The Vagenda

Surviving Hunger: I Was a Teenage Fashion Model

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September 2011. “You look so ill, but so beautiful,” my booker said to me at the beginning of London Fashion Week, almost four years ago. I was 18-years-old; height: 176cm; weight: 48kg. It was the thinnest I’d ever been and, as my bookers had predicted, the most successful.

I can remember the day I was scouted very clearly.  I was 14 years old, wearing a denim skirt and patchwork top, shopping with my Mum in Oxford Street’s Topshop. I was approached by a man who bore a striking resemblance to Gok Wan (for the record, it definitely wasn’t Gok Wan) who told me how cute! I was, whether I’d be interested in modelling, here’s my card can I take a photo of you? I was terrified. Mummy a man just took a photo of me on his phone! I didn’t know what to do! He gave me this! I had never, never thought about modelling – the whole industry was a complete mystery to me. What the fuck even was a modelling agency? That’s how little I knew. I was just a gangly teen teased by the boys in my class for my ironing-board chest, chicken legs, and non-existent bum. Little did I know that these would become my greatest assets.

A year later, I signed with one of London’s biggest agencies. As with most young girls who are signed on early, my agency was hanging on to me to see how I’d come out after puberty had swallowed me whole and spat me out with boobs, hips, and a face full of acne. I was too short to be a model, but I was still young (and my big sister was 178cm tall…bonus points for me!) so I had potential. The next time I saw them I was 16 and, after the wished-for growth spurt, ready to be exposed to the world of fashionistas.

The next couple of years weren’t very exciting. Castings were never-ending and test shoots were grim. I distinctly remember traipsing around someone’s back-garden in some shitty area of London wearing nothing but a thong while the photographer (a fully-grown man) who I’d never met before took photos of me. Not full lengths, God no (at least I hope not). But, you know, I couldn’t wear anything else but a thong ‘cause it totally would’ve gotten into the headshots. It still horrifies me, the thought that there could possibly be some full-length nudes of me at sixteen, posing in a garden in a thong.

Over the next year the nagging feeling that I wasn’t thin enough began to creep up on me. I started comparing myself to other models who I met on shoots and their teeny tiny waists and limbs. I thought I was thin, but this was a whole new level of thin. I let it nag away at me until I was 17 and my agency flew me out to Spain for a two-day photo shoot. Spain! For a paid shoot! I was jazzed. On the morning of the first day I was primped and preened for the shoot, the stylist dressed me and I got up on the set in front of the camera feeling pretty damn good about myself. Not for long. An hour or so into the shoot the designer arrived, looked at me and at the photos and started yelling. All in Spanish, of course, so I had no idea what was going on. She stormed out the room and I was told I could take a break. My phone started ringing: it was my booker telling me they were sending me home because my legs were too ‘short’. By ‘short’ she meant ‘fat’, of course. I was a size 8.

It doesn’t stop there. About six months later, after vigorous dieting and exercise, I was back in that same studio and they adored me. “Come over here, I want to show you something,” the stylist said. He walked me over to a pin board where two photos of me had been tacked up next to each other, one from the time they’d sent me home, the other from that morning. “Look, look at the difference!” He was very excited. “How much better you look now! I mean, we even had to Photoshop your legs and waist on that one!”

I was now 18-years-old, it was the summer after I had finished my A-Levels, and I was modelling full-time. I was determined to model in New York’s upcoming Fashion Week, which meant: a) strict dieting b) exercise exercise exercise c) catwalk lessons (yes, that is a thing, because walking normally is soooo unglamorous). The goal was to shrink my body into fashion’s golden measurements: 24/34 (24” on the waist, 34” on the hips, anything above = too fat for the catwalk’s sample sizes). And I did.

That summer was the peak of my modelling career. Before Fashion Week began, I had a solid three months in London in which I earnt a stupid amount of money: the correlation between thinness and money in the fashion industry is painfully true. It was also the most confident I ever felt in the entire six years of my career; I was happy with my body and so was my agency. I felt like I had it all under control (and by ‘all’, I mean my weight), but of course I didn’t. I was just riding on the wave of success, soaking in the compliments and cash, shredding one kilo after another. That success was toxic. It planted deep within me the belief that success is wholly dependent on thinness, a belief that would permeate into every area of my life and one which I still struggle to shake off.

September 2011. “Whatever you do, don’t eat bread,” my other booker advised me before I jetted off to New York. “If you get hungry just eat an entire lettuce, okay?” This was the level of advice that was fed to me throughout my modelling career. I had been told to avoid eating any foods that may cause bloating (so basically anything, since I was so underweight) before a casting or a show because this could prove absolutely disastrous. Since I had no idea about the ‘right’ way to lose weight and the damage that extreme dieting can do, I took my bookers’ advice as scripture.

In New York I lived on a diet of bran flakes, salad, cigarettes, and more salad. I was going to about ten castings a day (pretty average for Fashion Week) and walking everywhere. Only a few days before that moment when I stood in front of my booker in London, listening to her glorify my anorexic body, I had graced the catwalks of some of New York’s biggest shows. Designers doted on my childish image, always shocked when I told them I was 18 (“No way! You look 15!”), telling me how beautiful I was and how some day I would be a star. The worst part of it all is that I really believed them. The belief that thinness = success = stardom is what kept me going when I was exhausted and starving and all I wanted to do was sit by myself and eat a loaf of bread.

I returned from New York completely unaware (a.k.a, in denial) of the state my body was in. I was thrown into London Fashion Week as soon as I landed at Heathrow Airport, already pre-booked into shows that same day. I remember coming home and stepping onto the scales – I was actually worried that I’d put on weight in New York. Oh the horror when I looked down and saw 48kg. My family and friends were shocked but I batted away their worries and assured them I was fine.

October 2011. I was rescued from the vulture’s claws by the start of my undergrad degree. By that point I was barely eating and smoking profusely to satiate the hunger. My GP expressed his worry and told me I looked very thin, was I okay, did I need help? But I refused to speak to him about it. Instead, I went home and read the list of symptoms of anorexia listed on the NHS website and recognised myself in pretty much every single bullet point. I called my mum crying. I was in a completely new environment, in a new city, surrounded by people I’d never met before. I was alone and absolutely terrified by the illness that had seized me.

The next three years were a series of high anxiety, anti-depressants, therapy, dieting, bingeing, bulimia, compulsive exercising – and with all this came a whole fucking mess of out-of-control hormones and visits to the gynaecologist to figure out what had happened to my periods. It wasn’t all bad though – I was kept afloat by my wonderful friends, my mother, my boyfriend. Through all of this I continued to return to my agency, I continued saying yes to jobs and castings. I was convinced that I could find a way to manage it all and keep my body within their perfect 24/34 cardboard cut-out. Eventually I figured out the best way I could maintain those measurements without going absolutely insane was by sticking to a strict, healthy diet and exercising every single day, without fail.

When I finished my degree last year in July, I started modelling full-time again. My agency was buzzing about me: I was finally all theirs and I was going to be a star. But, of course, I would only be a star if I shed another inch, and after that another. It was constant. I could feel myself once again slipping into the downward spiral of self-destruction. One day I was told by one of the bookers at my agency that I’d gained too much muscle, which was why my measurements were over the mark (by half an inch). Stop working out at the gym, stop running, stop biking, she said: eat salad and walk everywhere instead. Got it? What the fuck?! Seriously: What. The. Fuck.

September 2014. In the weeks leading up to the end of my modelling career, I was in my agency preparing for London Fashion Week. My booker popped her head out from the meeting room and called me over. There was a young girl, she must have been 17 or so, sitting on the sofa and crying. My booker had just broken the news to her that they weren’t putting her in the show-pack for Fashion Week this year because she wasn’t thin enough. I sat by her with another model (who, like me, had made it into the show-pack) while my booker used us as examples of girls who had been through it all, who’d been told they weren’t thin enough and had to suck it up and lose the inches. We’d already been through everything that this girl was about to go through, and now look at us! We were the perfect models! Together, we began to funnel all this bullshit advice to her about the best ways to reach those golden measurements. But what the hell did we know? This was me, three years ago, I thought, and look at me now – look at everything I’ve been through for my 24-inch waist and 34-inch hips. What she couldn’t see was how depressed I was at that time, how much I had suffered and was still suffering. I felt terrible, sitting there, listening to their awful advice, giving my advice. The memory of that young girl crying haunts me. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry to that girl who I didn’t tell to get as far away from that destructive environment as she possibly could.

That was it for me. I eventually saw through all their “darlings” and realised that these people who were shovelling me advice on how to become a successful model had absolutely no interest in my physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. I was nothing but an object used to make money. It took me around six years to finally realise how cruel the fashion industry is, how poorly and immorally so many young girls and women are treated. It is an industry that dotes on the female body and at the same time castigates it if it doesn’t fit into fashion’s image of thin. Doesn’t this all sound terribly misogynistic? Is that really what’s at the core of the female fashion industry – misogyny?

It’s been six months since I quit. I still can’t bear to associate myself with anything fashion-related. When I look back, I am horrified by the way I was treated as both a model and a young girl. The things I have told you about in this article only skim the surface of a huge, dark pool of terrible experiences.

Was I stupid? No. Was I too thin-skinned? No. I was just far too young and vulnerable and tempted by stardom to understand that what these people were doing and saying to me was absolutely not acceptable. I was too young to have the power to say “No, I will not do that!” But I shouldn’t have even been put in situations like that in the first place. It disgusts me that all of this happened under the supervision, guidance and support of grown professionals, both men and women. I trusted their judgements and I believed they knew what was best for me and my career. I now realise that their words were fuelled only by the desire to make as much money as they could out of my malnourished, prepubescent body.

20th April 2015. How do I feel now, about my body, about myself? Physically, I am the healthiest I have ever been. I am a normal weight for my height: I eat whatever I want, I exercise regularly, I have periods. I have come a long, long way since my modelling days, but I struggle immensely to accept my healthy, womanly body. I observe my body as if through the lens of a camera: I judge, I scrutinise, I objectify. I am in a constant battle with my thoughts and anxieties. I long for the days when I was just a gangly 14-year-old, before the fashion industry skewed my vision, when I looked forward to an age when I’d finally have the body of a woman.

- Cassie Davies

8 thoughts on “Surviving Hunger: I Was a Teenage Fashion Model

  1. Good god. Reading this it was like you’d reached into my own brain and pulled out my own story, even down to being spotted in topshop at 14.
    I’m so proud of you for getting out! Its harder than people think, just one more job might be the big one, I might make the money to make it all worth while. You feel like you have failed as a person.

    Stay strong! It’s hard, 6 years on for me and I still have bad days where these insecurities drilled into me as a child get hold of me. But then there are days where my thoughts are clearer. You sound like you have an amazing family!! You are an incredible person! Remember that!!

  2. Dear Cassie,
    Your words so resonated with me too, I endured a similar experience 21 years ago, I spent 3 years with a big London agency during the 90′s waif era. Think heroin chic, it makes me shudder to think that was deemed desirable. Whilst the cash and travel was fun it was humiliating to be constantly told to lose weight (being literally grabbed on the thighs by one ‘respected’ agency owner to show me where I precisely needed to lose weight !) and being judged purely by how I was looking. It was such an unrealistic and unhealthy way to expect a teenage girl to be. I remember going for ‘lunch’ with a group of models, I was the only one that ate, and that was a 1/2 sandwich, whilst the others smoked and drank coffee. I still sadly catch myself scrutinising my body for weight gain even though I’m a healthy weight, its something I don’t think I will ever stop. But thankfully I have gone on to have two lovely kids, and just hope my daughter will avoid any similar experience. I hope you find peace with your body and go onto great things.

  3. This is shocking. I am a man and have nothing to do with the fashion industry but I’ve always had a bit of a casual interest, particularly as to how the industry makes it’s money. I met a group of models at a party years ago and the insecurities were on display for all to see. Every single one of them was unhappy and constantly fretting about their appearance.

    You are incredibly brave to have torn yourself away. Well done.

  4. Cassie, thank you for this and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with misogyny being the real core of the fashion industry. It’s not about valuing women but controlling them.

    I abandoned reading fashion mags (this was in the days before mass internet usage) aged around 20, after an adolescence spent trying to whittle my growing body into an ‘acceptable’ shape i.e skeletal. I was starting to realise that a) I’ve only got one life and didn’t owe it to anyone else and b) those magazines were incredibly boring! Now in my thirties, I delight in my body with it’s unique beauty and all the amazing things it can do. The shadow of those years when I was taught by the imagery around me that validity as a woman can only be gained by looking like a child is still with me – everyday I fight it so I can just get on with being me. That fight is much, much easier now.

    It makes me so angry that this happens to young women’s lives time and time again, at a point when they’re still developing physically and mentally.

    It’s wonderful to hear that you’re emerging from what sounds like a horrendous environment. Even if it’s hard now, it sounds like you are getting on with being you and all that your life is truly for, which is what’s really important. Well done!

  5. Thanks for being so brave and sharing your experiences with others. Wishing you every happiness now and in the future. xx