health

"I tried almost everything to stay thin." The truth about the toxic modelling industry.

Over the weekend, I was sitting at a cafe, when suddenly I became acutely aware of a conversation taking place behind me.

“She’s so skinny, she looks so good,” one girl said.

“I’m obsessed with how thick her hair is, it looks so good in this picture,” the other replied.

“She’s actually perfect,” the first girl remarked.

I was struck by their tone before their words even registered. The way in which ‘skinny’ rolled off the tongue with an equal level of admiration and disdain. The seriousness with which they were approaching what appeared to be an Instagram profile.  The levels of analysis that were going into the thickness of a two dimensional woman’s hair.

You don’t need to love your body. Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss the argument for ‘body neutrality’ on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below. 

I felt this overwhelming desire – not to condemn them – but to sincerely apologise.

“I’m really sorry,” I could hear myself saying.

“I’m sorry you’re having this conversation. I’m sorry this is what you’ve been taught to value. I’m sorry you feel like sh*t about your legs and your hair and your stomach. And I’m sorry because I can remember exactly how this feels.”

When I turned around to look at them, the girls huddled over an iPhone would have been about 14 years old.

That’s the same age Kim Wainscoat was when she entered the modelling industry, nine years ago.

The same age many of us might get our first period. Or have our first ‘official’ boyfriend. Or learned – for the first time – how to properly hate ourselves.

Kim Wainscoat. Image via Callezione Bridal Couture.
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Could there possibly be a better time to take part in a system that objectifies and commodifies the female body? Where your beauty and weight doesn't just determine your self worth, but also the money in your bank account?

It's a lethal recipe, not least of all because it's enticing.

"I tried almost everything in the books to stay thin," Wainscoat told Mamamia. For the next seven years she said, "my body was constantly going up and down in weight. I felt this intense pressure to maintain a body that wanted to change and mature that I never naturally had from the start."

The insecurities, and the issues with eating predated the modelling, Wainscoat explains. Of course, it's not just models who feel that they're 'too fat'. But it doesn't help being told "you're too fat for fashion week," or, "you need to work on those hips," as Wainscoat was.

The lengths models go to to fit sample clothing is largely kept silent. There are rumours of women eating tissues, or living on diet coke and cigarettes. Although Wainscoat hasn't seen either, she said she also wouldn't be surprised. It is acceptable, however, to be going to the gym once a day while keeping a close eye on every meal - and these are women who already classify as underweight. If the training and diet regimen of models was shared with people outside the industry, Wainscoat says we'd be blown away.

Kim Wainscoat. Image supplied.

It got to the point, at 21 years old, where Wainscoat felt like she was, "promoting the image that got me into the body image issues in the first place."

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It felt like hypocrisy.

On last Sunday night's episode of 60 Minutes, former model Victoire Macon Dauxerre spoke candidly about the industry that nearly killed her.

Dubbed the "next Claudia Schiffer" Dauxerre was 5 ft 10 and weighed 58 kilograms, categorising her as underweight according to BMI.

Although she was never explicitly told to "lose weight", she was required to fit specific measurements which were two dress sizes smaller than her current frame. Wainscoat echoes the same sentiment; "if you don't meet the standards you won't get the job." And the 'standards', it would seem, are not conducive with a healthy human female body.

Kim Wainscoat. Image supplied.

Dauxerre told Tara Brown, "I actually literally stopped eating... I ate three apples a day. I had osteoporosis, a skeleton of a 70-year-old woman. I lost my hair, some girls actually lose their teeth. You don’t have menstruations anymore. Some of my friends can’t have babies now." She also described taking laxatives and undergoing enemas in order to drastically reduce her weight.

Eight months later, in the depths of anorexia, Dauxerre attempted to take her own life.

But co-founder of Premier Model Management, Carole White, tells a different story.

According to White, models like Wainscoat and Dauxerre are not unwell or under pressure to be 'too' thin.

"We're looking for a girl who's lanky and skinny, because that's really what the designers want."

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White insists that "most" of her models regularly indulge in "rubbish" and "Big Macs," and the average model simply has a "high metabolism."

Victoire Macon Dauxerre. Image via Channel 9.

It's worth noting, of course, that eating a Big Mac, and living with a life threatening eating disorder, are not at all mutually exclusive.

"I would say, before everyone starts hammering these girls, we need to have scientific facts that models cause eating disorders, because I don't believe it," she continued. "No one is doing any proper research."

Except, of course, that they are.

Research published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders only months ago, confirmed that "unhealthy weight-control practices" are unequivocally a problem in the modelling industry, and that "often models are jeopardising their health and safety as a prerequisite for employment."

Over 62 per cent of the models surveyed said that they had been asked to lose weight or change their shape or size by someone within their industry. Most of these are women who are already considered underweight according to World Health Organisation standards. More than half of the respondents were told that if they didn't lose weight, they'd be unable to find a job. Nearly a quarter were threatened that if they didn't lose weight, their agency would no longer represent them, and one in 10 had been recommended plastic surgery.

If that research isn't sufficient, I spoke to Paula Kotowicz, a counsellor who specialises in eating disorders, disordered eating and body image issues, and asked if she found in her practice that the modelling industry lends itself to mental illness.

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When less is more, strapless is everything.

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Kotowicz said that there needs to be several place in place for the likelihood of an eating disorder to develop. They include; genetics or predisposition to an eating disorder, personality traits (anxiousness, perfectionism, approval seeking etc.), the individual's own self perception (self-worth, self-compassion etc), the extent to which the individual buys in to cultural messages and finally an environmental trigger (trauma, a comment made etc.)

Interestingly, examples often used for environmental triggers are ballet school or participation in the modelling industry.

"Often young women who are attracted to the modelling world are very self-aware/conscious of their bodies and may experience a poor self-perception, as well as possessing many of the personality traits as described," Korowicz explained.

"You can see how someone with poor body image but with a very developed sense of perfectionism, approval seeking and rigid thinking, could quite easily diet themselves into anorexia nervosa, simply because they are trying to please those in authority at the agency. The intense pressure to lose weight may become the trauma itself, as well as the environmental trigger."

In response to White's comment that they simply want "skinny, lanky girls," and it's up to each individual model, Korowica agrees, but says that while the pressure may not be overt - it is still there. And it's extremely intense.

Carol White. Image via Channel 9.

"I think that the modelling industry needs to take a good hard look at themselves," Korowicz said.

"The very audience that they aim to reach has long been critical of the need for greater size and shape representation and diversity and still they continue to dismiss this ever-growing chorus. It seems insane to take a girl who is clearly very beautiful on the day she is ‘discovered’, only to insist that she shed a great deal of weight which will invariably completely alter the very looks that made her stand out in the first place.

"Extreme weight loss and low weight, tends to result in people looking very similar. It's a ridiculous process… And who is this for? It seems to be for the masochistic pleasure of the agencies themselves because the consumer seems to be pretty jack of the whole absurdly underweight model wearing the upcoming seasons latest couture thing.

"The entire industry seems to be based on the largely false illusion of perfection and false reality."

But the underweight model phenomenon extends well beyond the catwalk. As Wainscoat highlights, it's not enough to just blame the designers. "I feel like everyone is just trying to cater to what we think we want to see," she said. "We all in some way are contributing to this 'ideal' body type... down to little things for example liking a photo on Instagram that shows a size six girl in a bikini."

As tempting as it might be to blame White - who argues that it is not at all inhumane to demand a woman be a size zero given she, "has a mind of her own," - it's also worth exploring our own complicity.

What we 'like', what we buy and what we internalise contributes to an industry that hurts women.

Kirstie Clements, former Editor in Chief of Vogue, famously said that, "We've had couture dresses arrive from Europe that are so minuscule they resemble christening robes," and the models as well as the agency, have their hands tied.

The first step, as always, is admitting you have a problem. And, unequivocally, the modelling industry does. At this point, that's not up for discussion.

The one thing we all seem to agree on is that the quintessential model figure isn't something to aspire to. know that. You probably know that. Wainscoat knows that, and although it nearly killed her, Dauxerre now knows that. As disparate as their professions are, both White and Kotowicz know that.

So who doesn't know that?

The 14-year-old girls sitting at a cafe on a Saturday morning, scrolling through Instagram, before flicking through a magazine, on their way to a shopping centre covered wall to ceiling with images of women who, the research overwhelmingly suggests, are sick.

This is about the women who choose to enter the modelling industry, but it's also about the women who don't.

In 2017, the proportions of the average model are no longer acceptable. They're absurd and they're embarrassing.

If for no one else, we owe it to our 14-year-old selves.

Kim Wainscoat is now a full time cook and self-professed foodie. You can follow her on Instagram @kimlikesfood or on Facebook, here

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