On Model Worship

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I fell head over heels for models as a teenager. My visual nature manifested itself as a fascination with beautiful people—I would chase the boys (scored my first boyfriend when I was three and have been hooked on 'em ever since), and admire the girls. My infatuation with these otherworldly creatures has been both destructive and inspirational, but it's also proof that the growing pains of adolescence don't last forever. Thank God for that! Here, a timeline of my model mania.

2003: I emerge from the depths of a comically hellish puberty at 13, magically losing 20 pounds and sprouting up a few inches. “You should be a mooodel,” the girls at my tiny Catholic school sing-song to me. What brilliant career advice! I remember thinking, so I buy The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being a Model. I don't yet know that years later, absolutely no supermodel's Wikipedia page will cite that book as her launching pad, instead favoring phrases like, “She was discovered in a McDonalds in her native country of Brazil,” I consult the book to find out which of the “Seven Basic Model Types' I fall into. Am I an Amazon like Cindy Crawford or an Exotic Beauty like Iman? Why can't I be an Amazonian Exotic Beauty? Ahead of my time, I already want to Have It All.

2004: I'm packed into a crowded room at a casting call. I have a vague suspicion that this modeling recruitment program is a scam. Still, the pamphlet has a photo of Ian Somerhalder in it, alleging that this is how he got his start. Smolderhotter, as I like to call him, is what hooks me. When it's my turn to face the judges, I march over to them in my denim mini skirt and burnt sienna crop top with ruffled sleeves. If I could bottle and sell that self-confidence, I could afford to buy the kind of private jet supermodels always use to go to Bora Bora. The judges like “my look' and try to sell me on thousands of dollars in model bootcamp. Flattered, but I'm not buying.

2007: I discover the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Candice Swanepoel, my polar physical opposite, becomes my idol. Every time I see her, I feel a rush of pride that we're both women. I start to subconsciously believe that if I work hard enough, I can be the black, 5'6' and three-quarters version of her. This, as you can guess, is not possible.

2008: My freshman year of college isn't kind to me. Rather, the made-to-order omelets and waffles and hot cookie bars and personal pizzas are too kind to me. Even though I don't drink yet, I still pack on the Freshman 15, along with some of my roommate's share that her relentless metabolism managed to avoid. Instead of attempting some semblance of a balanced diet, I focus on models—especially Candice. Not only are her looks completely different from mine, but her seemingly bubbly personality is a goal for me. My sarcasm and chronic resting bitchface are scaring off potential friends!

2011: Exhausted from treating my body like crap, I become all about health. I head to the gym twice a day and make non-green smoothies (kale hasn't yet fully tightened its clutches around foodies). Sometimes, for inspiration, I watch various Victoria's Secret Fashion Shows on YouTube. I bop along to the music, never considering that while these women are naturally stunning, even they don't look like this in their time off. I think I'm into their beauty, but what I'm really after is their seemingly effortless self-esteem.

2012: I move to New York and score a job at a women's magazine. Model-spotting becomes so frequent, it should be a sport. I start to realize they are GMOs: Genetically Model-ified Organisms. I see a top model in the cafeteria, and it finally hits me: All teeny waists and foal-like limbs, they are fundamentally different from the rest of us—no matter how many dry 100-calorie “treats' I choke down.

2013: I show up when a women's website puts out a casting call, mainly because I'm into their commitment to diversity. I'm so much more nervous than I was when I was 14. I bare my teeth in the closest approximation to a smile my nerves will let me make. My chin wobbles under the pressure. Sexy! The serious picture goes a bit better. Thank God(dess Tyra) I paid attention to all the smizing lessons in the past 20 cycles of America's Next Top Model! I book a gig.

2014: My favorite black models pepper my Instagram feed. I live vicariously through Jasmine Tookes' vacation pictures with her astoundingly hot boyfriend. I save Jourdan Dunn's curly hair shots as inspiration. I tap tap tap through Sharam Diniz's collection, reveling in the fact that we're a similar shade of brown. They reinforce that there's something inherently gorgeous about who we are as people, but I don't feel like I need to be them to be worth something. I finally love myself enough to finally admit: I'm actually not that into hanging out in front of the lens, no matter how I look. I can't even hop aboard the #selfie bandwagon, much less the #healthie, #belfie, or any other #iteration. I try to endure it when my boyfriend focuses on me with his Canon DSLR before eventually shielding my face like I'm evading paparazzi. I'm no longer so hungry for acknowledgement of my looks that I'll ignore my sense that, for me, sitting around and getting shot solo feels plain uncomfortable. “Why do you always do that,” he asks, dropping the camera from his eye. “I don't know,” I say. “I just don't like having my picture taken,”

—Zahra Barnes

Photo via ITG.

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