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From Stilettos to Sneakers: How Quitting Modeling Made Me Healthier and Happier

 

Confession: I used to model. I was young, I was beautiful, and I didn’t know it. I stumbled into modeling as a lanky musical theater performer in New York City. After one model scout, then another, stopped me on the street, I found an agency. I figured it beat waiting tables. I was 22 years old and had an “underweight” BMI of 18.2. “Normal” starts at 18.5, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But I didn’t think of myself as a model. I was shocked every time someone hired me: major-market magazines, brands you see in Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, boutiques, hair care companies, and morning talk shows. Showrooms—where I modeled a brand’s wares for buyers from Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and other big-name stores—were my bread and butter, but I did some print, TV, and runway too. I was never a top girl, but one of the nameless, sometimes faceless minions selling an image of beauty of which I didn’t believe myself worthy. (Fortunately, times are changing—check out these six Inspiring Women Who are Redefining Body Standards.)

At go-sees (modeling lingo for auditions), I faced a barrage of physical critiques. I heard I was too short, too tall, too old, too young, too fat, or too thin. I was too everything and not enough of anything. One booker at a major agency even suggested I have a rib removed to help whittle my already 24-inch waist. While I was able to shrug off that comment as insane, others were harder to shake. People talked about me in the third person, looking my body up and down: “Her skin is just so pale. She looks like a ghost,” one client said. Meanwhile I silently stood in front of them in a bra and underwear as they railed against my “ghostly” skin, “uneven” lips, and “chunky” rear.

No matter how confident, self-assured, and smart you are, negative comments can get to you. I lost weight, dropping to a BMI of 17.3—when under 17.5 is considered at risk for anorexia. I never starved myself, vomited, used diet pills, or exercised excessively. But I chose what I ate carefully, counted calories, and developed unhealthy habits. When one regular client wanted me to gain two pounds, I scarfed down cheeseburgers and whole pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. But my next client wanted me three pounds lighter. So onto the Cabbage Soup Diet I went.

As for exercise? I’d been a healthy competitive swimmer and collegiate rower-turned-dancer while I focused on theater. But cardio made me hungry and tired, and I often had go-sees during dance class. So weight training became my go-to, largely because of a knee problem that made everything but non-impact exercise painful. But also because it didn’t make me hungry. (If you're into weight lifting too, check out The Single Dumbbell Workout.)

Throughout those years, I can remember thinking that I that I wasn’t young enough, tall enough, thin enough, or pretty enough to be truly successful as a model. I remember intimating as much to one photographer—someone who’s shot for America’s Next Top Model and major magazines. He scoffed and shook his head, offering genuinely encouraging words. He was right. I try to remember that when I look at the current iteration of myself.

[The author during her modeling years, left, and today, right]

In the end, I came to realize that pursuing my career as a model had made me susceptible to unhealthy habits that may have made me skinny, but certainly not fit. Around a decade ago, I quit modeling to start a new career, getting my master’s degree in journalism. With my hireability no longer based on looks, I started gaining weight. Nearly 10 years and 12 pounds later, I’m fitter, healthier, and happier. My BMI is inside the “normal” range at 19.2. I run regularly, swim and bike in the summer, and do other activities that make me happy.

Now, that space between my thighs is gone, and I wear lubricant when I run to prevent chafing thighs. But I can run a mile faster than I could when I was 12, 22, and 32 years old. (Want to improve your own fitness? Here's how to Shave a Minute Off Your Mile.) I care less about what other people think, and I’m more comfortable in my pale skin. I don’t focus on being thin. I focus on being healthy and happy. (That’s not to say that you can’t be thin and healthy.) 

Sure, I still eat Ben & Jerry’s, but a single serving at a time. And I still scarf the occasional cheeseburger—because I’m hungry after racing a half-marathon, not because someone tells me I need to gain two pounds. I don’t count calories anymore. And cabbage soup? No, thank you. 

I’ll admit, sometimes I wince when I look in the mirror and see the wrinkles nesting around my eyes or the soft pads of flesh that have made a home on my upper thighs. It’s easy to entertain unkind thoughts about myself that I wouldn’t dare think about anyone else. So I try to appreciate that my eye wrinkles have come from smiling, laughing, and swimming in goggles as I train for my next triathlon. The extra flesh on my bottom is courtesy of my husband’s home-cooked meals.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: I’ll always be young and beautiful if I want to be—young at heart and beautiful of mind. We all can be. So good riddance to thinking I am not enough or too too. I am young, I am beautiful, and I always will be. Now I know I’m beautiful, and that’s what makes me beautiful, no matter what One Direction sings.

Karla Bruning is a freelance writer who blogs about all things running at RunKarlaRun.com.

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