Sophie Ward

commented on Submit Your Story 2013-10-06 19:34:14 -0700
I hadn’t planned on becoming a model. At fifteen I was painfully shy with a mouthful of braces and disheveled hair. I’d just had a growth spurt and was adjusting to the sudden length of my body. I took modeling classes with friends, thinking I could get a few lessons in posture and how to hold a teacup. Instead, I was being dressed and preened by other people, looking into a camera wondering what on Earth the photographer wanted from me and my twenty-something male co-star.

Two years later, another agency found my sister and I on the same day. I’ll never forget when the agent told me to ‘sharpen my edges,’ referring to my then seventeen year old body. These words marked my entry into disordered eating, a job requirement made necessary by the multibillion dollar fashion and beauty industry.

Over the next few months, I did sharpen my edges. I got my weight down to 56 kilograms, which for a woman over six feet tall is skeletal, at a BMI of 16.3. The expectation was to look healthy and thin, but not just slender. Borderline emaciation was ideal. I raked through health and fitness articles and studied the bodies of the (photo shopped) females in high fashion, my mind zeroing in on their bones, those sharp angles.

The first things to go were all of my favorite foods: bread, cake, chocolate. This was heartbreaking, since my mother and I had a tradition of making delicious sandwiches after long swims together. I told her personally to stop offering me chocolate at night. I didn’t eat rice, starchy vegetables or anything with gluten in it. I steered clear of nuts, avocados, every kind of oil. I pretended I didn’t know what ice cream was.

I declined hors d’oeuvres at parties, didn’t sip any soda, ingest a single fry or a piece of candy. My mantra was “no” and the intensity of my abstinence formidable. To the casual observer, I ate three meals a day. I was ‘healthy.’ In my own experience, I was exhausted. Getting dressed was a constant battle between my mind and my body. I often spent hours finding something I was comfortable wearing, which isn’t surprising since my other mantra was ‘I’m not good enough.’

Life was devoid of joy and full of danger, but I was determined to be accepted by the haute tribe I’d been invited into. Perfection and control were the standards by which I lived my life, a place where food was the enemy and my body the battlefield. Family members admonished me, worried and upset. I didn’t hear them; I was being rewarded for my efforts with paid modeling jobs. I kept restricting my diet. Little did I know I was now in the throes of anorexia.

Every evening, I walked quickly for kilometers, focusing on what I wanted to change about my body, sipping only water. On weekends I cycled up massive inclines, my chest heaving. For lunch and dinner I’d eat vegetables, protein, and peppermint tea. I drank liters of water every day, but my lips were chapped and my skin dry. My hair started to fall out after a few months of this regime. Still, if I went to bed hungry, I knew that I would wake up winning.

By the time Fashion Week came around, I pulled a hip ligament from my vigorous exercise. I booked a number of shows, but was so weak I could hardly walk down the runway. It took all my effort to get to the end without collapsing. Later, my agent called to say that I’d lost too much weight, not that I needed to put on more. “You’ll figure it out,” she said kindly. I was shocked and angry. Still not good enough. Over those weeks I lost editorials with Vogue, a number of shows, and probably more weight.

Why was a girl at the peak of her power reduced to being just a body? The truth is that fitting the model-mould requires having either been born into it and/or working hard to maintain it. The models I knew were a combination of these qualities. When we were cherry-picked from malls, schools and beaches at home, we felt special, otherworldly. Once we were inside the walls of the powers that be – the agencies and fitting rooms – the game changed. Suddenly the clothes didn’t quite fit right, and neither did we.

The fact is that humans are social creatures and will do whatever it takes to be accepted by their ‘tribe.’ When the acclaimed photographer I worked with dramatically photo shopped my image before me, I thought I would help by shaping my own body beyond work hours. My figure was the material, and we were the artists. It was a collective endeavor in which I willingly partook.

But the body is constantly changing. My efforts at control were militant; degrading my sense of self-worth while the industry celebrated me for it. I went to Paris, London and New York feeling insecure and unsupported, returning triumphant in the eyes of my audience. I was the toast of fashion week and moving to New York. Did I feel beautiful? Sometimes. Was I happy? I don’t remember. The facade of composure I maintained masked the anxiety I actually felt. My attachment to weight control corresponded directly to my need for certainty in a shaky career. When I didn’t know if I’d be working tomorrow, the power I exerted over my body provided a sense of autonomy. It was the one thing I felt I was master of.

I did find middle ground, but even then my agency didn’t change my measurements. I was locked into the sentence of a 34 inch hip, which I worked hard to maintain along with many other models several inches shorter. I knew girls who regularly ‘cleansed’ with liquid diets, girls who didn’t eat all day and drank all night, dancing off the calories with drugs. I lived with bulimics and binge-eaters, girls who had plastic surgery, who spent hours in the bathroom plucking and waxing, scrubbing and preening.

It was the day a friend told me I was her ‘thinspiration’, presenting a picture of my emaciated self on a pro-anorexic website, that I knew something was off. So many girls – yes, girls – in the industry had eating disorders, and we were all encouraging each other with our quiet collegiate bond. Our focus was not on our inner selves but our image, which in the end was going to wither away anyway.

I was cottoning onto something important. Yes, my body was my home, but I was trashing it with derogatory thoughts. I hardly acknowledged my feelings; I’d learnt to override the persistent pangs of hunger by telling myself they were good for me. I was the only one living with myself, and she wasn’t very fun to be around.

I couldn’t keep it up any longer. Anorexia had given me a sense of stability, now it was eating me alive. I didn’t feel vital. Certain organs in my body had completely shut down. I didn’t menstruate for years. Acknowledging I had a problem was the first step out. I realized that my appearance was not worth my health, nor my sense of self-worth. Like countless others, I’d been swept away by the beauty myth, the promise that we could just be better – or even perfect – if we bought this or looked like that. What I didn’t know at the time was that the images I struggled to emulate were airbrushed to the tune of an unattainable ideal. I’d bitten the apple and fell under the spell. It was good advertising. But I was smarter.

Yearning for some other model of wellbeing, I paid attention to women who had broken the spell, some of them ex-models. These women made a huge difference in how I saw the world and my potential place in it. It took immense courage to step beyond the confines of the tribe I was in, to leave its members for new horizons. When we take this step with an authentic desire for something different, we can begin to seek alternatives to the prison we have locked ourselves into. In the end, I had the key the entire time. Only I knew how to release the lock.

Has the industry changed since then? A little. Not much. In America there now exists a union known as The Model Alliance, created by Sara Ziff and other models. It protects and supports models’ basic labor rights, which is a vital and necessary step towards making the industry a safer place to work. Psychologically, I believe the same pressures are there, and may be for some time. The pursuit of beauty has existed for centuries, spurring women to adopt all manner of adornments and adjustments, often painful and sometimes extreme.

In Australia, I worked with models as young as 13. Alissa Quart notes in her book Branded that the number of teenage breast implants and liposuctions in America rose by 562% between 1994 and 2001. Are we raising women to believe that their beauty and bodies are their best asset? Why aren’t we marking images with disclaimers if they’ve been photo shopped? Society demands transparency in politics and food, what about the food we feed our mind and soul?

It appears that the root cause of the body-image issue, whether manifesting as anorexia, bulimia, obesity, or self-loathing, is far more widespread than a single scapegoat like sample sizes. It takes many stones to make a mountain. The stones we’re dealing with here cannot be picked up or pointed to. They are formed by our thoughts, words and actions, perpetuated not only by major beauty firms but our own choices. Many of us quite literally ‘buy into’ the beliefs sold to us everyday.

It took me three years to stop starving my body. It took another year to examine my thoughts. What I learnt was that there was a different kind of sustenance I needed to be aware of. I started to notice what I was reading, watching, listening, buying and paying attention to. I let go of the need to ‘fit in’ or ‘measure up.’ I let myself be me, free from the dictates of others. Slowly I began to love myself exactly as I was.

My eating disorder wasn’t just about food. It stemmed from a desire to be loved, noticed and accepted – all very human motives. An imbalance occurred when I picked up on a message that I might not be inherently worthy exactly as I was. What broke my heart was the belief that I was somehow not enough.

We are enough. Women are incredibly powerful, simply by the fact that we are female. The future of our species relies upon women being well. We hear news of female abuse from all around the world. Here in the West we internalize that same violence by shaming our bodies and polluting our minds. We mute the inner strength of girls by raising them to accept a belief that has crippled so many and continues to starve more. We must raise them to question it.

I came out the other side of anorexia stronger for having survived the effects of my chronic self-hatred. I learnt how to heal myself, step by brave step. I chose the road less taken, one that I didn’t have a map for at the time. Thankfully, I found other women on that path whose steps further embolden the cause. Today, I can confidently say that I am perfectly me – and that that is more than enough.

Let Your Voice Be Heard

Now Accepting Stories From Women (Not Just Mothers) About Your Bodies From Around The World Of Any Race, Any Ethnicity, Any Sexual Orientation, Any Age! 

Women and mothers have the most amazing, difficult, passionate, and inspiring stories to tell about their bodies, their tiger stripes, battles with cancer & illness, stretch marks, sexual abuse or their thinning out, their gaining weight, their breast-feeding, their miscarriages and beyond. So many stories swirl around these bodies of ours and sharing our stories is the best way to empower ourselves, to realize we are not alone, to help others embrace their own bodies.

Silence keeps our voices and our beautiful selves unheard. By telling your story maybe you help another woman feel strong enough to tell hers.

Take Your Time! Compose your thoughts. There is no rush. Take notes. Maybe write an outline of your memories, thoughts, & feelings. Then, sit down, and write your story! 

Here are some questions that can guide your story but by no means are these required guidelines:

  • How do you feel about your body? 
  • What story or stories have you been carrying with you?
  • Was there a specific moment that defined your story or is it layered over time? Explain.
  • What hopes and dreams do you have for future generations of women?
  • What has helped your progress to feel beautiful & cultivate self-esteem?
  • Do you have marks from child-birth and what story do those represent for you?
  • Have you been keeping anything inside that you wish you could finally get out?
  • Have you been able to improve how you feel about yourself and if so, how?
  • Did you struggle to get pregnant? Did you have a miscarriage? Did you ever lose a child?
  • Did you ever have to abort a pregnancy?
  • What is your story about your body?
  • What would you like to be different in how you view your story and your body?