Body-affirming media campaigns such as Aerie’s recent “The Real You is Sexy” and Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” have good intentions. Or do they just sell well? Regardless, those ads are clearly supposed to be uplifting for women’s self esteem.
Apparently, “real” bodies are in. That’s what those campaigns keep telling us, anyway. But what hasn’t changed is that a woman’s primary value is dictated by her ability to be beautiful. Today we’re just expected to do that while simultaneously being full-time workers and moms. In a perfect world, I’d like for us to be neither body-shamed nor BEAUTY-shamed. I’d like it if my body -- which obviously differs from a man's with its curves and bulges -- was no longer a selling point, a topic for debate or affirmation. I don’t need your affirmation, media.
I hear my adolescent male students’ nonstop praising or critiques of female students’ body parts, and I’ve heard teachers comment that a girl should cover up if her body is too “distracting.” And, of course, I –- and most other women -- have grown up constantly hearing about our appearances from the street, our teachers, and our relatives.
So, Aerie, the real me is tired. The real me wants a raise, her dream job, a family and my dream relationship, not compliments from a stranger. The real me is sick of being catcalled on the street. And, though polite, how are these campaigns any different? I am exhausted of being valued for what’s on the outside. But I had to reclaim my outsides at age 34 to finally realize that.
Last year, a friend who was a plus-size model suggested I try modeling. I was a size 8 then, and my personal trainer at the YMCA, A’ndrea Blake Reiter, and I always had long talks about being fit and proportioned, not skinny. I finally had the nerve to ask for professional photographs from my friend’s recommended photographer, Nikki Gomez. As I looked at the photos, I realized they were of women of every size, not just “plus” (which is still, arguably, a size 10 or 12 in this industry).
I asked for an audition. When I stood there dressed in black as they took my measurement pics, I felt comfortable. I tapped into my yoga-teacher background to pose and stand tall. The owner was also a yoga teacher, and Nikki is the queen of self-love and reassurance. They signed me me for their agency, Bicoastal Fitting Models, first as a fit model and then on go-sees for print, film and runway.
Working with Nikki during my first photo shoot, she encouraged me to shine, smile, and be unafraid of squaring my shoulders. "Who's the pretty model?" she had to coo at me like a mama to a baby until I finally straightened up because I felt safe.
As we shot, people on the streets and in the park were watching, and even though I'd found storytelling, comedy and writing seven years prior as a way of expressing my voice, I still didn't feel it was okay to strut my stuff. I was still a size 10.
"Get out of your head, stop overthinking," Nikki yelled while she snapped photos. I thought about what beauty was. Was it good bone structure and height? Knowing how to pose? Not necessarily; look at any makeover show, or Drew Barrymore in “Never Been Kissed.” I’d always had the structure; it was taking off the layers of fat, the dowdy clothes, the slump, the fear, and the self-hatred. It was like that famous Marianne Williamson quote -– I had to find the courage to shine at any weight, shape or size.
And I’ve been plenty of sizes over the years. I had an eating disorder that caused me to repeatedly gain and lose around 40 pounds since age 23, when I replaced compulsive dieting, exercise, and binging and purging with just binging. An avid traveler, I’ve spent my life trying to fit into different societies’ beauty constraints -- makeup-free and heavier in India (where I fell in love, starred in a music video and was a Bollywood extra); thin with bright-red lipstick in France at 19.
The underlying motivation for my eating disorder was, I think, to distract would-be molesters with a heavier coat of flesh. It was an instinct that I can only trace to sexualized comments and a few episodes of post-puberty groping in Tokyo and Paris by street/subway molesters. Maybe I find comments about my appearance -– both good and bad –- triggering. I want to be listened to, understood, heard and valued. Some days, I don’t want to be sexy, no matter how great I may feel in front of a camera.
Because we get it. We are “ALL beautiful.” But men aren’t constantly being told they are “ALL handsome” in the masculine equivalent of a Dove or Aerie campaign to sell stuff, are they?
I am tall and have a Kim Kardashian behind. I finally realized that, like the World Famous Bob, I could use all that sexual attention to my own advantage, and own it. Whether my ass excites you or disgusts you, you can kiss it. It is mine.
I don’t need “big girl, you’re beautiful,” or “you are sooo skinny,” either. Please stop commenting on my body altogether, thanks, and let me be a whole person. (That doesn’t mean I want to stop modeling, though!)