When I picked up the phone to call my agent in Italy, hopeful that he might have some ideas for promoting my new memoir, Beauty Disrupted, the last thing I expected was to be asked to return to the runway. I was convinced that my catwalk-days were long over. I was now an author. Just an author.
Or so I thought.
Synchronicity sometimes has a wonderful way of showing up .My agent’s out-of-the-blue suggestion that I do a runway show during Milan Fashion Week, I realized, could provide me with a wonderful opportunity to promote my memoir and one of its most essential underlying messages.
For the past decade I’ve been on a crusade to bring awareness to and stimulate some much needed conversation about the unfortunate, alarming and often dangerous discrimination related to body size. Staggering statistics suggest that the industry’s churning out of unrealistic images has a clear connection to the increasing number of girls and women (and more recently boys and men) developing eating disorders. And that’s something I’ve tried to be responsible for.
While on the runway at Denver International (the kind of runway I’m much more used to these days) As I skimmed through a Skymall, I began realizing that my modeling experience as well as my experience as a woman before and after modeling was in no way unique. Individuals on both sides of the industry, both sides of the lens, are constantly being held to unrealistic standards. Models or not, I suspect many young people are all yearning for the same thing: to have their voices heard and their inner beauty appreciated.
Once airborne, I pulled the shade down and tried to filter out the banter between the flight attendant and some nearby passenger receiving their drinks. I couldn’t believe it. There I was, en route to Italy, one of very few international journeys I’ve taken since having my two daughters, and about to participate in a fashion show again.
And that’s when it hit me: All the years of inner work I’ve done, and all the distance I’ve traveled away from the fashion world has led me to a place of balance.My sense of well-being is no longer dependent on outside approval. I’m finally free from the modeling industry’s unrealistic standards and ultimatums. I dozed off thinking that this freedom has come only after many years of intensive work and discipline. And—dare I say—by the wisdom only age can bring.
Once on the ground in Milan, I grabbed my carry-on and filed off the plane into a drizzly day at the Malpensa airport.
I found my driver and after a short car ride we arrived at Hotel Principe Di Savoia, a favorite haunt of mine from the modeling days of my youth. This time, however, I wouldn’t be modeling the standard couture sizes; I’d be representing Elena Miro, a “curvy” Italian clothing line, the one and only plus-size designer at Fashion Week.This real-sized line on runway would be a major victory for fashion. This I liked.
As the car rolled to a stop my stomach began to tighten. The conversation I had with my agent a month earlier kept playing in my head:
“David, are you sure they know I’m a size 8? Do they realize I’m a mom now?”
He assured me: “Yes, yes, and yes.”
I passed through the hotel’s grand entrance and was captivated by the buzz and bustle of the fashion-crowd. The vibrant energy in the room was in stark contrast to the drab day outside: young, lithe models checking in; swanky, Amazons dressed in head-to-toe black lounging in the open bar area; agents, stylists, designers and photographers, flitting from table to table.
A decade ago I would have been intimidated. But now, I’d grown so much, lived so much, done so much inner work. Surely I’d be able to keep any insecurity at bay. And then, without warning, a vaguely familiar thought arose: Do I belong here?
I pulled my bag through the crowd toward the elevator and reminded myself, I’m here to be me. All of me. But doubt is persistent and somewhere in the recesses of my mind questions continued to swirl: Is there room for a 43-year-old Mama on the catwalk? And then, Do I care if there isn’t?
I reminded myself that there should be no surprises. The clients knew who they were getting. Good thing too, since I now had absolutely no desire to whittle myself down to some unrealistic weight and size.
I made my way up to my room and collapsed onto the bed. Before drifting into a deep slumber, memories of my first international modeling job arose, as described in my memoir:
I was 18. A 10 hour red-eye flight in coach from New York to Paris. No rest. Nothing to eat. No shower. Handlers whisking me to the agency then straight to an endless photo shoot in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Times have changed. I set the alarm clock for 6 am, sent a “goodnight” text to my husband and girls and drifted off to sleep, thinking, Travel is much harder to handle at forty-three.
Good morning Milan!
I awoke before my alarm to discover the late evening rain had given way to a bright sunny morning. I motivated myself for a mind-clearing run before the Elena Miro fitting. Part of me was still nervous. Comfortable as I was with myself and as far as I’d come—professionally and personally—it felt like a great big moment of truth was approaching. I’ve never enjoyed being judged (who does?), and the first meeting with clients always seemed designed for exactly that purpose: cold, blatant judgment.
Half-way through my treadmill run, my mind cleared and I began to notice a recurring theme: Italians love their women. The billboards, window displays and magazine covers all seem to celebrate all variations of the female form. I stepped down from the treadmill feeling energized by not only the run, but also by the healthy mentality of the Italian people.
After meeting with the client–where to my great delight, I felt embraced rather than judged. I met with the seamstress who made some final adjustments to my wardrobe. While she worked, I talked with the other models and I kept thinking that these young, sweet and gorgeous models, all categorized as “plus size,” were in reality perfectly beautiful, normal-sized (8-12) women. I took a moment to focus on each and every one of them and somewhere deep inside I made a mental wish for each of them:
Know your worth ladies, know your value, know your beauty. Know yourself inside and out.
Next was a brief lunch break back at the hotel café. I ordered lunch (my favorite salade niçoise still on the menu after 10 years!), opened my laptop and sipped my espresso (a rare indulgence that I just couldn’t resist, being in Italia after all).
Once the waiter set my meal down, I hungrily dove in. After taking a few delicious bites, completely consumed by the pure pleasure of eating, I paused. It dawned on me that I was being watched. As I lifted my eyes to meet those of the other patrons—mostly young models and stylists—I realized I was one of the few people who was actually eating!
I almost laughed out loud then in the next heartbeat felt like crying because I knew their pressures–intimately. I vividly recalled the days, especially around show week, when food was simply forbidden, off the table, as it were. My diet then was simple: air and water.
Show day finally arrived and I faced it with a renewed energy that only a good night’s sleep can bring. My schedule was packed: hair and makeup, then Fashion Week and Italian press, final wardrobe touches and then—the moment I’d been anticipating with overwhelming ambivalence—the show.
Backstage, I was introduced to the team that would assist me through the rapid-fire demands of the job. The pace was just as fast as I remembered—a whirlwind of others fussing over every inch of my face, hair and wardrobe. Next came the most important part of the day and the central reason for my being here: the press line-up where I would finally get to promote my book and more importantly its message.
I found the press-experience gratifying, mostly because of the Italian reporters’ inherent appreciation for women. In general, the Italians embrace their bodies, their curves, their breasts and their derrières. They love big women, little women, narrow women, round women, old women, young women–the press response reinforced what I realized earlier: Italians truly love their women!
As the press snapped away I was able to speak openly about my concerns within the industry and offer certain solutions which I feel must be implemented. My message was welcomed with joy, agreement and acceptance. There were head nods, smiles, and exploratory follow-up questions as we all acknowledged that the fact that a “plus size” group of models about to walk the Fashion Week runway was a testament to the healthy, forward-thinking of the Italian community.
Music began to thump–everyone’s cue that the show was about to start. So as the press filed out I dropped in line behind the rest of the models. Stakes felt high. I was there to “close” the show which meant I would be walking the catwalk alone. As the line moved forward I realized I hadn’t had a moment to be nervous and then without warning, the stylist pushed me out into the lights.
The air was electric. A million flashbulbs went off in front of me. I took a deep breath and then something amazing happened–a beautiful calm washed over me. Several thoughts became crystal clear: I’m not the youngest model here. . .I’m not the tallest model here. . .And I’m certainly not the thinnest…But I may very well be the happiest!
With each step, the lights, the music and the echoing applause slowly fell away and a calm nurturing mantra arose:
All that I am. . .all that I am. . .I acknowledge all that I am.
There I was, back on the catwalk but now for a very specific purpose: to transform the experience into a symbol of how far I’d come and the new direction I was heading.
I’m now a mother. A wife. An author. An activist. I am someone who nurtures not just my family, but others who need to be uplifted and inspired. I’m here to build people up, not break them down. I am, quite simply, on a mission. I turned again and the Elena Miro ladies followed me down the catwalk to give the crowd one last look. Here we are world, I thought.
We’re moms, daughters, big, small, young, old, and we are beautiful.
A few facts about eating disorders:
In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.
Four out of five U.S. women are dissatisfied with their appearance.
42% of girls in first through third grades state they want to be thinner and 81% of ten year old girls are afraid of being fat.
Two out of five women and one out of five men would trade three to five years of their life to achieve their weight goals.
A study found that adolescent girls were more fearful of gaining weight, than getting cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents.
Over one half of normal weight white, adolescent girls consider themselves fat.
Following the viewing of images of female fashion models, seven out of ten women felt more depressed and angrier than prior to viewing the images.
In 1950, mannequins closely resembled the average measurements of women. The average hip measurement of mannequins and women were 34 inches. By 1990 the average hip measurement was 37 inches, while the average mannequins hip measured only 31 inches.
If today’s mannequins were actual human women, based on their theoretical body fat percentages they would have probably ceased to menstruate.
The average U.S. woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 pounds. In contrast the average U.S. model who is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds.
(courtesy of www.nationaleatingdisorders.org)
Editor: Kate Bartolotta
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