By Pamela Simpson
I was never ‘ugly’. Not really. Sure, there was the year I had braces, and the teen-hormone fueled, tomato-faced flushes, the stupid fashion decisions any nine year old makes, or 14 year old – or, OK, 15, 16 and 17 year old – and the unfortunate photographic evidence certain brothers harbor, of a string-bean sproutlette in a baggy T, tucked into over-sized high waisted jeans. (For the record, when my brother brings that photo out at gatherings, in an ‘oh how cute/ugly she was,’ way, I blame the 80s, entirely).
I was never ugly, but I was an ugly-duckling of sorts. Pointy, awkward, tall, freckly, flat chested, red headed and pale. Wide set eyes in a world that praised bombshells such as Cindy Crawford (who, I noted somewhere along the way to adulthood, had eyes exactly the right distance apart). And, of course, I never did grow into my front teeth.
When I reached my early 20s, however, string-bean turned into six feet of lean. Gawky became graceful. I figured out which way was up with a make-up-brush, and my freckles and red-tinged hair turned out to be, believe it or not, desirable. All in all, I was doing pretty OK in the looks department. So much so that I got used to being asked “Are you a model?” by strangers passing by in shopping centers. I became accustomed to evaluating offers from modeling agencies, and reached expert level at fending off advances from would-be suitors, who based their hunt entirely on looks.
Eventually, I allowed myself to enjoy being seen as beautiful, and went to sign up at a modeling agency. It went great! A whirlwind of photo-shoots, calendar prints, champagne parties, free designer dresses, VIP club passes, catwalk attempts, and even a few media mentions, ensued. I made some money, did an overseas TV commercial, got a few killer shots of myself to keep, started brushing elegant, star-dusted shoulders with some of the hot international talent within Cape Town’s modeling scene, and I met and started dating a truly sculpted specimen, who had catwalked alongside the likes of Kate Moss in Milan. (Seriously – he had abs that looked as though they were carved from stone!) It was nothing if not fun and fabulous. Except that it wasn’t…
Have you ever felt beautiful? Had a morning where everything just worked? Your hair wakes up on the right side of the ghd, your skin glows, and any puffiness is situated in your cleavage area, rather than directly below your eyes… You manage to dress that particularly toit little ass in a particularly gorgeous little outfit, oozing effortless glamour and basking in mirror appraisal – only to walk into a room and find that you are sitting next to Miss South Africa…
All of a sudden, your fluff falls flat, your fab turns drab, and you sit in horror as your so-thought-beauty shrivels like a popped air balloon.
Well, that happened to me, many times; not only with a Miss SA (Vanessa Carrera) but in fact, at EVERY casting I went to before that one. For those who don’t know, a ‘casting’ is a nice, glossed-up, magazine-world word for kick-you-in-the-nads. Before modeling, I would walk into a room and be one of the top ten per cent, best looking girls there. At castings, I would walk into a room and be… just another model. Just another tall, leggy woman with firm thighs and perfect skin. And in all honesty, not even in the top ten tall, leggy women with firm thighs and perfect skin. I was no Charlize! I was a small-timer. I was average.
I couldn’t eat more than 1000 calories a day, had to exercise frequently, triple-stuff my bra, and I needed to keep my looks as ‘current’ as the agency saw fit, to try to get work. I fried my skin, tanning on a sunbed, lost all discretion when it came to dressing in public (albeit publicly female, thank goodness) and stood by, while older, raggier women diminished me to a clothes horse without a mind – only a body.
Even all that wasn’t good enough. Make-up was caked on my face, dark contours coloured in, to try to fake my wide-set eyes closer. At five AM photoshoots on the beach, in freezing conditions, I was told to look “less pissed off”. I had to adhere to a strict three-weeks-before-any-show lettuce and water diet, and meet every – often ridiculous – demand of casting agents (ranging from: “now turn,” to: “squat more like a stripper!”)
I was hungry, miserable, and felt ugly. Permanently ugly. But regardless of how I felt, the photos needed to look good. So, I dutifully sucked in my empty stomach, because it wasn’t flat enough and stuck out my gym-stiff rear, which wasn’t pert enough. My chest never did come to the party, and I had to do things like hold my arm above my dazed head, for what seemed like hours, in attempts to capture a single magazine moment – only to be told: “We’re going in a different direction for the cover,” and that my photos wouldn’t even be used. My very hard earned size eight was simply not enough. I was inferior to the other models, the better models: those who could stay super skinny, pout at the camera, and fill out a decent cup-size, all at the same time. I started to develop that horrible “Look at her – ugh, I hate her!” monologue I’ve always been against. I had to fight myself to remember that it wasn’t the other girls I hated, it was the way I was feeling.
I had started to blame myself. To compare myself, to judge myself, to take myself down to a disgustingly shallow level of: “Is my butt high enough? Is my chin chiseled enough? Is my upper arm toned enough?”. It wasn’t something I verbalized – but I raged against the whole modeling industry ’til the point where I quit, deciding I would rather be myself than a wisp of what ‘they’ wanted me to be. Even though I tried to appear as though I didn’t care, it was the beginning of the never ending argument I now have with myself every day in the mirror, internalizing all that hatred. I don’t remember having these worries as a gawky teenager – I accepted who I was then and didn’t base my inner-peace on how I looked. Now, I flick through a fashion magazine, a cooking magazine, even a fishing magazine and immediately feel inferior to the images within. But it’s like a drug. I can’t stop. I even use the images on my own blog! (Yes, the irony is not lost on me). But, you see, I LIKE pretty things. I WANT to see them, admire them, appreciate their beauty… The problem is that I hate myself for not being one of them. I struggle to believe that any man would find me attractive anymore, if I was placed in a line-up situation with other models. I would never be in the top ten; I would be left out completely.
Why do I even care? I’m happily married, fit, healthy, well-dressed and generally look pretty acceptable – but still I believe I am not beautiful. The weight that has found me in my 30s mocks me and I honestly don’t understand why I give it a voice. My now size 12 practically screams hate-crimes at me, every time I see a photo of myself. Why do I listen? Because of the unrealistic images I have learnt to compare myself to. Inescapable images on billboards, in shop windows, on screens and magazine covers. Models are even used sell fast food (food that not only destroys people’s insides but does so with the most spectacular ‘Hulk-ish’ results! Only, instead of muscles bursting out of clothes, it’s more like the inner Michelin Man making an appearance). Let’s admit it, no one ever uses the girl who lives on french fries, to sell french fries. So why do we keep portraying these images of the super skinny? And more specifically, why do I feel personally attacked by it all?
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. There is a world of women out there, who look at the very same images as me, and feel inferior in comparison. Perhaps it’s more ingrained in me, thanks to my time spent as one of the models in those pages, but I think all women feel this way at least some of the time. It seems to be an escalating problem the modern world is perpetuating, by presenting a ridiculously perfect image of what we woman should be. An *ahem* airbrushed image, to be precise. It’s the 50s housewife all over again, only now, instead of rolling-pins, pearls and cinched-in aprons, it’s skinny thighs, handle-less abs and sky-high lashes. I mean, what does that even mean!? The media should just be honest, and instead of sporting headlines like ‘Have It All, AND Stay Thin,’ or ‘Five Minutes to the Perfect You,’ or ‘Wow Him in the Bedroom’, they should say, “What? You don’t have a career, two point five kids and a happy, satisfied husband, while looking like Victoria Beckham? What’s wrong with you?!” I feel like the whole world expects me to be superwoman, when in actual fact, it’s just me who expects that.
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t believe the entire modeling industry should shut down, and I am in no way blaming all those beautiful images for my problem. I just don’t know how to stop the self-destructive inner judgment that always happens when I see them. Maybe I should just get over it and moveon.com. Of course skin-deep beauty isn’t the only place I find my value. I have many other facets where I excel and can develop, so maybe I should just try to invest myself in those, rather than the completely pointless activity of feeling ‘ugly’. Maybe I should come up with a mantra; values to chant to myself when I look at a gorgeous, tanned FHM model with zero per cent body fat, and start to feel like blobby insects are crawling all over my thighs. Words such as ‘kind’, ‘loving’, ‘good natured'; thinking about helping people, having integrity, being honest, being creative, loyal, compassionate… But will it work? I fear that the need for ‘thin’ is so ingrained in me that it will still plague me. Whatever the antidote, a bandaid over feeling ugly and inferior won’t take that feeling away. And something tells me that this is only going to get worse…
Well, on a bad day. I guess, on a good day, I can rise above it, forget about it, ignore it, even laugh about it. There are days where I appreciate my gained mass and love my curves. Now I actually look like a woman, not a straight-up-and-down, skeletal ladyboy. In any case, at least I have photos to remind me that I was young and beautiful once…
Sigh. I don’t know. I just don’t know. If you know the secret to rediscovering the child who doesn’t see or concern herself with these things, please, let me know.
Website: Cherry Blossom Boutique