At some point in their young lives, most girls dream - if only fleetingly - of being a model when they grow up. This fantasy occurs regardless of whether the girl in question is actually tall enough, skinny enough or pretty enough for the job, and is helped along by the images of perfection we see in fashion layouts and beauty ads - who doesn’t want to look like that? - and by the childlike perception that models lead lives of unrepentant glamour with nonstop parties, travel and adventure day and night (kind of like being a champagne-fuelled Cinderella, 24/7, without the wicked stepsisters).
For many otherwise sensible and intelligent girls, there is the subtle, nagging belief that maybe, just maybe, one day, if we used the right shampoo, the right makeup, the right exfoliant, toner and moisturiser - and ate a bit less and exercised a bit (ok, a lot) more—we, too, might have what it takes to become the next Kate, Naomi or Gisele.
At 5’5” and with a less than model-esque face and figure, I realised early on I didn’t have what it takes to be a catwalk queen. But that didn’t stop me from buying into the Fashion Body Myth nonetheless. Every month from the age of 12, I'd run to the local magazine store after school and buy the latest issues of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle and Glamour, then spend days poring over their pages, searching for the key that would gain me access to the Kingdom of Perfection displayed between those seductively glossy covers.
Although my rational mind knew that no amount of lotions and potions or pricey designer duds would transform me from a bespectacled bookworm into an internationally recognised beauty icon, on an emotional level, deep down, I still harboured a secret fantasy that maybe, just maybe, one day, if I figured out the right combination of the right products, I, too, might suddenly blossom from a Before to an After, emerging from the chrysalis transformed into something - nay, someone - other than myself.
For that, in a nutshell, is the lure of The Fashion Body: it speaks to our innate desire for transformation; our longing to shed our own mundane, prosaic skin (and lives) and inhabit a figure - and future - full of promise and possibility. A future in which we would never again feel anything less than perfect.
Of course, everyone on this planet feels less than perfect; it’s the human condition (and if there’s someone who belies this statement, I’ve yet to meet them). Self-acceptance is, for most of us, a lifelong process that happens in fits and starts, beginning in childhood and ending when we die.
Several years ago, my own journey toward self-acceptance got a huge, and completely unexpected, boost from the very Fashion Body that used to inspire my teen bouts of self-loathing ('I want to look like that! I’ll never look like that.'), when I was assigned to cover the Ford Supermodel of the World contest. There was something about seeing 50-odd gorgeous, giggling teenage hopefuls gathered backstage that prompted what can only be called an epiphany. Gazing at these perfectly realised physical specimens - all gangly pipe cleaner limbs, flat stomachs and giraffe-like height - I was struck by the inescapable realisation that despite all the fashion magazines I'd read over the years and all the beauty products and treatments I'd tried, I would never, ever look like one of these girls, who are held up as the ideal to which we should all aspire. Like a thunderbolt, I suddenly understood (and I mean really understood, in the deepest recesses of my being) that true physical beauty - the kind about which poems are written and songs are sung - is, like world-class athletic or musical ability, a genetic crapshoot. Nothing more, nothing less.
But somehow, instead of being dispiriting, this realisation was incredibly liberating and it instantly - and irrevocably - freed me from the tyranny of my self-imposed Fashion Body expectations. For no matter how many expensive face creams I bought, how many laps I did around the track, or many designer dresses I owned, I would never, not in a million years, be one of them. I would only be me. And from that moment on, that was enough.