During the course of dissertation research that would eventually become my book, Fashioning Fat, it seemed to me that the best way to understand the fashion industry would be to dive in and become a model. It taught me a lot, particularly about the importance of modesty.
One ordinary day the agency called about a new client who wanted to see me. “Great,” I hastily replied, until the agent continued, “for lingerie and swimwear.”
Up until that point, assignments had been for casual and evening attire. The thought of standing around in underwear before strangers was discomfiting, to say the least. With lingerie or swimwear, one cannot hide within a pair of control top pantyhose or Spanx. The flesh is on full display; my body—flaws and all—would be visible.
Fearing to decline and face the wrath of the modeling agency, I prepped my body for “over-exposure” — Pilates routines and detoxifying concoctions were part of that — and my mind for self-conscious humiliation. Another day in the life of a fashion model, truth be told, fat or thin. Exposure isn’t really glamorous, after all.
At the casting, I was relieved to discover I’d be modeling sleepwear aimed at “mature women.” Flannel never seemed so welcome, or so safe!
The anxiety over that casting appointment helped me realize I was not ready to expose my flesh – not even for the fairly innocent purposes of sleepwear commerce or the somewhat “sexier” swimwear market. I became aware that I was uncomfortable with the possible ramifications of participating in the daily, overt sexualization of the female body when “sexy” was neither how I saw myself nor how I wanted others to see me. Would swimwear (or negligee) ads impact my credibility with future colleagues and students? Would I be taken seriously as an academic? While I lectured, would students snicker to themselves as they Googled me? Would people decide, whether I was interested in it or not, that I should become some sort of standard-bearer for plus-sized sexuality?
Not interested. While it’s a good thing for society to broaden its definition of what is beautiful and even sexually attractive, that broadening shouldn’t be about creating one more category of obsession with women’s bodies for which the bottom line is still breasts, booty and other body parts, obliterating the whole woman within.
Working as a model helped me to see a few things clearly; it helped me to appreciate a body that is nowhere near the size zero ideal, my own included. I shed the shame. I learned how to dress to flatter my feminine shape without flaunting anything too freely, and I find that modesty brings with it its own freedom. I can confidently walk down the street in stiletto heels like it’s a fashion runway, but I also reaffirmed that I do not have to strip down to prove my worth.