‘It Was In My Best Interest to Forgo Birthday Cake’

This year is an anniversary of sorts. Five years ago, at age 20, I said goodbye to a life and career that I loved, and began a new frontier as a under-qualified adult; making minimum wage at a customer service job that I found on craigslist.

The story begins with 14 year old me, utterly disinterested in high school and insatiably curious about what the future had in store. After a chance run-in with famed television personality Ms. Jay, runway coach on the Tyra Banks hit show Americas Next Top Model, I found myself signing a contract with my very first modeling agency. It didn’t hurt that my first paid gig, at age 15, was an Abercrombie & Fitch fall campaign with esteemed photographer Bruce Webber. While my photo only surfaced in a couple of subsequent email blasts, I had a phenomenal time, made friends that I adore to this day, and walked away with a hefty paycheck; I was sold! The modeling life was certainly the gold mine that I had been yearning for.

Fast forward a few years; I had quite a portfolio under my belt. I’d traveled to Paris, had ad campaigns in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar and had graced my first cover, a Danish magazine which I’m told is the equivalent to our “Cosmopolitan”. Jobs were steady, money was plentiful, and I had a fantastic group of friends that I wouldn’t change for anything when, suddenly, I was faced with a rude awakening. On my 18th birthday, my agency decided to have a heart-to-heart discussion with me about my physical appearance. They expressed that my body was changing and I needed to start losing weight so that I could keep up with the straight-bodied, ultra-skinny competition. They said that I had a very unflattering (pale white) skin color and that I needed to be smaller than everyone else in order to appear the same size. The awkward conversation ended in them making me strip into my bikini and telling me with deep sincerity that it was in my best interest to forgo birthday cake that year.

Following my awkward 18th birthday, I managed to fly under the radar for a while. I had regular photo shoots, did as much dieting as I felt was justifiable, and began avoiding visits to the agency. Unfortunately, my method of avoidance didn’t last long.

At age 19, I booked a dream client — call them Company X. It was well known among models that this was an incredible client to work for. They shoot constantly and tend to book the same group of girls all the time. Did I mention the pay was incredible? This regular client meant steady income and I vowed to myself to be responsible, save up! I would finally buy a car and put an end to my frivolous spending. Somehow, despite having literally zero expenses, wasteful, teenage me was always paycheck to paycheck so-to-speak. Company X did like me; in fact, the last job I was booked on was a three day shoot for them in Texas. However, as soon as my agency got this particular booking, they called me in for new digitalis. This meant coming to the agency for a physical evaluation: you put on your bikini, they take a few photos, measure your bust, waist, and hips, and then give you an update on work. I used to be greeted with friendly smiles and good news “your day rate went up” or “you’re on option for Levi’s” than kind of thing. Lately, it had been more pressure to diet — more weight that I needed to shed. I was aware that my body was changing. My measurements went from a standard 33,24,34 to 34,24,36 I was a true size four and at 5’10.5 and about 134 pounds, I was anything but overweight. Still, this visit to my beloved agency was destined to be my last. After my digital photo session, my agents pulled me into a meeting room and addressed me with stern and utter disappointment. They said that I was clearly not taking my career seriously. They had given me plenty of warnings and I was not cooperating. They told me that they couldn’t have me going out and meeting clients looking like this and that they had no choice but to take me off their site and cancel my upcoming shoot. They were going to have to tell Company X that I was indefinitely unavailable because they couldn’t risk me ruining the agency’s reputation. After all, their good name was on the line, and I had become a disgrace that they needed to hide. That same day, I was erased from their board.

I thought at first that they were crazy. I knew I wasn’t fat, I had just shot with Company X three weeks prior, and there had been no problems; everything fit perfectly, and they’d booked me again. I was at an emotional loss and thought perhaps it was time to go to another agency and get a fresh start.

Right away, I met with another reputable agency who were willing to sign me on the spot. They said that, rather than shaming me for my size, they would market me properly. There were plenty of jobs to book and money to be made for someone with my look. The good news abruptly ended when we looked over my contract with my prior agency. Although the three-year term had expired, there was a tiny clause that i’d never noticed before — automatic renewal. Since I hadn’t notified them of my cancellation within 90 days of the expiration, the contract had begun a new three year cycle. It was then that I found myself hopelessly stuck; by age 20, my career was over; I had no college education, and no plans to speak of.

People used to ask me all the time why i stopped modeling, as if I had a choice. I’d say things like work slowed down, clients weren’t booking me anymore, or the biggest lie of all — that I craved a structured job with a set schedule. I would spin it as though something better came along. Truthfully, I went from making $100-$300 an hour to $12 an hour in the flash of a digital camera.

I have been very fortunate, throughout my journey, to have a strong family and supportive friends. I was able to see the industry standards for what they are, and not take them personally. I understood that my time as a carefree wild-child was up, and acknowledged that I’d had a good run. It was in this realization that I could see clearly the two options that I was faced with: I could’ve succumbed to the low self-esteem and bitter feelings of failure that riddle so many young women who’ve dipped their toes into the wonderful and wild (and wildly flawed) world of modeling, but, instead, I chose option B; I chose to accept my body, love my unique appearance, and not be defined by my ability to fit sample sizes. For the rest of time, I will remember those years as a fabulous adventure which came about unexpectedly, offered experiences that I never could’ve dreamed up (which I took full advantage of, mind you), and then passed by to give way to a new chapter. If not for the books full of glamorous photos, I might almost swear that it never even happened.

I’ve since had wonderful experiences and learned what hard work truly is. Sometimes, I think about how blissfully foolish I was, living each day like there would be no consequences — in my own, perfectly fabricated delusion that suited me just fine. I am lucky to have lived that life, and lucky to have found new opportunities to grow and evolve. Now I am honest, accountable, and a perfectly healthy size 6.

I think the biggest lesson learned is to roll with the punches. Life will morph into so many different things, it’s best not to cling to the past because the only guarantee in life is change.

Originally published at medium.com