I’m going to go slightly off-topic in this post – I hope you can bear with me. It’s Sunday evening and I am writing this on a very overcrowded train home from London. I have spent most of my day in a nearly as overcrowded hair salon in Warren Street being preened and made up and fussed over, and then photographed. My hair alone took from 9.30am until 2.30pm to get right (‘right’ involved bleaching, cutting, the application of four different toners, cutting again, and styling). I’ve just tried to get the blue mascara out of my eyebrows rather unsuccessfully, although no one on the train seems particularly bothered by a girl with blue-ish eyebrows and a strange ‘alien pixie’ haircut.
I became a rather accidental model about three years ago, when an amateur photographer friend asked me to pose for him. Since then, I have only done the odd thing here and there, never for money and usually in a fairly amateurish set-up. Today is by far the biggest and most professional crew of people I have worked with. Before I started doing it, or giving it any particular thought, I had never realised that there is a whole network of photographers and models and stylists and makeup artists out there doing shoots with each other for free, to build up portfolios or get some practice in. Some of the models want to make a career out of it; a lot of them do it for fun, on the side.
The reason I am choosing to write about this is because I have always felt slightly ambiguous about modelling. If I sat myself down and truly interrogated my motives for doing it, I would probably admit that it is purely out of vanity, a need for affirmation, a fear of getting old, a desire for attention from others. I don’t often talk about it, and when I do it’s usually slightly reluctantly and apologetically, because I know deep down how ridiculous it is and how vain and self-indulgent I must come across when I say that I do it.
Also, as a woman who is pro-feminist and pro-women’s rights and gender equality, why am I participating in something that is essentially about commodification, the male gaze, and a rather superficial and one-dimensional definition of ‘beauty’ as dictated by society? You can dress it up any which way you want, but the beauty and fashion industry is at best ridiculous, at worst destructive. So many women are obsessed with their appearance and hide their unhappiness and insecurities behind layers of expensive creams and makeup and false eyelashes and hair extensions. Do I really want to endorse the constructs that perpetuate this?
It’s all very well pretending to be a strong, confident, no-nonsense kind of person who just does a bit of modelling on the side for a laugh – the reality is, as soon as you’re in front of a camera trying not to look like a grumpy moron (which seems to be my default face position in that situation), you basically open yourself up to a whole shitload of self-doubt and insecurity of the most pointless and superficial kind. Am I pretty enough? Am I as good as the 22-year-old with the high cheekbones and sultry mouth who was up before me? Am I not way too old for this? Do these tiny hotpants make me look like an elephant?
And then, you get to see the photos for the first time and you can hardly bear to look at them because crushing disappointment is without fail the first response. Geez, I look like an angry Danny DeVito in that one. And it looks like I have about three chins in that other one. God don’t my eyes look squinty there. Why do I do this to myself?!
Then, because your neediness wins out in the end, you put a small selection of them on Facebook accompanied by a handful of emojis and you watch the reassuring stream of social media affirmation flood in: ‘Like’; ‘BABE!’, ‘Wow!’ etc. Your sense of self-worth suitably restored, you get on with your life without thinking too much more about it for fear of seeing yourself for what you would rather not imagine yourself to be.
I faced up to some of the above some time last year, after basically having quite a hard time and not liking myself very much. I deactivated my online model profile and stopped actively seeking out shoots. I decided to do the one today mainly because my friend Kalina, a very talented stylist as well as an all-round lovely creature, had asked me, and because I needed a haircut anyway.
I also did it to prove something to myself, I suppose. What exactly, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe that I can do this without making a big deal out of it. That I can acknowledge it for what it is, i.e. vacuous and silly, but enjoy it like I might enjoy other things that are vacuous and silly. That I can take more of a ‘fuck you’ attitude to it: so I’m 34, I’m not exactly a size 6, I’ve never been on a diet and have no intention of starting, if someone wants to take my photo then great and thanks for the compliment, if not then well who cares, there are really more important things to worry about.
The model up before me was a delightful young Korean architect, fresh out of university. She’d never done any modelling before and had only been roped in the day before when she came in for a haircut. She looked incredible. Amazing cheekbones. She was also chatty, giggly and completely unassuming. Her photos will almost definitely turn out better than mine – but you know what? Good for her. It’s time to get over myself I think.