I’m greeted at the door by the sight of a beautiful blonde woman with both her small breasts out, pulling a see-through ivory dress over the visible bones of her chest. A stylist asks her to turn around so she can cinch the fabric tight around her narrow waist.
“I don’t like the way your chest looks in this,” the stylist frowns. The blonde’s face falters.
“Okay,” she breathes and bends her threadlike limbs behind her back to untie the belt around her waist. I fear that she’s going to split in two as she bends back. The blonde pulls the dress over her head and a taller, somehow even frailer model steps up to take her place.
This is the nature of the beast, each of us so easily interchanged like three-dimensional paper dolls. We are so easily undressed and discarded in favor of a different edition with newer modifications, slimmer features, and more exotic abilities to offer.
The room stinks of hairspray and linoleum. The fluorescent lights above hum in a one-note symphony. The room can’t be warmer than 45 degrees. All of the rail-thin women inside have goosebumps from their chests to their toes.
“I don’t see why they have to turn the air down so low,” a statuesque black model remarks. She’s wrapped in a blanket and the color has faded from her face. “Most of us are already anemic.”
It’s been a little while since I’ve been in a room like this, so I’ve forgotten that modesty is left at the door and conditions are usually uncomfortable at best. I shuffle my way through the crowd of models waiting to be fitted for their looks and make my way toward one of the two chairs in the gymnasium-turned-dressing-room.
I try my best to settle in, pulling out my water bottle and peanut butter sandwich, but I’m apprehensive to eat. The gamble is between making sure I fit into the dress I’ve been assigned and risking passing out.
I bet on the latter.
Besides, I’m not getting paid for this show, so I need the pictures to look good. That's all I’m getting from this show—that is, if I can manage to find a photographer willing to give me a couple photos without watermarks (after all, I don’t have $300 to spare for one image).
I can’t risk not getting to wear the sequined ball gown I squeezed into the other day. I put my sandwich back in my bag and ignore the burning hunger in my stomach, trying to soften it with some sips of water.
This is the reality of New York Fashion Week.
Of course, this isn’t what most people imagine modeling is like—because the most famous models don’t experience these kinds of conditions. Household-name models—your Naomi Campbell, Gigi Hadid, and Kendall Jenner—can arrive late to runway shows and make hundreds more for one show than most of us make in an entire season.
Modeling has always been difficult. For most jobs, we’re only promised the ever-so-lucrative “exposure” or the assurance that we’ll be seen by major agencies and get lucky enough to one day book a major commercial opportunity. After the fact, many of us don’t even get the kind of exposure we were promised and end up settling for pictures with huge watermarks so big you can barely distinguish the small bodies behind them.
Most of us don’t even get lucky enough to ever be seen by the major agents in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Instead, we exchange dieting tips and laugh about how hungry all of us are. Like it’s so glamorous. Like watching girls disappear to the bathroom for 20 minutes and come back smelling like cigarette smoke and sour vomit suppressed by 0-calorie mint gum is something to take pride in.
“My agent asked me to lose another two inches from my waist,” a model remarks, pressing the palms of her hands into her waist and pressing inwards to create an impossibly small shape in her already hollow frame. As much as I hate it, she’s right—it would get her more work.
In between shows, I force down a quarter of a protein bar and drink the rest of my water. Hunger burns, but I can’t leave yet. I’ve got another six hours of this to go. Hopefully, I’ll get out in enough time to grab a smoothie before everything closes and commute the 45 minutes back to my best friend’s apartment. I just wonder when the exposure will start paying rent. I wonder what it will take for brands to start seeing us as important assets to their business model, not dispensable, replaceable dummies. I wonder what it will take for me to know when enough is enough. Or if I ever will.
As models, we’re paid to disappear—both in our bodies and the clothes that surround them. This NYFW, I can only hope you do more than look at us; I hope you see us too.