All Walks introduces Rosalind Jana, winner of the Vogue Journalism Competition and and ex-professional model who no longer fits the body norm. She tells us her story.
The modeling industry is an enigma to outside eyes. Despite any number of articles about how models keep in shape or the campaigns they star in, genuine insight – glimpses behind the finished image – are rare. As a career choice modelling is usually portrayed by the media with one of two faces: the grinning celebration of fame and opportunity, or the grimacing sneer of criticism and derision. Models are either lauded or disparaged. Middle ground is rarely presented.
My own brush with modeling began at thirteen. Barely into puberty, only just beginning to experiment with forming my own identity, I was scouted and signed to a top agency. I felt like Alice – called to London; directed down the mirrored corridor to enter what I assumed to be Wonderland. Polaroids were taken – my skinny jeans sliding down my non-existent hips. I was a bony strand of a figure with sharp elbows and a small waist.
It would be easy to describe myself as ‘scrawny’, ‘odd-looking’, or ‘colt-like’. Models often do this – reducing young adolescent appearances to a set of awkward attributes. Such words suggest a metamorphosis; the transformation from shy caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. These narratives have allure, intimating that model agencies are fairy godmothers waving magic wands, and to an extent it’s true. Modeling allows access into worlds previously unknown, particularly to teenagers with limited life experience. The perks are the travel, occasional free clothes, makeovers from girl to glamorous woman and the promise of money and recognition. But all of these are hard won and not necessarily a given. Counterbalancing the glitter, the apparent enviable glamour, there can be the shortage of sleep during fashion month; occasional predatory photographers; long, cold, exhausting days going between unsuccessful castings; the expectation that a teenager can face a foreign city alone once she turns 16; not to mention the dearth of stability and financial security.
However, my experience was cut short before sixteen. After nearly two years of test shoots and opportunities, I decided to leave, or rather my body decided for me as it bent itself into a rather unusual set of curves. I had severe scoliosis – a twisting of the spine. My backbone contorted, taking my torso with it. As vertebrae corkscrewed, so did shoulder blades and ribs. My experience of this condition and the operation to rectify it can be read in the March issue of British Vogue. But aside from the physical pain both pre and post surgery, the largest impact was on my perception of appearance. I evolved from a look pleasing in the world of fashion through to being an anomaly – possessing a body shape some might deem unnatural. During my post-operative recovery I decided to leave my agency.
Two years on I have also expanded several inches beyond the expected norms for models. My brief immersion as a young professional took place at an age when I could ‘try out’ the career as a sporadic, glamorous hobby. I escaped the pressure faced at sixteen when, for some, body size is dictated by the industry. To attempt catwalk or high-end editorial modeling will typically require measurements of around ’34, 24, 34’ – fantastic if natural, less so if it is an overly slender expectation. I’m no longer a natural size 8. I could dwindle to the tape measure’s whims if I really wanted to, but I refuse to under-eat and count every calorie.
I do remain attracted to the potential and opportunity that modeling represents. However, having once been part of it means that I now have twinges of anxiety over my size – comparing my hips and waist to that of a fourteen-year-old; holding my body up to my younger frame. Perhaps I resent it because I can no longer slot into the mould, no longer wriggle into sample size clothes. But it spirals larger than that. I am indignant at the rules that the fashion industry dictates – that size ten is ‘fat’, that food is to be treated with caution, that young is best, that all should aspire to a singular way of looking.
These rules exist to gratify the commercial entity known as ‘beauty’. This form of beauty is commidified, objectified, advertised. It is sold to others as an oxymoron – a quality that is often unattainable, but perhaps just within reach if enough diet books, gym memberships, personal trainers, hair products, make-up and beauty salon procedures are bought. Models are usually chosen because they are perceived to represent an ideal form of beauty: young, leggy, super-slender, pretty. It’s a homogenized image that all others are held up to.
This is not to suggest that models aren’t beautiful. Coco Rocha, Cameron Russell, Jourdan Dunn, Liu Wen – these are all women whose looks are extraordinary. But they represent only one type of beauty, and it’s a type that the industry generally expects all its models to adhere to. Diversity is not a dirty word, but an alien one. Agencies blame magazines, magazines blame designers and the torch of responsibility is passed on quickly before it burns. Justifying narrow ideals with claims of ‘fantasy’ may hold some credence, but this is not the kind of fantasy that uplifts and inspires. Instead it implies that there is only one form of beauty and if the rest of us don’t possess it, we should be dissatisfied.
In response to the promotion of skinny frames, some turn to celebrating ‘real women.’ This archetypal woman is apparently neither too large nor thin, too tall nor small, too flat-chested nor too well-endowed. In short, this ‘real woman’ is as much of a myth as the ideals the concept claims to rail against. To value one set of measurements above another suggests that there is only one perfect appearance and thus a natural UK size six woman may be deemed ‘unreal’; a mere figment – perhaps constructed from gossamer and air, tied with string.
What is needed instead is acceptance and celebration of the wide and varied parameters of beauty – coming in all sizes, shapes, ages and ethnicities. A slim sixteen year old on a catwalk may embody one version of beauty, but to think that it is the only one is dangerous. In fairytales there were magic mirrors to inform of who was younger and fairer. Today, we have the media. Rather than merely deploring this warped reflection though, we need to challenge it – at every opportunity.
Rosalind Jana is seventeen, currently at Sixth form doing A Levels and has a place at Oxford reading English Literature as of October. She won the Vogue Talent Contest 2011 at age 16, with a prize-winning piece (a satirical take on an agricultural show written in ‘fashion show’ style) published in the magazine last year. She also gained a month’s paid work experience on the features department of Vogue which she undertook in the summer of 2012.
See Rosalind’s blog Clothes, Cameras & Coffee