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The Model - Body Image

An anonymous model reconciles working out in the industry

In the second of a four-part series, The Model reflects on the surreality and monotony of getting into shape for the fashion world


A meander through a pretty-people purgatory, The Model is a four-part series of pieces written by an anonymous ex-male model. Over the coming weeks, installments will explore social media, body image, and what it’s like chasing success in an industry always hungrily in pursuit of the new. Stay tuned.

There were two treadmills on the fourth floor of the apartment building I stayed in in New York. They were in a side room off a common area that had a computer and a printer that never had any paper. That room constituted the building’s gym. The ceiling was low enough that if I extended my arms all the way I could just about graze it. I spent every morning of my time in the city there. I would run on those treadmills for at least thirty minutes before I’d had anything to eat, before I’d checked my phone, before I’d even really woken up. Every morning was pretty much the same; I’d turn off my alarm, throw on some workout clothes, have a glass of water, and head straight down to the gym.

The treadmills looked out onto 14th street. Opposite was a series of shop-fronts. I’d normally be running before the shops had opened. Their corrugated iron shutters would still be closed. One was green. One was brown. To pass the time I’d count every instance that someone would walk past the shutter wearing clothes in a matching shade. I’d mentally note down each time it happened. For the briefest of moments, they would disappear into the city in an instance of unintentional urban camouflage.

I don’t have to tell you that modelling is strict about weight. One time I flew out for Milan Fashion Week just after Christmas and my booker took me into a side room and made me take off my top. “You overdid it a bit,” he said, and cancelled half of my castings.

After I was done on the treadmill, I’d do some push-ups or burpees or lunges on the small floor space and then I’d stretch and go back upstairs. I’d make breakfast, I’d shower, and I would head out to whatever castings I had for the day. Then when the castings were finished, I’d go to the actual gym. The one I paid for.

I’d head out to Chelsea Piers, down by the Hudson, where an abandoned dock had been converted into the largest gym I have ever seen.

There was an indoor 400m track encircling it, a swimming pool looking out on the river, basketball courts, and in the centre of it all were rows upon rows of every kind of machine imaginable. Sometimes, if I went in the ghost-hours of the mid-afternoon when a spattering of the financially-solvent unemployed/freelancers/trustfund babies/furloughed-sitcom-stars dotted the stainless-steel landscape, I would sprint while pushing a giant sledge stacked with weights on it down a lane of the track. Then I’d drag it back and repeat the movement until my legs would give out and I’d lie on the floor panting. Then I’d do it again.

“One time I flew out to Milan Fashion Week just after Christmas and my booker took me into a side room and made me take off my top. ‘You overdid it a bit’, he said, and cancelled half of my castings”

One time a friend took me to an exercise class that cost $45 and I spent part of it slamming a sledgehammer onto a truck tire. Somewhere not too far away they were breaking ground on a new development that would have a SoulCycle on the ground floor. I saw the construction workers and the irony was not lost on me.

The modelling industry and eating disorders are often spoken of in the same breath. There are plenty of accounts of models fainting, of girls with wispy hair on their arms (a tell-tale sign of anorexia as the body desperately tries to keep itself warm in the absence of fat), and an almost cruel logic in the way that reclaiming control in an industry that demands you cede so much of it to your agents and casting directors can be done through obsessively regulating and controlling your diet.

I did not have an eating disorder when I modelled but modelling certainly disordered my eating. There are some really harrowing stories of models who fall into dangerous eating patterns and require serious therapy after. I never experienced anything pathological, and the majority of models won’t, but modelling definitely created a heightened anxiety over what I was consuming. I agonised over everything that I ate and if I slipped and ate anything ‘unhealthy’ I would quietly take note of it and the next day work out that little bit longer, put more time in on the treadmill or push more weight in the gym.

I was being judged on my appearance multiple times a day, professionally – of course I became hyper-attuned to my weight.

I don’t have any faith that the industry will fundamentally change in regard to this. In Paris they now require doctors’ reports for younger models, and they have rolled out a controversial BMI check, though it’s unclear how regularly it is enforced. While I can see the logic, it can also inadvertently pathologise otherwise healthy bodies and just add another layer of anxiety on models. There are plenty of models who are just genetically tall and slender, rendering BMI an imperfect measure for ‘health’, which in and of itself is a contested term.

Even to the extent that there is body diversity appearing on runways there are always risks that it constitutes little more than tokenism (see, for example, the time Urban Outfitters cast a plus-size model to wear clothes in a size they don’t actually stock). Plus size modelling also risks recreating the strict archetypes of regular models: you can be curvy, but only if you’re curved in this particular way.

For men, where there is greater diversity in body shapes, there can then be an opportunity cost in terms of trying to push your body towards jobs you’re likely to book based on your shape (roughly speaking: rail thin and vampiric for catwalk and more buff for commercial). Having cultivated big shoulders through swimming, one of my bookers told me I had to somehow tone my body while not letting my back get any bigger. I stopped swimming. Despite that, I didn’t book much runway.

“I agonised over everything that I ate and if I slipped and ate anything ‘unhealthy’ I would quietly take note of it and the next day work out that little bit longer, put more time in on the treadmill or push more weight in the gym”

At some point, a friend recommended a nutritionist who was willing to offer some free advice. He said I should use an app to record my food intake. Thus began a sad chapter in my life where I would look up various foods on My Fitness Pal and then cross-reference them against what else I had eaten, the calories I had burned at the gym, and whatever cracked out dietary advice I’d found on a blog that day.

I’m not alone in this. A decade ago the author Michael Pollan publicised the term neutritionism as the way that we’ve been told that we can measure the value of our food solely by looking at the constituent parts – its nutrients, vitamins, and other components – rather than as a complex whole. This opened a discursive field ripe for wacky diets easily popularised over social media by food bloggers and influencers. The psychologist Richard Achiro studied men working out in Los Angeles and argued that their use of supplements was so out of control it should be understood as an emergent eating disorder.

In a world of so much conflicting advice and so many people offering up one-size-fits all answers (not to mention a countervailing backdrop of foodies posting their every decadent meal) it’s a miracle if you don’t have a somewhat fucked up relationship to your food.

In that sense, modelling was just a heightened version of the pressures that anyone who goes on social media or consumes any of our pop culture can feel. Maybe this finds its most grotesque metaphor in Mukbang, the Korean online phenomenon of watching people who eat professionally on camera but don’t get fat (one famous star says he spends 7-8 hours a day in the gym when not filming). 

The problem is compounded by the impact that lighting and photoshop and make-up have and the fact that almost every single item of clothing is pinned and hemmed on set to ensure it fits in just the right way. Even knowing all of this – being a part of it – and seeing models at castings and knowing what they actually looked like, I would still find myself seeing their latest campaigns and shuddering and thinking I don’t look like that, and that I had to do something about it.

One time in Chelsea Piers – a crisp cloudless autumn day outside all static blue through the windows – I was doing box jumps. On to the box and then off of the box and then on again. Over and over, up and down, metronomic. One time I jumped up and, catching myself tired, I ended up standing up on the box instead of jumping straight back off. I stood to my full height and surveyed the almost entirely empty gym before me. I burst into tears. I’m still not entirely sure why.

Looking back to my morning treadmill sessions, I still wonder why I enjoyed those moments of urban camouflage. Sometimes it would be three times in half-an-hour. Sometimes not at all. In winter, when a certain type of middle-aged man would wear brown leather jackets, the number would increase, maybe to fix or six. At the time I chalked the game up to a response to the numb boredom of staring at the same shopfronts – me moving but not in motion – and as a way to break up the time into ever smaller segments so I could push a little bit further; one more person and I’ll quit, or ten minutes, whichever came first. Now when I look back, I think it was more existential. I was pounding away on the treadmill trying to burn/trim/sculpt/chisel/carve/firm – it makes sense, I think, that I felt an affinity for people who managed to disappear.