When I was 23, I moved to Portland, Oregon and started a job as an independent model scout for a local agency. When I first heard about the job it seemed perfect. It was glamorous, unusual, freelance, and I have to admit that I was attracted to the prospect of being able to walk up to people and not only tell them they were beautiful, but offer them an amazing opportunity to make tons of money. Since I had absolutely no experience in the fashion world, I was completely surprised when I was called in for an interview.
The agency was based out of the second floor of this super-hip glass-front building right in my neighborhood. The actual office was huge and sparsely decorated with a long white desk, two white computers, and two white leather couches. The two girls who served as the agency’s “coordinators” scanned through amateur photos of half-naked girls and said things like “her smile is just so…awkward.” I sat on the white leather couches and drank an impossibly small bottle of spring water and tried really hard to appear chic.
The reason I was called in for an interview, I found out, was because everyone who applied was called in for an interview. The main qualification for starting the job was basically the ability to walk up to total strangers without completely freaking them out and, since I was nonthreatening, friendly, and able to make my way through a few role-playing scenarios where I said things like “I love your hair! “How tall are you?” they told me I was a natural and gave me the job.
A few days later I attended the scout training where I learned about the different types of models I would be scouting. The training was lead by the owner of the agency, a middle-aged man with frosted hair who bafflingly managed to maintain a steady tan throughout the Portland winter. I learned that the agency had a few different categories for local and international models including their “classic” model category for people over 40 because, we were informed, “handsome middle-aged men are big moneymakers in Portland.”
Since the overwhelming majority of the models that the agency signed were young women, we spent most of meeting discussing the extremely specific standards for female models:
“Women have to be 5’8 or taller, preferably taller than 5’10, but not too tall. They need to have good hair and good skin. If they are a little big it’s ok, they can lose weight. They should be young but look older. We don’t take anyone younger than 13.”
As a scout I would get paid twice as much if I scouted an international model. What does an international model look like? I asked.
“You’ll know when you find an international model…they’re kind of weird-looking,” the owner told me, and I was shown some headshots of international models that were now signed to the agency. “They might not even be someone you or I would call pretty. Just look for tall thin girls. Anyone who is tall and thin, you should scout.”
I looked through the photos of extremely thin white women with long hair. Can I scout plus size models? I asked, hopefully.
“Oh yes,” was the enthusiastic response all around ”if you can find them, they’re pure gold.” The owner then qualified this by telling me that I probably wouldn’t find one because the standards for plus sized models were even stricter than those of conventional models. “They have to be ten times more beautiful than a conventional model. They have to be curvy and gorgeous. They can’t just be…” he wrinkled his nose “lumpy. I know it sounds mean, but it’s just how it is.”
“If you look at these famous plus sized models,” he continued, and he spouted off a few names, which I pretended to recognize, “they have very unusual bodies. It is just hard to find a size 14 who is tall, an hourglass, and also has a beautiful face.”
To say that this newfound knowledge completely shattered me would be an exaggeration because it did make sense when I thought about it, but I was a bit surprised. I, along with millions of other girls, had thought that the recent plus-sized model movement was vivid proof that our country’s beauty standards were shifting and becoming more accepting of differences. I had posted tons of articles on my Facebook wall about the plus sized model “revolution” and the sudden realization that plus sized model beauty was just as impractical and out of reach, if not more so, than that of conventional models left me feeling a bit cheated. But, still, I was determined that I would scout one.
My actual job consisted of hanging out at malls or going to Portland Trail Blazers games and walking up to people who fit an extremely specific profile and then saying something along the lines of “Sorry to bother you, but I’m a model scout and I think you are JUST what my company is looking for!”
Sometimes it legitimately felt great to walk up to some random girl and tell her she was beautiful because I could tell it made her day, but usually it just felt kind of sleazy. I could tell that a few people thought I was scamming them, and honestly I couldn’t blame them. Also, I quickly learned that anyone who was truly surprised at being scouted was probably not model material. Most pretty women who are over 5’10 and thin and live in a city have been told they should model. It was all too often that I would walk up to someone and blurt out my usual pitch and have them respond with something like “oh, I know” or “well, I’ve been to a few casting calls already.” There was this part of me that really hated going up to gorgeous people and kissing their ass because they were pretty. The idea that being thin or beautiful or tall was inherently something a person should be rewarded for bothered me.
I also was realizing that the “ideal” model was harder to find than I could have imagined. Many of the girls I sent into the agency, who I personally thought were unbelievably beautiful, were rejected. They were too short, or too “ethnic,” or too fat or just not “moneymakers” which probably meant they were just too average. I scouted a few plus sized models and none of them were signed.
One week I had a meeting with the owner so we could talk about what he was looking for. “Look at this girl” he said. “She just came in last week. Killer body. Her face is eh…but killer body and good hair. We’ll book her with Nike. She’s a moneymaker.” He showed me a photo of a sullen girl in a bra and panties. She was rail thin and looked about fourteen. Then he showed me another girl.
“Now, this is our new international” he beamed. “Her hips are big, she needs to go down two sizes, but look at those cat eyes. If she can lose the weight…” The photo was of a redhead girl who looked to be about a size 10. My size.
The way that my employers spoke about people as if they were bags of money rather than human beings is, I guess, just standard of anyone in the industry. But it was starting to bother me. Primarily because it was having an effect on how I viewed the people around me. I couldn’t go anywhere without scouting, everyone was a potential paycheck. When I went out to dinner with my partner or out dancing with my friends, I would look for potential models. It sucks to constantly view the people around you this way.
The job was also, and most detrimentally, having an effect on how I viewed myself. Like thousands of other girls I had grown up hating my body and battling an eating disorder throughout my adolescence. At the age of 17, I had even sworn off fashion magazines (despite my love of fashion) because I realized that the images they contained were making me miserable. After years of therapy, medication, and, practice I had reached a point where I was accepting of my body and yet ever since I had started scouting I had escalated. Every time I heard my boss say that a girl had to lose weight, every time I saw a girl thinner than me get rejected for her size, it felt like a personal offense. One night I was getting drinks with another scout, a beautiful woman in her late 20s who was probably about a size 12, and she confessed that it bothered her, too. “I know that I don’t even think some of the girls I scout are good looking, but they’re the ones who are making money…so what does that make me?” she said, “It just makes me feel bad sometimes.”
Liz Davidoff is a freelance researcher and arts organizer in her home state of New Jersey. She has a blog, where she overanalyzes her childhood and love life (like everyone else). She hasn't mastered the art of tweeting, but will totally kvetch if you follow her.