I’m embarrassed to admit it, but after a year of modeling full-time, the mask has started to eat away at the face. What was once a part-time job to support myself through college, has now become a full-time identity, one that I am still trying to navigate. On some days, that is very difficult to do.
I really like my job. Photoshoots are often thrilling and even empowering. I get to travel to places I would otherwise never go, and do things I would otherwise never get to do (like climb naked on an elephant or ride horses on a beach at sunset). And I get paid to do them, which is awesome. All the great things about modeling, though, happen within this dominant structure of an industry that commodifies people, that treats models as beauty objects who don’t really have the right to a voice. Sure, models have ‘tons of personality,’ but it’s a prescribed, performed identity, the parameters of which are determined by art directors, agents, and photographers. The ideal model is happy, eager-to-please, comfortable with her body, energetic, and up for anything. She is never hungry, or tired, or on her period; she is never shy or uncomfortable–on or off camera.
There is enormous pressure to keep up this unrealistic appearance while modeling, and the combination of the two can be corrosive, because it forces models not only to tolerate, but to participate in, their own objectification. The question I keep coming back to is, in a job in which everyone treats me like an object, how can I not begin treating myself as one?
I understand, of course, that being an object is essential to the job. Models are visual tools that are used to sell products. From the moment a model gets scouted, or meets with agencies (and has her measurements taken), she is being sized up as a commodity. This isn’t a criticism; it’s simply the basic reality of the job, and I don’t really have a problem with it (the absurdity of measurements is another story). But, every so often, this fundamental part of modeling becomes skewed, or is pushed just a little bit out of my (increasingly permissive) comfort zone, and yet, I feel like I have no choice but to comply.
The most overt example of this super-objectification is shooting in public. Without the privacy of a closed set, I am forced to tolerate extremely uncomfortable situations in silence, or, depending on the atmosphere of the shoot, with a smile. Recently, for instance, I shot a bikini catalogue in Miami, and was told to pose on public streets in skimpy bikinis, while strangers stood around, cat-calling and making demeaning comments and taking photos with their iPhones. And I said nothing. I have a handful of excuses: We were on a tight schedule, I didn’t want to upset the designer, and I didn’t want to feel upset, either. But ultimately, I said nothing because it seemed like the easiest and most professional response, the one that fit the role of ideal model.
I also thought that I could just ignore the extremely uncomfortable situation, the way that women ignore catcalls on the street, but in a public photoshoot, the catcalling is not just a passing moment, but a sustained assault. The model stands silently in place, as if on display. The aggressors circle around, just far enough to stay out of the photographer’s lens, but close enough to say what they want, and make their comments heard, without consequence. Out of all my experiences in modeling, this is the absolute worst. It’s like the perverted version of being taunted in grade school, except that I’m not even allowed to defend myself. I feel humiliated and threatened at the same time. (Not to mention that I was practically naked on those Miami streets. Talk about feeling vulnerable). Despite my best efforts at remaining ‘professional’, it is impossible to ignore the verbal abuse, and I well up with silent anger and disgust, all the while trying to keep my composure because the camera is still flashing and I’m still supposed to be working. And, for some reason, no one on any production team has ever spoken up on my behalf. The naïve part of me wants to think that it’s because they know it’s pointless – people would still walk by and say whatever they please – but honestly, it’s probably that they just don’t really give a shit, because they don’t see the model as a human being either. By the end of that day (the first of three), I felt like an animal in the zoo. I went back to my hotel room that night feeling so feeble and powerless. It was as though the 12 hours of constant subjection had eroded any real sense of self.
I don’t shoot in very public places often, so those instances of harassment are infrequent. More common, though, are the subtle moments of feeling like an object, like having my body treated as a prop from head to toe; being touched, poked, prodded, rubbed, stripped, and handled, without my say or control. Again, this kind of treatment is fundamental to modeling and, at its basic level, isn’t really wrong. One wouldn’t see getting one’s hair or makeup done, or putting on clothes, as objectification. But these moments also get pushed to the extreme, even more so on a closed set where everyone is supposed to be acting professional, and where I am still playing the role of ideal, eager-to-please model. Indeed, I often only feel uncomfortable about it in hindsight, when I stop playing the role of model and realize the extent to which I’ve given up the right to my own body. In these cases, I don’t feel as much a powerless victim as I do a willing participant.
For the most part, I don’t mind being touched. It doesn’t bother me when the stylist adjusts my boobs, or reaches under my skirt to pull down my t-shirt, or accidentally pricks me with a clothespin. I get good reading done during the three hours of hair and makeup, though I can do without the iron burns, painfully tight topknots, and false eyelashes. Sometimes though, I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I’m being primped, and I’ll feel this jarring dislocation between self and body, this obvious awareness that my body is not mine to control. On a lingerie shoot in June, for instance, I found myself standing naked, except for a little beige thong, in front of two perpendicular, full-length mirrors, my limbs stretched out like a starfish, while the makeup artist and his assistant rubbed bronzer over every last inch of my exposed body. Everyone on set – the designers, the owner of the line, the crew guys, the caterers, the photographer and his assistants, and even the guy whose house we were using as our location – witnessed this. I looked at my doubled, distorted reflection in the mirrors, and saw the MUA rubbing my boobs (and smiled politely at his crude ‘I wish I was straight’ joke), and felt my entire body being worked over in this thick bronzing cream (his assistant was doing my legs, thighs, and butt), and felt completely dislocated from myself. I just turned off.
So far, ‘turning off’ has been the only way that I’ve dealt with these moments of powerlessness or lack of control. Instead of speaking up, I shut down, and let my mind go blank or wander away from the moment, in order to endure the strange requirements of my job. But it’s precisely my silence that makes me feel as though I have begun to treat myself as object. In letting other people treat me as a mannequin – to handle and deconstruct my body as though it doesn’t belong to me – and refraining from asserting myself in moments of discomfort (or even verbal harassment), I’ve really surrendered the capacity to have a voice.
I like to believe that if I was ever in real danger, I would defend myself. Luckily I haven’t been put in that position yet. In this industry, though, there’s no definitive line between good and bad behavior. There are so many uncomfortable shades of grey that come before the obvious examples of real threat, and in trying to navigate those degrees, I end up compromising my feeling of comfort. The intolerable becomes increasingly tolerable.
I keep thinking about this quote from The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing: “To console himself he sat by Maryrose and put his arm around her. Maryrose smiled good-humouredly, and remained in the circle of his arm, but as if she detached herself from him and every other man. Very many as it were professionally pretty girls have this gift of allowing themselves to be touched, kissed, held, as if this is a fee they have to pay to Providence for being born beautiful. There is a tolerant smile which goes with a submission to the hands of men, like a yawn or a patient sigh.” Lessing wryly calls this tolerance of being treated as an ornament a ‘gift,’ but it’s exactly this tolerance that has slowly started to weaken my sense of self, even after I leave the shoot.
I never wanted modeling to change me, but after a year of modeling full-time, I realize that it has. The job necessitates a performance, and in embodying that role of ideal model I ‘allow myself’ (as Lessing writes) to be treated as an object by my coworkers and superiors. Almost like a pull-string doll, complete with stock phrases (“no, I don’t mind” and “whatever you want,” and “sounds great!”), and energetic giggles. With every photoshoot and casting, this tolerance becomes more and more a part of my psyche. How long before it starts to affect other areas of my life? It’s funny, because I’m finally comfortable with telling people I’m a model, but it’s a double-edged admission. I’ve embraced what I do, but I’ve also embraced what the job forces me to do.