A Real Model Details the Pressure She’s Under to Stay Thin
If you believe what any other magazine’s diet trend pieces have to say, getting a Victoria’s Secret model body is a cinch: all you need is plenty of water, plenty of sleep, and rigorous exercise, and you can eat whatever you want “in moderation,” whatever that means.
Is it really this easy to be a glowing skinned, full haired and model-thin? Hell no. And what sort of a message are we sending to young girls when we pretend that it is?
The reality is most models focus a LOT on ensuring their diet is impeccable, and spend hours in the gym every day. The fact that your paycheck literally depends on the measurements of your body parts is a recipe for unhealthy body image.
And on any model’s Instagram, you’re more likely to see French croissants or 2 a.m. pizza instead of anyone admitting how hard they have to work to stay competitive in the fashion industry. After all, who wants to admit that having a sample sized, runway ready bod is actually work when some models tend to act as though drunk-munching McDonald’s is their only cardio?
Many models view posting loads of bread and pizza selfies as a type of defense towards critical comments about fashion model weight and diet when their very jobs depend on adhering to the sizes that the industry itself demands. But it’s this illusion of effortlessness that can be harmful to young girls and women who find fault in themselves for not living up to the standard.
And when so much of your job invites scrutiny of your body, whether your employers and friends see it as too fat or too thin, sometimes showing off food you might not have eaten is just a way of getting people to relax.
Renee Peters of Wilhelmina Models agreed to get transparent with us about the pressures of the industry, and her journey to accepting her natural body.
Can you tell a bit about your first experiences with the modeling industry?
When I was 12, I was recruited by one of those modeling schools at a mall in Nashville. I remember being so excited that someone considered me pretty enough to model, that I begged my parents to take me in and find out more. After pleading and crying, they finally let me go.
When we got there, a woman explained how perfect her school was for me, and that I would surely be a successful model with her help. There were only some “minor business details” to get out of the way first. The first of which were my measurements.
My height was good. My chest was good. But when she got to my waist and hips, she let out a sigh of disapproval and told me to lose 3 inches. The standard hip size for models is 34–35 and I was a 37. She handed us a brochure full of prices to attend their “school,” and told us to come back when I had lost my “baby weight.”
This really made an impression on me. I wasn’t old enough to understand that this “school” was a scam, no matter how many times my parents told me. Even more importantly, I was way too young to realize that I wasn’t fat at all. I was just about to go through puberty, so my extra layer of “baby fat” was completely normal and healthy. I was deeply hurt leaving that office, and not only felt embarrassed about my size but also formed the idea that body size determines beauty and success.
When did you start modeling?
I didn’t start professionally modeling until I was in college and 20 years old. Because of the experience I described above, my parents wouldn’t let me model until after I was out of school, or at least 18. I definitely wanted to do it still, and even more so as I got older. I remember going through my growth spurt a couple years later when I was 14, and being the perfect young model size, 5’8″ and awkwardly skinny. In my mind I was finally ready to start being a model, but they insisted that school was the most important thing.
At the time, I resented them for that. I loved looking at magazines, was inspired by the beautiful imagery, and wanted to be just like the models. Even though I didn’t understand my parents at the time, in hindsight it was the best thing they could have done for me.
How do you feel the modeling industry might have affected your adolescence and development?
Even when I was outside of the industry, I know I was affected by it. As teenagers, we are most vulnerable to outside influence and societal pressures. We are constantly bombarded with images and advertising that sell us a particular fantasy. I wanted what those images portrayed, and believed that the best way to obtain it was by fitting in.
As most teenage girls do, I worried about my weight, what I was wearing, and being cool. I wanted to be like the women I saw in media, movies, and fashion. I would go on diets and worried about wrinkles as early as 16.
What sort of pressures did you face when started modeling?
The first thing that any agency requires of its models is for them to maintain their measurements. It is in our contracts that we will stay the size we are when we sign, so there is a lot of pressure to keep up with our figures. If you gain weight and don’t get back into shape within a month or two, you can be dropped and lose your contract. I started modeling with my mother agency as a size 35 hip, and although my mother agency is very loving, industry standards still required that I maintained those measurements so that I could sign with other agencies around the world.
When I signed with an agency in London, for instance, I was 35 inches in my hips so that was the requirement of my contract. The same requirements were held with my agency in New York, Paris, Milan, Auckland, and Sydney. I think a lot of girls feel extra pressure as they get older to keep the same size, despite the fact that change is natural as we age.
What sort of an impact do you think the pressures of the modeling industry had on you and other girls you knew?
When your entire career revolves around your looks and measurements, a lot of self-inflicted pressure occurs. That was at least the case for me. I wanted to succeed so badly that I tried to be as skinny as I could be, and was very hard on myself if I gained any weight. I didn’t really feel as much pressure from my agencies as I put on myself.
I know that some girls, who either weren’t as self-disciplined as I am or that got scouted when they were young, felt more pressure from their bookers than I did. They would get warnings from their agencies to work out more and go on diets, and that if they didn’t lose weight they could lose their contracts. A lot of them didn’t want to work out or watch what they ate because they just wanted to be young and have fun. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear these things at 17 and 18, a time when your body is going through so many changes hormonally, and is only guaranteed to continue changing more and more. Expecting girls to maintain their measurements as they become women is unnatural to say the least.
Can you talk a bit about your journey back to your healthy weight and embracing your body?
For the past decade I based my happiness upon the size of my hips, the gap between my thighs, and the flatness of my tummy. I have gone from a size 4 to a size zero, counted calories and over-exercised. I didn’t realize I had a problem until recently, because I was eating healthy, plant-based food. I also wasn’t one of those models that smoked cigarettes instead of having lunch. I didn’t drink alcohol, drank plenty of water, and slept a full eight hours. In my mind I didn’t have a problem — on the contrary, I thought I was doing my body good.
I now know that despite my attempts to convince myself and everyone else that I was healthy, I wasn’t. I was obsessed with what I ate and how it would impact my inches. I was underweight and definitely did not eat enough. Self reflection has allowed me to be honest with myself and helped me realize that I needed to treat myself with more compassion. Not only for myself but also for all of the young women and men who looked up to me. I am now on the journey to health. I am not so hard on myself and I have achieved a healthy weight for my body. I love my natural curves and feel stronger than ever.
Some models are naturally really thin and they shouldn’t be criticized for that, just as models who are naturally fuller shouldn’t be criticized either. I was just trying to be a thin size 0 when I naturally was more of a size 4. Beauty is about working with what nature gave you, embracing it and loving it. That’s where I am now, and I am hopeful that the industry is leaning towards more body diversity too.
Your body has naturally evolved over the course of your career. You look stunning and healthy. Has this change effected your career at all?
Well first of all, thank you so much. For the first time in a long time I actually do feel beautiful and healthy. Unfortunately my career has actually been affected a lot. Not in the way that many people might think, however. My agencies are not the ones keeping me from work. On the contrary they have been extremely supportive and encouraging. They haven’t threatened to drop me, or suggested I go on diets. They actually see how much happier and healthier I am, and because of that think I am even more beautiful.
The problem that I am finding is that designers and advertisers look for girls that are either a size 0-2 to be the face of their campaigns. If they don’t want someone of that size, they are looking at the other end of the spectrum for plus size models or celebrities. If you are a size 4-6 (my measurements being that of a size 4 US) there aren’t many print jobs available. I have been relegated to more off-camera work at my current size, doing mainly fit modeling and some catalogue shoots. The mainstream public rarely sees images of girls that are average sized. They instead see, in most advertisements, girls and women either very small or very curvy. It makes me sad to realize that the majority of what my industry is selling, at least for now, is a body type much less attainable to the majority of people.
Can you give some advice to girls who are struggling with embracing their bodies?
We are so lucky to be alive and to experience this world. Too much time worrying about our bodies and other people’s opinions only takes away from experiencing it. Take a look in the mirror and realize that you are beautiful no matter what media might make you think. No one is perfect. Cellulite is normal, stretch marks are normal, freckles and moles, and different colored skin are ALL beautiful and normal. The images that you see in movies, magazines, and any other media are not. Most of the time they are photoshopped, edited, and have taken hours or even days and weeks to produce. Embracing who you truly are, and being healthy and happy are more important than anyone else’s opinion or judgement.
What are some resources that helped you to move past restriction, and may help other girls do the same?
I have learned a lot about moving past restriction and embracing healthy eating from YouTubers such as Freelee the Banana Girl and High Carb Hannah. I also love Dr. McDougall’s book The Starch Solution. On a more personal level, yoga and meditation have helped a lot when it comes to understanding the things that truly matter to me. The Model Alliance, a non-profit supporting models working in America, is also a wonderful resource for models and non-models alike.
What are some of your favorite foods to fuel your body with healthy energy and beautiful skin, hair, and nails?
Anything whole food-plant based is the best fuel for our bodies. Every day I am sure to eat lots of water-rich fruits (mangoes and stone fruits being my favorite), huge salads with dark leafy greens, and healthy starches such as potatoes, rice, quinoa, corn, and beans.
Anything else you want young girls facing body image issues to know?
Diversity and uniqueness make this world the beauty that it is. The problems that modeling industry are facing now, in my opinion, have to do with ignoring this fact. With the majority of models being all the same color, having similar features and all the same size, fashion is ignoring the multitude of beauty the world has to offer.
True beauty is more than a number. If I have learned anything from my years in the industry, it’s that the most successful models are the ones who exude confidence by accepting themselves for who they are. Being confident requires self love, and self love requires knowing your truth. No one is ever “perfect,” but if you accept yourself for who you truly are and love yourself, things that were once perceived as flaws can be your best asset.