My Modeling Agent Said I Was "Too Big" — Here's What I Wish I'd Said

Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Schwartz.
I was 17 years old when I signed with one of the top modeling agencies in the world. It had been my dream since I was little to become a model, and as I grew older and (much) taller, that path began to seem like less of a fantasy and more of an actual possibility for me. I was elated when I finally signed a contract with a world-renowned agency, and I was determined to seize the opportunity and make the absolute most of it. With laser focus, I decided to concentrate all of my energy on becoming the "best" model I could be.

Here’s something you should know about me: I’m a perfectionist by nature, and I have some serious people-pleasing tendencies — which is an incredibly dangerous combination in a cutthroat industry like modeling. I didn’t want anything to hold me back from achieving my dream, especially my body, which I believed I could mold into anything I wanted if I just tried hard enough. I was determined to prove that I was right for the role, and I was desperate to please my agents. I was willing to do "whatever it takes." I pushed aside my own values, desires, and needs, starving myself in the hopes of proving my raw enthusiasm.

Ultimately, my youth and naïveté (and the sometimes vicious nature of the modeling world) stripped me of the backbone required not just to excel in the industry, but also to preserve my health, dignity, and self-worth. My perpetual terror of being dropped by my agent led me to become little more than skinny and agreeable. I didn’t know yet that I and my health were worth standing up for. I feared that if I was too difficult, I’d be out the door, and to me, that prospect was far worse than starving my life away.

In the end, I landed in treatment to deal with what had turned into an all-consuming eating disorder. In therapy, I gained perspective and finally began to develop a sense of self-worth. I could see for the first time how fear and insecurity had obstructed my ability to advocate for myself as a human being, and had actually, ironically, destroyed my chances of a successful career as a model. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and mine is crystal-clear. I can’t say I regret my mistakes, though. I learned so much from my experience — most importantly, how to stand powerfully in my own body without apology or regret.

There are many conversations that transpired between my agent and myself that I can remember as though they were yesterday. I sometimes think about these chats, and I’m so proud when I consider how different my responses would be today, as the new me.

Here, I’ve compiled a few of the body-shaming comments thrown my way while I was modeling — and what I should have said in response.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both.
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What my agent said: "You’re going to need to lose inches in your thighs, and at least one around your hips. Your body is too athletic."

What I said: "Okay."

What I should have said: "Yeah, I do have a more athletic body than some other women. That’s how I’m naturally built, and I can’t change it — I actually like it! Also, being smaller than I am right now would be really unhealthy for me, and would definitely be impossible without engaging in some dangerous eating habits. I’m not willing to do that."

As models, we were expected to meet measurement requirements in order to fit into sample-size clothing. During weekly measurements, we’d stand in bikinis as our agents wrapped tape measures around our thighs, waists, hips, butts, busts, and upper arms before letting us know whether our bodies were acceptable or not. This experience is just as traumatic as it sounds. Up until this point, I had “passed” with flying colors, due to the fact that I had been miserably starving myself for the past year. Now that I was in treatment, I had gained a few pounds, and my agent noticed right away.

In that moment, my 17-year-old self nodded anxiously, agreeing to work on losing “inches” (they weren’t legally allowed to tell those of us under 18 to lose actual weight). I was petrified that they were going to drop me, and I also had no clue how I would handle this with my therapists who were already skeptical of me continuing with modeling.

Now, I’m not willing to sacrifice my health for anyone else’s gain, and the idea that doing so would get me ahead in any industry is terrifying. I am proud of my naturally athletic body, and I will never again be shamed into believing that my body isn’t okay.
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What my agent said: "I’d stop running if I were you. Your legs are looking bulky. Maybe try Pilates?"

What I said: "Yes, no problem!"

What I should have said: "I love my legs — they are muscular and toned. They are healthy. Running makes me feel really good. It’s a great form of exercise and gives me the chance to get outdoors. I’m proud of my legs, and I’m proud of my healthy exercise habits. I’m definitely not going to give up running!"

After my agent said this to me, I immediately ordered a Winsor Pilates DVD set so that I could work out in my bedroom. I stopped running in the hopes that my quads would slim down. And even though I had always really liked my long, lean, muscular legs, I immediately adopted them as yet another project (of many) to “work” on.

Never again will I give up a beloved activity in an effort to diminish my body to an unhealthy size, and never again will I allow someone to make me feel like the hard-won muscle on my body is somehow undesirable. My muscles are the result of a lot of hard work and a healthy lifestyle — they’re not something to apologize for!

(And BTW, every body is different, but there’s very little evidence that running makes your legs "bulky.")
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What an agent said: "Why doesn’t this fit? You’re too big!"

What I said: "I’m sorry."

What I should have said: "The dress doesn’t fit because the clothes are a size too small for me. My body isn’t too big, the clothes are too small! Now, would you like me to try on something that does fit, or should I leave?"

To clarify, it wasn't my agent who said this. This happened at a fitting for a runway show (which turned out to be my last) of a famous Italian designer. The casting agents had seen me walk before casting me for the show, but during the fitting, it became clear that the looks they were zipping me into were a bit too tight, and they were angry. Most of their yelling was in Italian, but that last part I understood in plain English.

When it was over, I walked out and cried. I thought it was my fault that the clothes didn’t fit, and by apologizing, I took responsibility for the situation. I was so nervous that they were going to kick me out of the show that I allowed the designer to blame me while I also blamed myself. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and once again, afraid for the career I was so sure I wanted.

These days, I have the backbone not to roll over and take abuse lying down. I have also developed the confidence to walk away from a situation that isn’t serving me. This was a particularly tough moment, and I did the best I could at that time. But since then, I’ve learned that it is important to stand up for myself. I no longer fear the repercussions of having enough self-esteem not to take anyone else’s shit.
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So what did I learn from replaying these conversations in my head?

Reflecting on my stint in the modeling world, I can see now that I operated from a place of fear at all times, because I didn’t really believe that I deserved to be there. I was perpetually afraid that I was going to be discovered as a fraud at any moment. Every meeting or casting led to waves of anxiety that my agent or a photographer would look at me and realize that I wasn’t who they thought I was — a "real" model. This insecurity led me to feel shame about how I looked and allowed me to accept treatment I didn’t deserve.

I’ll never know what might have gone differently in my modeling career if I’d had the confidence to know and demand what I was worth, but I’m grateful for the lessons I learned due to the painful moments I endured. The moral here? It’s never wrong to know and stand up for your value, whatever industry you find yourself working in. In fact, because of this experience, I finally know the real definition of "supermodel": a woman who is empowered to stand tall and accept and love herself unconditionally.