Lately, I’ve been asking other models, “If you could go back and do it all over again, would you?” Ninety percent of them say “yes.” Then I ask, “If your daughter wanted to model, would you let her?” Just as many say no.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t modeled,” they rationalize in defense of their first answer. And I feel the same way. If I hadn’t moved to Paris when I was 18, I wouldn’t be fluent in French. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the lilting German of an Austrian and the hardened German of a German. I wouldn’t know the difference between Parma ham from Italy and Serrano ham from Spain. And I wouldn’t be able to recognize the difference between the Japanese hiragana and katakana syllabaries.
But I don’t want my daughter to spend more time reading Vogue than the New York Times when she grows up, to be more concerned about the weight of her body than the weight of the words she speaks when she expresses her beliefs. I don’t want her to grow up thinking that beauty and riches are more important than intelligence, hard work and kindness. I want her to be strong — both physically and emotionally. I want her to be happy with the way she looks, no matter how imperfect. I want her to be bold and courageous and confident. I will praise not the way she looks but how persistent she is when tackling a problem. I will educate her about the advertising industry, so she understands that if women don’t feel bad about themselves, products don’t sell.
I arrived in Paris on Sept. 12, 1988, armed with two Polaroid pictures and three years of high school French. I was 18, straight out of Catholic school and about to discover what it it’s like to be one of the 99% of international fashion models who never make it onto the cover of Vogue.
I never wanted to be a model. My plan was to get a PhD in psychology or economics, but I wanted out of the Midwest. I wanted to move to California and attend UC Berkeley. But with eight kids to support, my dad laughed when I mentioned out-of-state tuition. There weren’t many options for a high-school-educated girl with no money and no connections. One night, I was stopped by a modeling scout while working on a history paper at my local library in Michigan. I explained my dilemma, and she offered to hook me up with a modeling agent in San Francisco. Before I knew it, that agent was flying me to Paris for the fall shows.
When we were not peddling thin and gorgeous, other stuff we were asked to do is equally queasy-making. I remember one day, after a particularly wild night at a nightclub, I apologized to the photographer for looking so terrible. He told me he preferred me that way because the heroin chic look was in, and could I please scowl for the camera. Models aren’t what they seem in magazines. They’re plainer-looking without makeup, lighting and touch-ups, and they’re often lonely, hungry and unhappy. The smiles aren’t real. The boyfriends aren’t real. The fancy clothes and cars aren’t real.
I had planned to quit modeling for good when I left Paris, but when I learned I could work part-time in L.A. while attending college, I decided to give it a try. My career was going downhill anyway — Macy’s, Mervyn’s and fashion shows at the Beverly Center hardly compared to walking the runways of Paris and Milan. And then I started gaining weight. I was 27 and, after years of trying to gain weight because I thought I was too thin, my metabolism had begun to slow. I burst the seams on a pair of pants during a catalog shoot. And then I was asked to wait backstage while all the other models paraded down the runway for the finale of a fashion show because the evening gowns were too tight around my hips. My nine-year modeling career was finally over.
After that, I was broke, living paycheck to paycheck and working harder than ever before. And you know what? I’d never been happier. I was dating an awesome guy, a grade school teacher who drove a pickup with primer painted all over the back and who didn’t give a shit about fashion. I had the most wonderful cat in the world, who left me gifts of bird heads and rat asses on my doorstep, and I got to see my brother and his family as often as I wanted. Best of all, I earned my college degree — I graduated summa cum laude as an English major from UCLA — and now I’m doing what I love: writing, editing and eating good food.
We, as mothers, have the power to change the fashion industry, one little girl at a time. And I’m going to start with mine.
Meghan Ward is currently working on a memoir titled "Paris on Less Than $10,000 a Day." Excerpted from “Runway: Confessions of a Not-So Supermodel,” an original memoir for Shebooks, the new publisher of short e-books by and for women.