By Pamela Simpson
They say that it takes a very strong person to survive the modeling industry. I consider myself extremely strong, having survived the death of a lover, losing a child, overcoming a skin-cancer diagnosis and coping with countless other lows in life. But still, I was not strong enough to cope as a model, and so my story did not have a happy ending. Then again, that depends on who’s telling the story, and on where the ending begins.
I didn’t land up on drugs or compromising my personal values for the sake of getting ahead, but I started down a horrible journey of self-abuse where I would starve my body of nutrients to the point of suffering illness and berating myself internally for never being good enough. I learnt to hate my body, and began to hate myself. Any form of happiness or fulfillment I thought I might get by being a model simply didn’t exist. And so I failed.
I was the model who never was.
Still, people always used to refer to me as ‘the model’. Even now, it comes up as a defining feature and some will still say ‘she used to be a model’ as though it was the best thing I ever did. No mention of the year I spent working with children in the rural eastern province of Zambia, or how I wrote a book. It’s a label that seems appropriate, given my 6 ft. naturally slender frame, but somehow I’ve never felt like it suited me.
I felt uncomfortable when introduced to new people (outside of the industry) who would say ‘Oh, you’re the model’ as though that summed me up. They had me figured out before I even opened my mouth. Being a model meant I was judged by those I worked for, and by those who had nothing to do with my career. I was judged by everyone I met and it hurt to know that I was automatically the unattainable, even though I was right there.
I felt like a ghost, living inside myself, always being looked at but never being seen.
An impressionable teenager and a late bloomer, I entered the industry when I was in the process of growing up; a very volatile time and extremely dangerous for a woman’s sense of self worth. Young women based on their insecurities make so many mistakes. Doing things in the hopes of gaining someone’s love, changing things about themselves in the hopes of winning someone’s approval. I was no different than every other girl out there, battling with issues of body-image and self-acceptance, but I threw myself into a room full of vultures when at my most vulnerable. I was not ‘strong’ enough to endure it. But that is a strength I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Some people pass through this stage of intensive self-criticism and insecurity by rebelling against everything they are told, refusing to adhere to any form of beauty upheld by society, and others survive and try to make do by doing what they are told. I fall more into the doing what I’m told camp, and that combined with an industry that so often cares nothing for the person behind the flesh, was disastrous.
When they said I was too pale, I believed them and used tanning beds that eventually resulted in skin-cancer. When they said my face was not traditional enough, I believed them and let them spend hours covering my features and contouring with make-up even though I hated having so much gunk suffocating my skin. When they told me I had to be even thinner, I starved myself. When they said that my look was just not good enough, I eventually believed that I was never good enough. I wished that I could look different – then I might feel different about myself, and might find fulfillment. I started to see myself through a microscope that was as unrelenting as it was unforgiving.
Eventually I left that all behind me and swore never to go back again, but I left a broken mass of insecurities. The mirror I held up to myself was shattered, and it took years for me to heal from it all.
I think I eventually overcame it because I stopped trying to work with the old broken mirror, threw it out and found a new way to reflect myself both inwardly and outwardly. Now I am so much happier for it. Instead of seeing myself through the eyes of the media, I chose to appreciate and study the beauty around me till I had a new standard to step into. The look in kind eyes. The way skin flushes when in love. The way smile-lines map out an invitation to trust, and how your partner radiates while doing something just to make you feel better.
I still find myself enjoying the photo’s of the pretty people in magazines and on the runways, because beauty comes in many forms. And I admire my breathtaking friends who still work in the industry and who find the strength to pose for a bloodthirsty audience. But I try never to compare myself anymore.
I was laughing with a friend the other day about how I am so much more satisfied in myself and content with how I look, even though I am now a good 15kg’s heavier, and have lumps, cellulite and wrinkles. I enjoy my body more than I ever did when I was waif-like, and even though I still ‘wish’ I could be thinner (who doesn’t), it isn’t something that seeps deep into the core of my self-worth.
‘I’ am more important to me, and I will never do those things to myself again because I know that the end of that road is empty and cold. I will never starve myself again, but rather eat to support my ever-strengthening body. I will never see exercise as a form of punishment again, but will move my body to feel good, get the blood flowing, and enjoy all the world has to offer someone of privilege (in the sense of being able-bodied). This is why I love doing cartwheels so much!
In my case, the un-happy ending wasn’t the end of it. I found my happiness years later, after dealing with so much of the poison that was left in me from my modeling days. I learnt to accept and love myself, flaws and all. And I learnt to look at the world around me through newer, knowing eyes, and appreciate true beauty for what it is.
I love beauty. I love beautiful things and beautiful people. But it was through the industry that I found how beauty means so much more when found in the eye of the beholder. Beauty that is dictated through media and a societal measuring stick no longer seems beautiful when you are standing on the inside of that circus ring. After coming through it all, I have discovered my own view of beauty, and the pocks and marks of ‘imperfection’ become the most enticing things to those of us who were polished and rubbed to within an inch of our outer layer of skin.
When I look at the models now, I don’t just see beauty, but the beautiful people who are fighting to survive a war I narrowly escaped, and I say a silent prayer for having had the strength to walk away.
Image: By her adoring husband, Bruce Simpson