Fuck the modelling industry for real

Jenna Owen was an actor/model, and not the other way around

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Art by Brigitte Samaha 

From ages 15 to 19, I am a model. I am scouted by two well-meaning jewellery designers, who tell me I have wonderful cheekbones and a very interesting white streak in my hair. They say Lagerfeld would adore me, and, because I do not know who that is, they say I am very authentic.

But I am the very opposite of authentic. At 15 years old, I am the target market of General Pants and I am thrilled by that prestige, thank you very much. The outfit I am wearing when signing with Chadwick Model Management Sydney is entirely maroon because maroon is very fashionable in 2010. I am so young that I am still embarrassed to be seen with my mother in public. I am so young that I beg my mum to let me go to Panic! At the Disco at Acer Arena. She says yes, provided a responsible adult picks me up. I am so young, that I never investigate the word ‘feminist’. If you had asked me what I thought about feminism then, in the peak of my boisterous insecurity, I would have said something like, ‘I get along better with boys’ and then ordered a traveller’s pie from the canteen.

I was a model before I was a feminist. Now, I believe in heaps of stuff – Media Watch, medjool dates, big dogs with nice faces – but I don’t believe you can be both a model and a feminist.

To be clear, when I talk about the modelling/feminism cancellation phenomena, I am talking about the industry – the high fashion industry and some of the tiers below it. I am not talking about the hundreds of amazing zines for women that are circulating now. They are not about fulfilling the paedophilic, pre-pubescent fantasies of men. They are made by women, for women.

Modelling is not something I usually talk about because it is the most shameful thing I have ever done. I have expressed that exact sentiment to people who have called me a backdoor bragger. I promise you, I have a whole back veranda where I like to soak in the glory of my achievements. I will raise a glass to literally everything but I will not raise it to the modelling industry. Being sent away by a Paddington Boutique for ‘having a large waist and bad legs’ is not a cute and cheeky brag. Missing Year 10 Geography and catching the train to Woolloomooloo to be told I’m ‘only strong in the face’ isn’t a brag. It’s a shame.

I am now 21, surfing the third wave and life’s a beach. I love choice and I love being left alone for my choices. The harder thing to reconcile, right now, at the very height of my ‘nouveau’ feminist euphoria, is the impact of my choices.

I have come to terms with these impacts over the last few months. I have only recently formed this idea about choices, or more specifically, choices about appearance. Here it is.

Often, the choices you make about your appearance are about you and do not actively harm anyone, except maybe the egos of sad-n-angry right-wing guys who watch really dark porn. Then, there are choices that you can make about your appearance that impact other people – other women if I’m specific. An example of the latter is participation in the modelling industry. Another is spending your time editing models, male and female, to fit a fucked-up mould, one made by rich and invisible people well outside it. Again, these people probably watch really dark porn.

If you are a model in the industry, you are either actively harming yourself (‘You’re only strong in the face’) or you are very good at stifling your compassion for the women next to you in castings, who are starving themselves but definitely not admitting that, thinking-about-smoking-because-that-definitely-helps, hoping for a job soon because 19 is too old to make it, but staying strong because Lagerfield would adore them – ‘I’m very authentic’.

Very admirable, ‘naturally thin girl’, that you have never personally experienced degradation in the industry. You are lying, and worse, you are shutting your eyes and blocking your ears because you are booking jobs at the moment. It is convenient, at this point, to ignore the abuse around you. Modelling is actually a really great guy once you get to know him. Wake up. You can’t be a feminist if you don’t have empathy for the other women sitting right next to you. You can’t be a feminist when you hand over your images to a male photographer, who wears all black with white shoes, and who never bothers to learn your name but wastes no time in asking you to suck in as you lean against the chair, to raise your chin because at the moment it looks like you have more than one and lets take five while you get your shit together because lord knows that two chins don’t sell Lee Jeans.

Being a model forces you to mould yourself into a little white ethereal box, hand over your body, completely disregard your mind  (you will not be talking, you will just be wearing this underwear made from metal), and then wait for this image of yourself to blast into the world, not immediately, but in six weeks’ time, when the editing finally fixes your not-so-strong mid section. Young girls see this shit. All women see this shit. It hurts them and you don’t give a fuck and I would know.

As it happens, thanks to an eating disorder of two years, I have been on both sides of the fence. I can tell you that the whole ‘some girls are natural thin’ and ‘the industry won’t book girls who are unwell’ might hold up in a court case where the fashion industry has a lawyer paid in coke and gold bricks, but it doesn’t really hold up with any experience of reality.

Some of the Victoria Secret Models came out recently and said ‘skimpy lingerie’ didn’t mean they weren’t feminists. I would say, that’s got literally nothing to do with it. It has ZERO relevance. What is relevant is, that if you are in the modelling world, your priority is not giving a fuck about the daily degradation of women. You tell yourself that you don’t feel manipulated, or otherwise exploited. You are so young or so rich and you are not a feminist. Not yet. I actually like wearing a bra, but watch me burn the images of me in magazines where you can see me bearing slightest resemblance to myself. It took me a while but now I’m here.