One day when I was 15 years old, I was walking along in the mall with my mom when a man stopped us. "Is your daughter a model?" he asked my mom. "No," my mom said. "No," I said.
"Well, I'd like you to come up to my agency in Irvine to walk around for some of the agents there so they can see if they could use you," he said, handing me his card, and that was that.
I had never been more excited in my entire life.
Being a tall girl there is one thing that you think might save you: "You must be a model." Because otherwise it's just, "No way you're that tall," "Don't wear heels," and myriad guys telling you they wouldn't date a taller woman but would fuck one.
But if you're a model, it's like your height is suddenly legitimized and society has given you a giant "APPROVED" stamp on you, confirming that you are attractive and your height is beautiful.
For weeks leading up to the appointment it was all I thought about. I would stay up late at night and watch MTV and lose my mind when that dumb Lemonheads remake of "Mrs. Robinson" came on or Pearl Jam played and I would look at myself in the mirror, applying makeup and trying to cheat that I could be a model. I could look like that. With this one shade of lipstick. I could get the approval stamp.
On the day of my big modeling agency visit, my mom and I made the long drive to Irvine, and I was so nervous I thought I would puke. But I made it. Pretty soon I was sent into the room with all the agents to judge me as I stood there, frozen. What I wasn't prepared for was the fact that all these adult men and women were going to break down my every flaw in front of me.
"Well, she would definitely have to lose weight."
"Her cheeks are a little fat."
"Is that baby fat in her cheeks? Is that going to go away?"
"Her smile is too gummy."
"She's tall, but is she too tall?"
That last one was a particular knife straight to my heart. To be called "too tall" felt like the most devastating thing anyone could say to me. I couldn't control being tall, and it made me so deeply ashamed of my body.
The one comment that I've punished my mom for throughout my life is her once saying when I did reach 6'2" in high school, "Well, hopefully you won't grow any taller." I could have died. I was so sorry I was so tall. I couldn't control it. And all I could do was will myself not to grow any taller. To this day when people make the completely innocuous and friendly joke of "Did you get taller?" when they see me, I can feel my chest tighten and I feel a rising tide of anger grow inside of me that I have to logically talk myself out of because I know it's an absurd brand of rage.
But 15-year-old me in that room alone with all those agents picking apart my entire appearance made me hate myself more than I ever had before in my life. I didn't want to smile. I made losing weight an immediate priority. I wondered if I could buy flatter flats.
On the car ride home with my mom, all I could do was cry.
"You don't have to be a model, Mandy," my mom said.
But I wanted to. Starting that week I set out to lose the weight that they told me I needed to and I drank Slim-Fast to try to get down some pounds. This is when I was 155 pounds and they suggested losing at least 20.
I remember a specific day coming home from my courses of AP Calculus, AP History, AP Economics, AP Government, and AP English when I told my mom, "I'm not going to be a model. I can't think. I'd rather do well on my AP tests than be a model, mom."
We had spaghetti that night, and it tasted so good.
I have kept all those photos I have where my measurements are marked off and I'm standing in a bikini next to a giant hamper of dirty laundry (my sister and I weren't really much for setting a background). I look at them and think how beautiful I was. I love the young soft skin and the youth in my eyes.
Whenever I would bring up my very failed attempt at being a model to my mother — and the remarks those agents said to me — as some excuse for why I felt sorry for myself, my mom always comforted me. But when you are that young you don't believe a parent. You believe everyone else. You cherish and nurture those words that have pinpointed and identified your many flaws and you turn to them when you feel rejected or defeated in life or in love.
Of course he doesn't love me. I am too fat. I am too tall. My smile is not right.
Twenty-five years wiser, I no longer see the flaws when I look in the mirror. I see something that is neither ugly nor pretty, bad nor good, right nor wrong. It is simply me, and I accept the image with love.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.