August 5, 2015

Buying Into the Beauty Ideal

If tomorrow women woke up and decided they really like their bodies, just think of how many industries would go out of business. - Dr. Gail Dines. anotsomodellife.com

About a year ago I called it quits. I called it quits on having to maintain long hair. I called it quits on dieting and exercising to the point of unhappiness. I called it quits on listening to what everybody else wanted my body to look like. In a rash mood one day I made an appointment with a hairstylist and chopped off my hair. I didn't even ask my modeling agency, because I knew they would tell me not to (honestly a big no no, and not something I would recommend). I started working out more than ever, but while also eating enough to gain muscle and body mass. I just needed to make some changes, and in the process I felt like a new person, a revived person. I felt like I was finally having a chance to move onto a new phase in my life. Then, without warning, my modeling agency in Los Angeles dumped me.

I was shocked, to say the least. I had worked with this agency for years. In fact, I had just been in their office the day before - and not a hint was dropped to me that they were unhappy. Just like that, out of the blue, my working relationship with them was over.

Maybe I should have been upset - but honestly, I wasn't. The agency had a roster of super thin fashion models, and frankly, I just couldn't force myself to fit in anymore. I had been feeling so much pressure to blend in there, and it had really been wearing me down. Plus, being just another skinny girl with long hair wasn't working for me professionally either. Gorgeous "ideal" models are a dime a dozen in Los Angeles. I was trying to fit into the framework, and only coming up 2nd best. 2nd best doesn't book the job. I wasn't the tallest, I wasn't the tannest, I wasn't the youngest, and I wasn't the skinniest. Being a second rate version of somebody else was leading to career failure - yet that's what the agency wanted.

When I chopped my hair off I had made a decision to risk my fashion career for my internal happiness. I wanted to be ME in every sense of the word. I guess I had to live with the consequences. I didn't blame the agency really. They have a business of promoting lanky, long-haired, eternally youthful fashion models. That's what their specific clients want. And I had pretty much openly declared that that wasn't me anymore, and I wasn't going to fake it anymore either, or ask for permission to be myself.

The truth is I had wanted to grow into being more than just a fashion model for quite some time. I knew there was a deeper part of who I was that I wanted to share with the world. Yet modeling and working out and dealing with body hair consumed most of my time (seriously, hair is a huge nemesis for a model! You wouldn't believe it). I had been feeling trapped, and chopping off my hair felt like my way of finally lashing out against everything that I thought limited the definition of who I was.

The dismissal email from the agency was timely in a very strange way. I had finally worked up my courage and signed up to audit a master class at Anthony Meindl's Actor Workshop. The idea of acting has lured and terrified me my entire life. Yet at this particular time in my life I was dead-set on finally letting my dreams speak louder than my fears. I was about to walk inside the acting studio for the class audit when the email informing me I was being dropped from my agency arrived in my inbox.

It's hard to describe the amount of conflicting thoughts and feelings that flooded over me in that moment. In the end only one thought really stuck though. I heard my heart speaking to me, and I thought - "This can't just be a coincidence." I felt like the timing of that email was a sign from the universe - a huge affirmation that I was moving in the right direction. I decided that the universe was relieving me of a situation that had made me unhappy for so long, allowing me to focus on this new endeavor. Everything was pointing towards letting go of the past and moving forward in a new direction. While being let go from the agency still stung and left me reeling, it actually felt like a relief too.

I've kept up with acting since that day, and it's hard to believe I'm nearing my one year mark at my acting school. It has been an emotional and wild ride. After some time I found some new modeling agencies to work with that are more accepting of my authentic self - and with that I have found a lot more joy in my career. I have a lot more peace with my life, and I feel like the path I'm on is finally the authentic journey I had been craving for so long.

All this leads me to some big questions, though. Questions about women's self-worth, and the beauty industry I've worked in so long, and where we all have to draw the line between what messages society presents to us and what we choose to internalize. And further, what social responsibility models have to follow their own health and happiness.

The cosmetics industry grosses billions of dollars every year by telling women that we, as ourselves, are not good enough. How we view ourselves is ultimately a choice, yet it is undeniably difficult to push away so many images and messages that tell us that our particular type of beauty isn't the type of beauty that's appreciated in the world. Yes, even models deal with the same defining limitations. Advertisements proclaim fat is the enemy, perfect skin means you're worth it, and that successful men will take care of you and give you a family if you can just manage to look flawless, put-together, and be half their age. Ladies, give yourself a little compassion for feeling down on yourselves. You are fighting a tide of negative and unachievable messages of what it means to live a happy life. I know far too well, because I have played a part in those messages for years.

We are so much more than our outer appearance. Even as a professional model I realize and struggle with that reality. Maybe even more so than most. I had to make a very personal decision along my journey to simply be me. That decision has undeniably affected my career in some ways. I never did get my breasts augmented, so that canceled out lingerie or swimwear work. As I get older I work more in the commercial and lifestyle realms. And after cutting my hair I get sent out less on castings for jobs that seek a more traditional form of ideal beauty. That's just the way it is.

At this point in my life I accept and rejoice in who I am. There was, however, a long period of time where I didn't allow myself to let certain aspects of my modeling career go, despite some natural changes in my body as I got older. I fought hard to be something I wasn't anymore - the younger, thinner version of myself. It was a struggle that really didn't make me happy… and I know a lot of other models face that same daunting experience. When the career you've worked so hard to build hangs in the balance, physical change is an incredibly hard thing to come to terms with.

What makes a models' experience with personal change even more convoluted is the fact that the decisions that go with those changes ultimately affect more than the just model. Every time a model makes herself unhappy or unhealthy to achieve that ideal form of beauty, she is also letting down the thousands or millions of women who see her images and believe that what she represents should be attainable. When a model asks herself "is it worth it" to book a job, she is ultimately deciding not only what her own self-worth is, but also projecting what the self-worth of all women should be. That's a heavy weight to carry. Yet that is the power of being a model in today's media-rich society.

I wonder what would happen to the fashion and cosmetics industry if more models channeled their energy into a more authentic approach to beauty, rather than trying to fit into the "ideal." Consumers are starting to put pressures on designers and magazines to cast a wider range of beauty types - ethnic, plus size, or older models. Yet that pressure can only go so far when dollar signs are sending the opposite message. It's a cycle that seems to never end. I hope that one day women will finally be ready to declare that they are enough, just as they are. I hope more models get stubborn about making sure personal happiness is a part of pursuing their dreams. And I hope women start spending their money in a way that is more aligned with self love. I feel like models have such a unique and clear view of just how screwed up it is to buy into the beauty ideal. I think it's time they start to open up about it.

Xo,
Ellen


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