I Was A Teen Model -- And There's No Way I'd Do It Again

by Katie Jgln
Courtesy of Katie Jgln

Trigger warning: sexual assault

I started modeling when I was around 17.

I never dreamed of being a model, but when the opportunity presented itself, I went along with it. From what I’d heard, it was well paid, and I needed to save money to move out of my home country of Poland.

The first time I went for a meeting in a modeling agency, I had to undress to my underwear in front of a bunch of strangers and listen to them point out all of the things that were “wrong” with me. That was just a standard evaluation, they told me.

Still, it made me feel like a piece of meat.

And not surprisingly, I was told to lose weight.

If you aren’t a walking skeleton, you’re too fat

Contrary to popular belief, modeling isn’t an easy job. And that’s not because posing is particularly hard — it requires some skill, but let’s not pretend it’s rocket science. It’s because of the unrealistic expectations for models and the ugly nature of the industry itself. There is more happening behind the scenes than people usually realize.

I was already underweight when I first got signed with a modeling agency, but the 2010s were brutal when it came to beauty standards. We were still stuck in the “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” era. And I feel like we haven’t entirely left it behind just yet.

The requirement for me to lose and keep a certain weight was even included in my contract (how legal that was, I’m not sure). And so, eventually, I did lose more weight.

At my lowest, I weighed around 100 pounds. I’m 5’8″.

But despite being heavily underweight, I was still often classified as a “bigger” girl during castings. I was frequently told my hips were too wide, my ass too big, my legs not skinny enough, etc.

Most girls that worked with me survived on an apple or two a day. During photoshoots — that often lasted from 12 to 14 hours — the only food we were provided with was a small salad, a piece of fruit, or if we got lucky, a slice of pizza. With no toppings, obviously.

Welcome to the dark side

Although I didn’t enjoy going to castings and hearing how fat I was from the mouths of complete strangers, that was an unavoidable part of the job. We had to deal with it.

I was lucky enough to have a steady flow of jobs throughout my modeling years, mostly working as a commercial model — that means appearing in commercials, product packaging, catalogs, etc. It was definitely a “safer” space than working in high fashion or lingerie, as many of my modeling friends did.

But the tricky thing about the modeling industry is that it isn’t fair or predictable, even when you’re already signed with one or multiple agencies. It is in no way guaranteed you will find work that pays. For every Kate Moss or Karlie Kloss, there are thousands and thousands of models trying to make it and often failing miserably.

Courtesy of Katie Jgln

That’s why there are models who at some point turn to prostitution. It often starts innocently, working as an escort or providing “the girlfriend experience,” but then it evolves into something more.

Some of my modeling friends who got sent on contracts to Taiwan, China, or Japan and faced countless rejections during castings decided to try a different way of earning money. Which wasn’t difficult since they were already introduced to people working in the fashion industry who were more than willing to take advantage of young, pretty girls.

This behavior wasn’t encouraged by our agency, but it wasn’t condemned either. It was a grey area.

If you wanted to earn good money but weren’t successful at castings, you had to get “creative.”

Models are more than just clothes hangers

In addition to unrealistic standards and shady practices, it wasn’t uncommon for models to be groped, drugged, or sexually assaulted while at work. At some photoshoots, models were even openly offered drugs to take. I had some unpleasant encounters during my modeling years as well.

And I think a lot of this behavior stems from the perception that models aren’t “human.”

We are glorified clothes hangers.

We are things to be undressed, touched, admired, and eventually moved aside when our beauty fades away.

And sure, there is a certain level of “prestige” that comes along with the status of being a model, but it doesn’t exactly mean people treat you better. If anything, I always felt men treated me worse when I was a model. They seemed to like the idea of me, not me as a person. I wasn’t even perceived as a person — more of a thing or a fancy accessory you can brag about to your friends.

And don’t even get me started on the classic “models are stupid” stereotype.

Many models, like myself, had other dreams and aspirations besides being clothes hangers. Many of us put aside money earned while modeling to study abroad or were already studying while working (which I ended up doing).

No, I wouldn’t do it all over again

After I “retired” from being a model at the age of 23, I started gaining weight. And I was finally healthy. Still, all the years of being told I’m fat when I really wasn’t did leave its mark on me. When I look in the mirror, I’m usually not too happy with what I see. I keep remembering all the negative comments I’ve heard about different parts of my body or face.

But it took me a while to realize I do regret working as a model. Yes, it was good money, and it helped me move and study abroad, which was always my dream. Would I do it all again? I don’t think so. I’m sure I could have found a better way to fulfill my dreams.

And there are many things I came to resent about the modeling industry. How it preys on vulnerable girls, often minors, who don’t exactly know what they’re getting themselves into. How it turns a blind eye to all the shady things going on. How it encourages eating disorders and dismisses models’ mental health problems.

I’m not sure the industry has changed much since I worked in it.

It doesn’t seem like it.

The only big difference between now and then is that it’s not only looks that matter, but also social media fame. Most major modeling agencies post Instagram follower count next to the model’s pictures.

And it’s true that with the rise of the body positivity movement, there are more and more plus-size models out there. But that doesn’t mean skeletal models aren’t in demand anymore. Sadly, most mainstream brands and high fashion houses still value bones over women of all shapes and sizes.

I don’t think we talk enough about how toxic the fashion and modeling industry can be. And we should.

We use young girls for their beauty, often destroy them in the process, and toss them aside the moment that beauty vanishes.

There’s nothing okay about that.