99 Problems

Published on April 22nd, 2014 | by Meghan Ward


Meghan Ward is A MODEL PARENT

I’m sitting on a South Lake Tahoe beach beneath one of those big ugly shade structures when my sister-in-law nods in the direction of my three-year-old daughter, who’s standing at the shore in a ruffled red bathing suit, one hand on her hip and the other wrapped around a plastic shovel.

“If she wants to model when she gets older, will you let her?” Kasia asks.

“She won’t be able to model,” I say. “She has my nose.” It’s no secret that I had a nose job when I was in high school.

“But you’ll let her, won’t you? If she wants to?”

This was a trick question. I had spent six years working as a full-time fashion model in my late teens and early twenties, so I’d be hypocritical to forbid my daughter from modeling. And yet my sister-in-law, as granola as she is, couldn’t possibly think modeling would be a good thing for my daughter.

Paris Test circa 1989 (III) with border

“I will discourage her,” I said. Oh hells yes will I discourage her. I will start by filling her head with tales of men who masturbate against young models in the crowded metro, photographers who ask you to pose nude, playboys who encourage you to dance for dollars, and models whose self-esteem is so low they end up dating abusive boyfriends, drinking too much, taking drugs, and suffering from eating disorders and depression. And if my scare tactics don’t work, I’ll tag along with her to Paris and Milan, fending off stalkers with “Va te faire foutre!” and “Vaffanculo stronzo!”

I guess my daughter’s obsession with princesses and fairies and all things pink and sparkly lately has me thinking about my own anti-feminist past—those years I consciously shut my eyes to the horrors perpetrated by fashion magazines (the eating disorders, the self-hatred, the substance abuse, the self-hatred, the abusive relationships … the self-hatred) and spent my days strutting down Paris runways in foot-binding high heels and see-through tops, my bare breasts exposed to the world.

I knew that what I was doing wasn’t good for women. I was appalled by ads that used sex to sell products. I felt bad about the impossible standards we teenage girls—who ate burgers and milkshakes without gaining an ounce—were setting for women in their 30s and 40s, with their slowing metabolisms and postpartum bellies. But I didn’t care because I was making money. A lot of money. A hundred thousand dollars pales in comparison to the millions supermodels make today, but it was a lot for a 20-year-old from a middle class home in the Midwest. I bought an apartment in Paris when I was 21. I bought an Alfa Romeo for my French boyfriend when I was 22.

Runway cover copy

Modeling gave me a chance to see the world, to learn to speak French, and to write in Japanese. I have modeling to thank for snow skiing in Zermatt and waterskiing in Sydney. If it weren’t for modeling, I never would have danced with Milli Vanilli or shared hors d’oeuvres with Robert DeNiro. I never would have discovered the novels of Graham Greene in Shinjuku or the songs of Serges Gainsbourg on Crete.

So, why, up there with smoking crack and being sold into sex slavery, is modeling on my list of top ten things that I hope my daughter will never do?

Because despite the glamour, the money, and the travel, I spent a good deal of time hating life. And I blamed modeling for that. I blamed modeling for the money I spent on large group awareness trainings, self-help books, and St. John’s Wort. I blamed modeling for my loneliness and depression. I blamed modeling for my failed relationships. But maybe it was the modeling business’s impossible standards that attracted me to it in the first place. Maybe it was my innate desire to challenge myself, to step out of my comfort zone, to be perfect that led me to a career in the fashion industry.

paris test circa 1990 with border

My daughter has both hands on her hips now as she stands back and appraises the sandcastle her brother helped her to build. She has leaves poking out of each turret and a flower in her hair. Her shoulders seem broad, I think. Maybe she’ll be too big to model. God willing, she will be too big to model.

For her third birthday I bought her a set of flat wooden dolls with magnetic clothing. I purposely chose the pudgier dolls, so she wouldn’t develop unrealistic expectations of her body. And yet, despite my efforts to keep our home Cinderella-free, she refuses to wear pants. Her favorite outfit is a pink ballerina dress, pink wings, and silver slippers. She dances around the house like she’s the Sugar Plum Fairy, her hands clutching daisies to her chest as though she were on the cover of a magazine.

I suppose it’s my fault that she’s so obsessed with fairies and princesses. I painted her room coral when she was born and dressed her in pink hand-me-downs. I bought her Cinderella Pull-Ups once when they were on sale at Costco, and now she refuses to wear anything else. And despite my many readings of The Paper Bag Princess and my attempts to set an androgynous example by always wearing jeans and tennis shoes, she harbors romantic notions of floating around a ballroom with a prince in her arms.

I jog toward the shore, where my husband is launching my son and daughter into the lake in a blow-up boat. I stop short, remembering the long, jagged scar that carves its way around the right side of my vagina and down inside. Thanks to that scar, I pee my pants every time I jog barefoot, laugh too hard, or cough too long. One of the less glamorous byproducts of childbearing.

I splash into the water behind the blow-up boat and grab onto the rope. While my husband retreats to the warmth of the beach, my sister-in-law and I swim the kids out to a sign post, where men and women line up to climb to the top and jump off. I tie the boat to the ladder at the bottom of the post and study the woman before me. She first sits on top of the post, then carefully moves into a squatting position, then stands up and leaps off. I am terrified, but I begin the ascent. If I can walk down a Paris runway in front of Hollywood celebrities and give birth to children without drugs, I can jump off a wooden post into a lake.

My children watch from below, their eyes squinting beneath their waterproof sun hats. Kasia treads water, one hand on the boat. I pull my weight up onto the metal spikes protruding from the post using a frayed rope that someone has cleaved to the post. When I reach the top, I feel the flat wooden surface with my hand. It is slippery with algae. What if I fall? I’ll land headfirst in Lake Tahoe, where the water is more than deep enough to prevent a head injury. I lift one leg, then the other, until I am seated on the top of the post, which is about as big around as my butt has become. Slowly, like I am in a balancing yoga position, I bend my knees until I am squatting. Then I stand up, take a quick look around at the view of the magnificent mile-deep lake, and jump off.

I hit the surface with a crack as the cold lake water swallows me. I am back in the womb, and it is dark and wet, and for one brief moment, I am perfect.

Back on the shore, I become conscious of the galaxy of stretch marks spinning around my navel, the long white scar where I broke my wrist, the shorter, fatter scars from my appendectomy. The cellulite on my thighs combined with the loose flab that hangs from my belly like an unburied placenta gives me an urge to cover up. I pull a T-shirt on over my bathing suit and wrap my shivering children in sun-heated towels.

“Mama, why’s your tummy so big?” my son asks as I squat to dry him off. In grade school when kids called me “skinny bones” and I struggled to gain weight, I never thought I’d see the day when someone would tell me my tummy was big. But I’ve come to peace with my body. I look back now at my 22-year-old self, and I’m still a little envious of my flawless skin, my spindly arms, and my fat-free derrière. But it helps knowing that twenty years from now I’ll look back at my 43-year-old body with envy, too—No age spots! No chicken skin! Only twenty gray hairs! How lucky I was and didn’t know it.

How lucky I am today to have a body that can bear children and climb stairs, lug groceries, and swim across a lake. My feet carry me places. My skin protects my organs. My nose reminds me to change the cat litter box. My hair keeps my head warm at night.

Oona on Beach

My hope for my daughter is that she, too, will recognize her body for what it is—not an object to display for others to approve or disapprove of, but a shelter for her inquisitive mind, her open heart, and her voracious desire to dance.

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About the Author

MEGHAN WARD is the author of Runway, a memoir based on the six years she spent working as a high fashion model in Europe and Japan, available at Shebooks.net/Runway. Her work has appeared in San Francisco Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the anthology It’s So You: 35 Women Write About Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style. Meghan is a book editor, book reviewer, and blogger who writes about writing, publishing, and social media at Writerland.com. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband and two children. Follow her on Twitter @meghancward, on Facebook @meghanwardauthor.

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