‘He said, ‘You can look like a wholesome American beauty, or you can look weird and androgynous. We want to wipe all of the wholesomeness out of you.’

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“The girl’s bathroom in high school can be an uncomfortable place. Adolescent girls, especially the ‘pretty’ ones, spend their valuable minutes between classes primping themselves in front of the mirror.

They obsess over every little detail, from the precision of their eye makeup, to the straightness of their hair, to the clearness of their skin, to the size of the hips, and more. It’s all scrutinized because high school beauty means worth and status. Or at least that’s what we’re taught.

In middle school into sophomore year of high school, I was not one of those girls. I was tall, lanky and ‘ruler shaped’ (according to magazines). I had cystic acne, glasses, thick bangs and nonexistent curves. Boys didn’t really talk to me, and I was never invited to the parties that the cool kids were having. I also had an identical twin which didn’t help my self-esteem at all, because there was always another person just as awkward and pimply as me walking around, serving as a constant reminder that I was identically that uncool.

One day towards the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was washing my hands in the girl’s bathroom, and the captain of the cheerleading team turned to me and said: ‘Hey, you’re really pretty. You should be a model.’ Her posse agreed, and then they giggled their way out of the bathroom.

Her words blew me away. I had spent so many of my adolescent years feeling invisible and insecure that this moment felt truly surreal, like a moment in an 80’s movie. I looked in the mirror. I was still tall, still lanky, but I guess getting rid of the glasses and bangs that year helped me a bit in the looks department. Was I a pretty girl now? When did this happen?

The idea of being a model really stuck with me. I went home and looked up how to be a model. I read online that models had to be tall (which I was), and thin (which I considered myself to be). I continued reading. High fashion models needed to have very precise, small measurements for their hips, waist and chest. I saw photos online, and they all had thigh gaps and collar bones sticking out as they sashayed down the runways.

I immediately found my dad’s measuring tape for house projects in the garage. I measured myself. My hips and waist were too big by several inches. So I sucked in, and retried. Still too big.

Back at school, the modeling comments started becoming more frequent. America’s Next Top Model was the show to watch during that time. I became obsessed with wanting to be a model and live a glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle. I studied the designers, photographers and models feverishly on my family’s desktop computer. I read all the comments in fashion chat rooms and message boards. My copy of ‘Modeling for Dummies’ became my Bible. I wanted this to be my life so badly.

Soon, I decided to lose a little weight to achieve the runway look. It all started out innocently, like most diets do. I’d skip dessert here and there, I’d skip the bread basket at restaurants, and I stopped drinking soda. I saw some progress on the scale.

As a perfectionist, I decided to keep going with this ‘diet thing.’ Soon I was cutting out entire food groups (Goodbye carbs, sugars and fats). I started buying zero calorie products to get that ‘guilt free’ feeling relief of eating with no caloric consequences.

I started counting every calorie, I ignored my hunger, and I’d work out without eating much or anything after. I’d weigh myself whenever I could sneak into my parent’s bathroom. The scale dictated my happiness, the size of my clothes measured my worth. Of course, I kept measuring myself with that yellow, Stanley measuring tape to obtain that ‘gold standard’ size for modeling.

The obsession with food devoured my brain space. My emotions were deeply connected to my weight loss. If the number on the scale was low, I’d feel elated. If it stayed the same or increased, I’d be stricken with the feelings that I wasn’t good enough.

Eventually, I did get a modeling contract with a prestigious agency in New York City. My dream was finally coming true. Hopefully I can sustain this starving myself thing for the next ten-ish years, I’d think to myself.

Just as I was preparing to move to New York City after graduation, the bulimia kicked in. I ignored it the first time. I remember shrugging it off- this isn’t something to worry about, I’m not actually sick. It’s helping me with my career!

Food made me feel so much guilt, and I was convinced all foods would make me fat (I know now was wrong about that). Even if I ate zero calorie Jell-O or drank diet coke, I’d feel immense guilt.

My friends and family expressed concern about my weight loss, but I’d shut them out by rolling my eyes and changing the subject. I made it impossible for my family to help by keeping my behaviors hidden. I worked hard to present myself as ‘a normal teenage girl concerned about health.’

When I moved to New York City I lived in a model apartment. The agency praised me on my weight loss and I felt like a superstar. They’d take my measurements whenever I went into the office- and I finally ‘measured up’ (or more appropriately, ‘measured down’) to their impossible standards. The only thing was- they wanted me to be someone I wasn’t.

One day I walked into the agency and my agent, an ex-male model who would show off about partying with Kate Moss in the 90’s, announced ‘You can look like a wholesome American beauty, or you can look weird and androgynous. We want to wipe all of the wholesomeness out of you.’

I didn’t know what he meant, but I whole-heartedly agreed, because I felt like he owned me and my career. You see, when you’re a new model at one of the top agencies in the world, you’re incredibly replaceable. If you’re not willing to do the job the way they want you to, they’ll find someone else who will. So I smiled brightly, giggled and naïvely went along with the idea of ‘wiping the wholesomeness out,’ whatever that meant.

Soon, my hair was given a messy chop and dyed pitch black. My agent even seriously contemplated giving me ‘artistic’ dreadlocks (the salon convinced him otherwise). I was advised not to go in the sunlight because they wanted me to be incredibly pale. He also told me I wasn’t allowed to walk upstairs because that would build too much leg muscle. To complete the look, he gave me a bird skull to wear around my neck and a men’s cutoff tank top with a drawing of a dead body hanging on the front. He started calling me Megadeath to casting directors and photographers.

Despite being voted ‘Team Sunshine’ on my high school swim team, I traded in the brightness of my young spirit to be this reinvented, high fashion version of me: Megadeath. I continued to go along with it because I was afraid of being replaced.

When fashion week came around, the stress caused me to eat uncontrollably. When my body kicked into starvation mode, I’d open the pantry in the model apartment and experience something that I called a ‘food black out’. These were moments in which I’d lose my control and awareness and just eat on autopilot, throwing my care for calories and restriction to the wind- as means for survival. In those moments, my body was trying to restore itself. During these moments I felt hurried and frantic, as if I had to eat as much as I could before my ‘dieting brain’ would kick- in and make me restrict again.

Finally, I’d snap out of the binge-trance and I’d realize that almost all the food in the pantry had been eaten. Inevitably, I started gaining weight and my modeling career suffered for it.

Suddenly I was up several pounds on the scale. To my horror, my agents spotted the change immediately. Several of them made comments about the weight gain, and I could feel them glare at me with disdain when I walked out of the elevator doors and into the agency.

They stopped giving me attention and started focusing on giving other new models their time. My little teenage heart was breaking. My dispensability to these people became clearer to me with each interaction.

One night, I was sobbing on the bathroom floor in the model apartment. I wasn’t booking any high profile jobs, and I had an eating disorder that was dominating my life. As my mind raced, there was a sudden open space of calmness and I received the clarity I needed.

I heard my inner voice, which also felt a lot like God, say loudly and boldly: YOU CAN LEAVE NOW.
I could leave now? Leave modeling? I wondered about the possibility.

Experts estimate that we have 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. The thought to leave modeling had never crossed my mind until that moment. I held on to this thought a little longer, like a butterfly in my hands, trying to recognize its uniqueness.

After a few fleeting moments, I had two more seemingly superficial thoughts- though I know now that they had so much power over the course of my life. I thought to myself I can do Zumba again. (Remember, I was forbidden to exercise because I was ‘too muscular’ to be a high fashion model). The second thought was I can have cheesecake again!

Suddenly, the thought of food freedom flooded my heart. I remembered the bliss of going to a restaurant and ordering the foods I loved. It had been so long. In my state of desperation, God, Zumba and cheesecake helped me reclaim my life and choose recovery.

The next morning, I walked into the agency and sobbed to the agents who I knew would soon no longer ‘own me’. And then I quit. I told them I’d come back, but I was lying. I needed healing. I needed to rebuild my relationship with food and my body.

Soon after, I moved home with my loving parents who were eager to help me begin recovery. I saw a therapist who specialized in eating disorders once a week and a dietitian to help me stay on track. I also stopped weighing myself. It’s been almost ten years since I moved out of the model apartment, and I’m proud to say that I’m fully recovered.

My story highlights how susceptible I was to the media and how fragile an adolescent’s body image can be. Even though I’d been blessed with thin privilege my entire life, I still felt a massive pressure to change my body and become smaller.

My experience also highlights how the modeling industry needs to change. According to a report published by The International Journal of Eating Disorders and The Model Alliance, 31.2% of models surveyed have eating disorders and 64.1% of models have been asked to lose weight by their agency at some point. Of those surveyed, 48.7% of models admitted to doing ‘fasts,’ or cleanses or otherwise restrict their food intake to lose weight. These numbers reflect my experience and the pressures put on models to stay thin.

People get eating disorders for different reasons. Sometimes it has to do with a need for control, other times it can be means to cope. Eating disorders are sometimes consequences of a person’s environment or genetics, or a way to help feel accepted and beautiful in a world obsessed with thinness and weight loss. For me it was a culmination of most of those things, along additional pressure to be thin because of my occupation.

If your dreams and goals are connected to weight loss in any way, check to see if there’s a way to achieve that goal without changing who you are, or your size. Several years after my recovery, I’ve started modeling casually for fun at my natural size and my food freedom remains intact.

Now, I’m an Eating Disorder Recovery Coach and I’m determined to help other people through their recoveries and heal their relationship to food. A person’s relationship with food is meant to be uncomplicated, flexible and joyful, not rigid and obsessive.”

Courtesy Meg McCabe

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Meg McCabe. Follow her on Instagram here and visit her website here. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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