Huge numbers of girls dream of becoming a model. It really is almost an obsession. But a girl’s choice to pursue that dream can bring a mixture of pride, uncertainty and downright anxiety to her parents. I wanted to know more about why modelling is so very appealing to teen girls, and how the reality compares to the dream. So for insight, I turned to Enlighten Education presenter Nikki Davis, who spent a number of years dancing and modelling professionally after completing her BA Communications degree, and continues to do some modelling work. She writes my guest blog this week, looking at what makes modelling attractive to so many girls, and the self-esteem and body image issues that arise in the modelling world. At Enlighten we strive to help girls and their parents make informed decisions about the future, so in following weeks Nikki will talk about the positive aspects of being a model, along with the practicalities and the challenges.
When girls I’m presenting to for Enlighten find out I have done modelling, there is this sense of awe. “What kind of modelling have you done?” “Are you on any television commercials?” “What magazines have you been in?” “What clothes, what designers?” They want to know everything!
When I was 14, I started at a new dance school that also had a modelling agency, and I began getting my first serious offers of work. The fact that people were approaching me to do modelling was very exciting to me. If someone said to Mum, “Can we do photos of your daughter?” my little ears pricked up. The thing that frustrated me about my mum as a child — but that I’m thankful for now — is that she didn’t really allow me to do any professional work until I was about 16. That was when I did a Channel 7 ad, and I was absolutely blown away by the glamour of it all.
The main reason that I was drawn to modelling, and why I think girls are now, was the simple pleasure of having confirmation that I was special. It validates that you have the “right” look. You think breaking into modelling will cancel out any of your self-esteem issues and doubts because it means that you are what society thinks is beautiful and special.
But of course the reality is far more complicated than that.
In some ways modelling does make you feel special, and in some ways the glamour does come through. I remember once I was in the newspaper after being hired to walk the red carpet with Vin Diesel. I’d had a totally glamorous makeover, and I thought I looked pretty amazing — I loved it! The next day, I had all these people I went to school with — funnily enough some of whom had teased me at school — texting and emailing me. And that kind of thing is fun.
Then sometimes it all comes crashing down.
You’ve been feeling pretty special sitting in the hair and makeup chair for 3 hours before a shoot or a catwalk show, and you go over to the rack of clothes . . . and you don’t fit the pair of jeans they’ve given you. All of a sudden you land with a thud back on Earth. So at each job, you would walk in feeling nervous. It was a panicky feeling; your heart would beat quickly. If you didn’t fit something, you’d have to put your hand up in the crowded fitting room and say, “I don’t fit this, and a dresser needs to go and get me the next size up,” and someone would shout across, “Aw, Nikki doesn’t fit the size 10; you have to get her a 12.” On one occasion, I had a photographer who was used to working with very thin high-fashion models say out loud, “I can’t position her in a way that doesn’t make her legs look fat!”
When these things were happening to me, I was around 19 to 21, and like most women that age, my body was changing a lot. I tried a low-carb diet and lost a bit of weight, and the other models and the dressers started praising me, saying, “Oh! Oh, you’ve lost weight. Oh, you need a smaller size in this!” Many unhealthy relationships with food and exercise have been started this way. I was given so much positive feedback that I became quite obsessed with not putting the weight back on — which is of course exactly what I did, because I became so concerned with weighing my food and denying myself that when no one was looking I’d eat four blocks of chocolate.
It was also around this time that fashion swung from the Cindy Crawford look to Kate Moss, and clients wanted the quite skinny girls. It blew my mind that my figure was out of fashion. I thought if I lost weight and I was smaller, everything would be good because I’d be making more money and I’d have a better career. The pressure that your income relies on how much food you put in your mouth is really overwhelming.
At that stage of my life I had just finished uni and wasn’t focusing on much else than modelling and dancing, and that was a big part of the problem. I think that’s when modelling gets a bit dangerous: when it’s all you’ve got going on. All you’re thinking about is your body all the time, and your looks all the time, with nothing else to distract you.
My advice to young models is to always have something else going on in your life as well. To be studying, to be learning another language, to be writing or producing art, to be training as an actor or TV presenter — something else that’s not pure modelling. It is important not to get so hung up on looks that you lose perspective. I have met models who won’t go out with their friends because they have to stay home and put four coats of fake tan on. You can get so caught up in looks that you forget to live.
Finally, I relaxed into the idea: “This is who I am. Book me or don’t book me. Don’t book me and then torture me when I get there because I don’t fit something.” It’s so hard for young girls, because they don’t have that maturity. I didn’t have that attitude until I was 27. I’d had time by then to develop the other parts of me. I’d been writing for a dance magazine, and I’d been working in production and events, so I knew I had a lot more to offer than just my looks. That self-confidence takes time to develop, which is why if you skip uni and go straight into modelling when you’re 17 and you do put on weight or your look goes out of fashion, it can seriously affect you.
I am grateful that my parents always made me feel as though my appearance and success at modelling weren’t the most important achievements in my life. How well I did at school and how I treated other people were more valued. I don’t want to give the impression that modelling is only full of negatives for girls, because there is good stuff to be had from modelling — but it is crucial that we put a girl’s looks into perspective, stressing that the kind of validation modelling brings is not the be-all and end-all, and prettiness is not the most important value a girl has to offer.
The good stuff to be had from modelling? Increased confidence, interpersonal skills, resilience — these are a few of the qualities it can help girls develop. Next week, I’ll get into those positives, along with some hard practical realities of making a living out of modelling. Until then, we would love to hear about your experiences with girls and modelling.
Nikki Davis, BA (Communications), is an Enlighten Education presenter based in Sydney. She has worked as a model, dancer, dance teacher, scriptwriter, magazine editor, and video and special events producer. Training to be a volunteer telephone counsellor with Lifeline gave Nikki the opportunity to explore her interest in counselling and psychotherapy, which she continues to study. She has a special interest in social issues related to girls and women. (Nikki also just happens to have been one of my favourite and most talented students when I was a high school English teacher. I adored her so much, I just had to keep her! — Danni)