one diet and 50 to 70 percent of girls with a healthy weight believe they are fat.
I had first-hand experience with this sort of body-hating when, at age eleven, I attended a professional ballet school. ìNutritionî classes were mandatory, but eating disorders were common, and nothingónothingówas too thin. The girls were sometimes so malnourished that they stopped getting their periods or they collapsed during class. Even art, with its pursuit of ideal forms, can influence life in demanding and detrimental ways.
But hasnít Western culture, since ancient times, always valorized super-
ficial beauty? Interestingly, it was men who were expected to be emblems of physical splendour in Ancient Greece. In the fifth century bc, hopefuls took part in competitions, akin to modern-day beauty pageants, which were held in honour of one of the gods. The equation of ìbeautyî with ìdivinityî applied to women as well, and there is even mention of a woman who, when called before a court for some wrongdoing, proved her innocence by simply baring her breasts. (Appearances still matter in our modern justice system: Karla Homolka vexed us precisely because, in spite of her guilt, she looked like the girl next door.)
Twenty-five hundred years later and those breasts, bared or suggested, are being used to sell everything from food to ammunition. The average North American femaleówho, we are told, is five feet four and weighs 140 poundsómay want to blame someone. But I doubt any of the young models working today have any real awareness of the influential role they play in this contemporary cult of beauty. I certainly had no grasp of my part in reinforcing a culturally created physical fictionóone that is possibly causing an estimated 10 percent of North American young women to report symptoms of eating disorders (which include fasting, skipping meals, excessive exercising, laxative abuse and self-induced vomiting).
You can point to the modelling agencies, but all they do is supply genetically ready culminations of what our culture says women aged fifteen or fifty should aspire to. The magazines? They are at the mercy of advertisers, themselves motivated by market demand for the ìinî look: young but sexually suggestive; beautiful but vapidly so; buxom but not too voluptuous; very thin but not skeletal. These almost contradictory dicta appear ridiculous, and yet, women everywhere give their eye teeth (literally, as broadcast with pathetic earnestness on the gruesome TV show The Swan) to attempt to live out these aesthetic fantasies.
The bad news (as if it could get any worse) is that this is no longer just a Western trend. Thanks to globalizing economies, the Asian market is booming for North American and European models; the images of the models represent a particularly potent version of the American dream. Some Asian women now go as far as surgery to modify the hooded appearance of their eyelids (a procedure called blepharoplasty) in favour of a more round, ìAmericanî eye.
And so, a distinct and beautiful human featureówhat surgeons know as ìthe upper eyelid creaseîóis disappearing under the pressure of creeping homogenization. More than ever, beauty has become disassociated from a womanís natural traits. If this were not the case, multi-million-dollar cosmetic dynasties would collapse and trekked-out anti-ageing products made with apparently magical ingredients could not be sold at a hundred bucks a piece. But this too is an old story. If you remember your mythology, two of the rewards Aphrodite bestowed on Adonis were eternal youth and a lifetime of ìerotic adoration.î
Long after I quit being a model, I found myself back in the industry, only this time at the administrative end of a Montreal agency. I stayed for three years, and I was not witness to any great tragedies or horrors. Instead, it was the small stuff that broke my heart. Karen was a beautiful girl who was clearly terrified in front of the camera: she stayed on as long as she could, hoping the ìproblemî would fix itself (it didnít). Robin, one of the top girls, was incredibly smart and grounded; she constantly travelled home to Montreal to keep her boyfriend happy, but she would just look so lonely when I picked her up at the airport. Another young model went to Milan and was sent home three days later because she couldnít stop weeping.
Am I asking too much to have you feel sorry for them? Is there no place in the lives of these girls for the beauty Keats called ìa joy foreverî or Thoreau described as ìa moral testî? To find it, you have to catch people at their most unselfconscious: au naturel, if you will. It is, in part, why we adore babies and children. A little girl will don pink shorts, lilac tights and saffron sweatshirt, sport balloon-festooned rubber boots and, no matter what you say, she will feel like a queen. This is worlds apart from the ways of the modelling trade and, for that matter, the hyper self-conscious culture of beauty. It also doesnít last long. That toddler will become a teenager who will be told to wax her legs, dye her hair, pluck her eyebrows, and make her eyelashes grow longer. That teen will turn into a woman who will be driven to minimize those fine lines, hold back the grey, keep her stomach flat, banish those dark circles, and revamp her nose.
There is some good news. Quebec magazine Coup de Pouce now includes full-sized women in their fashion pages. Ch‚telaine has pledged not to touch up photos and avoids using models under the age of twenty-five. And Dove, catering to the increasing backlash against omnipresent too-perfect faces in advertising, has put this issue front and centre in their recent Campaign for Real Beauty.
But we all have the power to fight back in small ways. I was once given this piece of advice: once youíre dressed and ready for the day, forget yourself. Just forget yourself.