I’ve been a plus-size model for local Chicago clothing designers for over a year now. I’ve gone on midnight photo shoots with nothing but a cocktail dress against the freezing cold, as well as teetering around on ice-pick heels in the Botanical Gardens.
Never in a million years did I think I would actually be a model.
Even saying it now, here, makes me uncomfortable. When I explain to strangers that I am an English tutor who does part-time modeling, I feel obligated to explain that it’s plus-size modeling, that I know I’m not skinny, that it’s not real modeling… like I have to make excuses and give explanations.
Here I am, almost 25 years old, and still struggling with issues from my childhood. So when the opportunity came to model, I seized it. I thought I’d feel different. I hoped being a model would somehow transform how I saw myself. Instead, it makes you acutely aware of your own body, how it looks on and off camera, how much make-up makes a difference, etc.
It wasn’t until my first (and only!) runway show that I started to understand these things about modeling. Not only did I discover that I wholeheartedly hate doing runway, but that I needed to reconsider modeling all together. To be a high fashion model you have to be willing to dedicate your entire life—your body, your energy, your attitude, everything, to being a model. When you’re surrounded by people backstage who are clothing you, putting bronzer on your legs, telling you what to do with your face—your body does not feel like your own. You get no say in what you wear, how you walk, what your expression is, how your hair looks.
You have to walk down the catwalk as someone else. You give up your physical form to the artistic whims of others. They can arbitrarily select you or reject you. I’ve been lucky enough to work with compassionate, wonderful designers, who genuinely enjoy the curvy female form. But it won’t always be that way.
Don’t get me wrong, doing photo shoots are fun. I’ve always nurtured a flair for the dramatic, and putting on a wardrobe and make-up, creating a moment that is captured on film, is wonderful to me. I’ve amassed a good amount of lovely pictures, and having those to look at on a low self-esteem day is very helpful. But it doesn’t shake that deep down, super ingrained insecurity that has plagued me since childhood.
When I was growing up, the constant comparison to my older sister always left me feeling inadequate. She was the petite Snow White who fought off the attentions of the opposite sex, and I grew awkwardly into a gangly tomboy, mostly looking all teeth, eyebrows and hips. It wasn’t until college that my body saw fit to level itself into an even—and surprisingly pleasing—playing field. But my childhood insecurities came back to me when I stepped on that runway.
It was a few weeks after the runway show when I experienced a moment that allowed me to see that modeling wasn’t worth my while.
I was walking down the sidewalk on my way home from work. The sun was high, and spring was in full riot. I was rested, feeling comfortable in my clothes and listening to a great set list on my iPod. I was in a happy place and enjoying the sunshine. Then my hips started swaying to the music, and I unconsciously began to catwalk down the sidewalk. I literally stopped traffic that day. Drivers slowed down as I walked by—several of them honking their horns and hollering out of windows. A few simply stopped their cars to watch me. I wasn’t wearing make-up or designer clothes, but people were still reacting like I was Venus incarnate. It wasn’t that I looked like a model. It was that I was simply enjoying myself.
More importantly, other people’s reactions didn’t really matter as much to me as the fact that I felt beautiful.
Since that wonderful afternoon on the sidewalk I have basically decided to stop pursuing modeling with any real vigor. I still adore the designers I’ve worked for and will continue to do photo shoots, but I don’t want to give my body away anymore. I can’t arbitrarily select or reject the only body I’ve got. I cannot base my self-worth on the opinions of others. Instead of dedicating my energy to becoming someone else’s ideal, I will continue to nurture my own talents and take better care of the body I was given.
This is, of course, an on-going struggle.
There are days I feel like I’m waging a nuclear war with my head. Overcoming body dysmorphia and eating disorders is not pretty or easy, and I’ve suffered from both. But plus-size models like Crystal Renn and actresses like Christina Hendricks are my role models. These women make me feel beautiful and continually inspire me. They carry the burden of the public eye with grace, and hopefully they will continue to usher in an era of healthy bodies.
Life is a catwalk for these gorgeous women, and it can be for all of us. Every day we walk, we can talk and wear what we think and believe. We can treat ourselves the way we think we deserve to be treated. So, why not behave like a supermodel every day? Why not swing our hips to music only we can hear and insist on the better brand of bottled water? (Okay, getting snarky about water isn’t such a great idea, but you get the idea.)
Poster, movies, advertisements… these are momentary images designed to manipulate us. The relationship we have with ourselves lasts a lifetime.
I can throw away a magazine, but I cannot throw away the woman I see every day in the mirror.
Raised in the Wild West, COURTNEY BUTLER went to college in North Carolina and graduate school in and now lives in the Windy City. She is currently working as an English tutor, but hopes to go to cosmetology school and write sneaky short stories and poems about her clientele. Her poetry and thoughts can be found at The Courtrose and is hoping to make enough money writing and doing highlights that she can afford her own cat and cello.