Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Another Round of Writing About Modelling

Last September I went to a model casting. It was my first in years. For various reasons I’d taken the decision to leave my second modeling agency two months prior, and had, at least for a little while, assumed I wouldn’t be having much to do with that particular side of fashion.

Then I got an email asking whether I might attend a casting for a show at LFW. I shot one back explaining that I wasn’t sample size, but would happily come along. That was fine, they said. They were looking to cast a diverse array of women.

Spoiler: they weren’t. At least not when it came to body types. At least not when it came to anything above a size 8-10.

When I was eventually ushered into the room to try on various garments, I realised I’d made a mistake. The clothes were stunningly beautiful, but some didn’t even do up on me - while others that I could just about wriggle into obviously didn't suit, given the way the fabric was straining at the hips. When I came out in the first outfit, I knew I’d been rendered invisible – no longer of interest as everyone’s eyes slid over me in the direction of the next potential model.

I re-dressed, said “thank you,” grabbed my bag, and had a quick cry in the toilets before I left the building.  

The main moral of the story here is that I probably would have made a dreadful full-time model. Castings are, by their nature, impersonally brutal: a process of continually vying with others, not to mention being assessed on plenty of factors and aesthetic decisions entirely beyond one’s own control. In this instance my look – whether or not that involved my body shape - wasn’t what the team wanted. And that’s just the way it was.

The other, obviously linked, moral is that I’m no longer really used to feeling invisible, or existing in professional spaces where the surface is the only thing that matters. Spending most of my time as a writer, it was somewhat jarring to be flung back into a world where my ability to string a sentence together didn’t matter a jot.

Back at home after that casting I scrolled through my Instagram and did something I hadn’t done in ages: bombarding myself with image after image of actors, models, singers, influencers, and online ‘it’ girls. All slender. All outwardly successful. My brain immediately switched back into that tiresome, screeching register so many are familiar with: exercise more, eat less, whittle down the amount of space I take up, and then oh then oh then….

Luckily, I quickly shook it away – and went for a bracing outdoor swim. But as with every (now rather rare) time my head takes a nosedive back into the realms of you’re-not-enough-as-you-are, I surfaced feeling frustrated. Not so much for myself – other than the obvious initial bruising of ego – but, once again, at all the ways the fashion industry seems to spend more time making women feel less than, rather than uplifted, by the ways they are represented and catered to.

In amongst that little round of self-destructive scrolling, one thing had helped. I’d finished by looking at Charli Howard’s account, taking solace in seeing a body that wasn’t all taut angles. A body with stretch marks. One that functioned, and was gorgeous, and SHOULDN’T IN ANY WAY be considered radical, given that it still fits all sorts of normative ideals, but did feel important to see that particular day.

I remembered this recently when I finished reading Charli’s book Misfit: a frank, moving, often darkly funny account of mental health, modelling, and her decade’s struggle with eating disorders. Our experiences in fashion are very, very different. All I’ve ever really had from agencies is indifference, rather than the truly atrocious comments and expectations she dealt with. But I still recognised the world she described. One that claims to peddle fantasy, yet continues to make plenty of people feel pretty shit.

Charli also makes some important points about fashion’s frustrating categorisation of body types. It’s not even worth going into the clusterfuck of implications found in those loaded words ‘plus’ and ‘sample’, because that’s a whole other piece, but, like her, I also want to see more women who exist  somewhere between those two weirdly rigid points. As Charli points out here (and I wrote about a few years back), those of us who are a size 10-12 still linger rather awkwardly in the middle.


Modelling is a very complicated thing to talk about, not least because I’ve recently begun to question this strange, continued need I seem to have to visit and revisit my experiences in writing. It’s been an ongoing topic over the last five years: from initial reflections aged seventeen for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, through to an essay for Buzzfeed last summer wrangling with the consequences of having been celebrated for my looks long before I’d developed an adult body shape, let alone a clear sense of self.

Along the way I’ve talked numerous times – in articles, in my book, in interviews – about the need for ever more plurality when it comes to size, skin colour, age, and physicality (on a related note, I recently re-watched Sinéad Burke’s brilliant TED talk on navigating the world as a little person, and how design should cater for everyone – it’s brilliant. Go watch it.) I’ve also tried, where I can, to shout about all of the brilliant campaigns, individuals and designers who are doing fucking fabulous, exciting, goal-post changing things - and producing wonderful imagery in the process. 

So why am I here, writing about it again? Is it just the ultimate form of narcissism – a near half-decade’s worth of quite articulate frustration at this industry because I’m still aggrieved that it never properly wanted me? (Even if, as with the ‘cool girls’ group at secondary school, I didn’t really want to be a part of it anyway…) A way of making sense of things in words? Just Good Content for a Blog Post?

Maybe this time round it’s because I’ve been thinking again about how deciding to leave my model agency – shifting from being able to describe myself as ‘a model’ (noun) to being someone who ‘occasionally models’ (verb) – felt like another chapter in that exploration. A pretty crucial one.

It took a few months, and that strange casting, to realise that doing so really had clicked a switch. It meant I’d stopped feeling – at a very low, almost indiscernible level - apologetic and inadequate and weirdly convinced that the work, and crucially, the money (hey guys! Guess what? Writing really isn’t that lucrative! But I’m working on it!) would just start rolling in if I stopped eating bread, started doing squats, and spent more time talking to hollow people at hollow parties. Actively removing myself from that was a relief. It meant I no longer checked my emails continually, wondering whether I was ever going to get another shoot, and berating myself as though this were somehow my fault.

Underneath all that though, I have to be honest. I think I carry on writing about modelling because I still love it - not to mention plenty of the more fantastic aspects of fashion. There are days when there’s nothing I’d like to be doing more than wearing outrageous clothes and a face full of make-up, or flitting around the Scottish coast in a series of brightly coloured gowns, or enjoying knowing how to work the right angle for a studio portrait. Maybe it’s just a classic case of grass being greener (it's especially seductive imagining the heady power of transformation when I’m still here, in my dressing gown, bashing out sentences on a laptop). But it’s a skill I continue to value. One I’ve often relished developing over the near last decade.

This shoot for Pippa Small Jewellery above seems the perfect example of that. It’s one of my favourite modelling jobs ever: a week last August in a painted caravan in the woods, each day spent disporting myself around stone circles, hilltops, lakes, and orchards, draped in a rainbow array of jewels (and very little clothing). Along the way there were wild ponies, an owl, and a domed dacha that I’ve been dreaming about living in ever since.

It was wonderful not only because of the setting - my beloved Shropshire hills! -  but also for the glorious sense of creative collaboration. I’ve worked with my friend Susannah Baker-Smith on various shoots before, and her photos of me are ones I’ll always treasure. In this instance, there was a particular kind of alchemy between the place, the jewellery (Pippa is a genius with stones, and I was often reluctant to relinquish my decadent strings of crystals), and the work taking place both in front of and behind the camera.

We were a small team of three - me, Susannah, and the lovely India from Pippa Small – dashing out of the car between rain squalls, or finding the best patches of light among the trees for me to sprawl in. It was a tiring week, but one that felt good for being tiring. The fact that I then got to write poems for the catalogue (see here and here) was the cherry on top of a deeply joyful job.

Looking back at these photos, I also like the fact that in every one I’m fully inhabiting my body: actively and inventively (such a lot of strictly held contortion for ‘natural’ looking poses, not to mention having to pretend the weather was easy and breezy rather than liable to cause dramatic shivering!) Here I am: windswept, sun-lit, glittering with jewels, and fully visible.

The stunningly talented Susannah's work is also currently being exhibited at Festival Circulations. If you're in Paris, definitely pop along - and see if you can spot my spinal surgery scar making a cameo.. 
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