My entire life has revolved around fashion in some way, whether I was dreaming about it, studying it, writing about it, or working in it. I was lucky enough to get a job straight out of university, but it wasn't just any job. It was the job. The job that, if I stuck at it for long enough, would get me any job in the fashion world that I could've ever possibly wanted. I had a contact at every major fashion house and my weekly schedule offered me party after press brunch, fashion show after drinks reception. I worked with the top brands and the top models at shows, for advertising campaigns, editorials and other projects, and to say I was working in that environment at 21 was beyond my wildest dreams. Fashion was loving me as much as I was loving fashion, and I was lapping up every minute of it.
But then there were the times where fashion kicked my arse big time and left me feeling doubtful.
Aged ten I walked out of Peacocks with my mum, crying, because I no longer fitted in their kid's range; their clothes for kids my age were a good six inches too short and I had no hope in hell of wearing them (and they weren't too forgiving for girls whose boobs started to arrive a bit earlier than anticipated). With that, I missed out on the styles that I wanted at the time, and my poor mum had the challenge of finding women's clothes that would fit a tall ten year-old without making her look older than she really was. The memory's still really vivid in my mind of me - a little (tall) girl - fighting back tears and saying, 'when I'm older, I'm going to win the lottery and I'm going to make nice clothes that everybody can wear.' Fashion had knocked me down for the very first time, but I got up and continued to love it dearly.
Fast forward seven years, when I had an interview with a university to study a fashion degree. When I arrived, I immediately knew I didn't fit in. I was the largest by several dress sizes, I was one of the few who hadn't come from a private school or overly affluent area, and I was the only one who didn't have something pierced/neon-coloured hair/a kooky 'look'. Despite passing all prior tests and requirements, when it came to coming face-to-face with someone from the admissions board, he made it indisputably clear that I didn't fit the mould. According to their books, I didn't belong in fashion. (Editor's note: I ended up at a university that not only had incredible staff and the best course, but a university that actually valued me for my potential rather than the way I looked.)
Four years and a first class honours degree later, I once again came face-to-face with someone from the first uni who rejected me (but not before they made me feel fat, ugly, and out of place). We sat and spoke about the industry, and he basically told me that I didn't look the part to make it in fashion. He advised that if I hire a personal stylist, dye my hair 'pink or something', and stop looking so 'predictable', I'd stand half a chance. I advised that he poke his pink hair dye and his predictability. Once again, a major voice in fashion had essentially told me that my body, as it was, didn't make the cut.
Then came that dream first job, that I still to this day owe everything to, regardless of whether I'm involved in high-end fashion anymore or not. My boss was my mentor, and everything she told me - including the bollockings - was soaked up like a sponge. Was she a hard arse? Yes. Did she push me to the brink? At times, yes. But every last word that she said to me still resonates and will continue to do so for as long as I have the ability to remember.
However, one sort-of-nice boss didn't stop the shitty things that made me continue to question whether I really belonged there.
During my first week, I was working late and everyone was going home. A senior member of staff came over to me as she got her things together and asked me if I'd ever contemplated becoming a plus-size model. Obviously flattered, I answered back that I hadn't, to which she responded, 'because you're gorgeous from the neck up.' She took one glance at my body with a look of disdain on her face, and I desperately tried to forget about how, in only a matter of days, someone in my own workplace had made it clear that I didn't look the way I should.
Little things like this continued to happen. Models would talk about dieting and being - Heaven forbid - above a size 8 whilst I - the size 16 - would be dressing them. I was asked if I'd lost weight one morning, to which I replied yes (having worked an 60-hour week, I'd lived off of little more than almonds and soup). I explained that I'd not been eating enough, to which my colleague told me to keep at it, and if in doubt take up smoking to fight cravings. A Christmas event of ours was being sponsored by a major French fashion house, and a tonne of pieces from the latest collection came to the office for our A-Listers to choose their outfits. As the staff ran to the rack admiring some of the pieces, a colleague (and friend) pointed at a dress that he said would 'look great' on me. Someone else then jumped in with, 'like she'd fit in that.'
So as I worked harder and loved harder, fashion was committed to fucking me over. Due to severe illness, I had to leave my job and take some time off, which probably did me a favour. When I jumped back in to the industry, I was ready to start fresh, but this time, fashion took a different approach to turn me off.
On my first day at my new job, I had every hope that things would be different, and I felt safe in that decision when my boss came in eating what could only be described as one of the biggest kebabs I've ever seen. It felt normal, it felt real, and the team was even smaller, so it was more like a group of friends hanging out and doing photo shoots (but with world-famous models and photographers). Because of this, I fell into a false sense of security. During my now 85-hour weeks, I hadn't received a single backhanded comment, no focus on my weight - if anything, I was complimented constantly on my style, my hair and how great I was at my job. I felt like fashion was finished being fed up of me, and I didn't mind the long days in exchange for that. However, I found that fashion eventually found ways to piss me off, and for some strange reason it caught me entirely off-guard.
Between the two jobs, I found body positivity. During my first job, I'd followed and wholeheartedly supported my best friend Megan as she began to take the world by storm as Bodyposipanda. I'd walk around my office proudly showing everyone how my best friend had 5,000 followers, 10,000 followers, 15,000 followers... What I didn't realise was - as much as I'd always believed in self-acceptance and positive body image - that in my time away from the industry, I'd taken in so much information about body positivity that it was actually sticking. With that, this meant that the second time around, I didn't give a shit about how I looked, nor did I feel that I needed to justify myself to anybody in the industry. Because at the end of the day, if I was great at my job, who would even give a fuck?
As the team got used to me and I took on more responsibility, I began attending more meetings that focused on our projects. Initially I started off in a casting meeting, organising extras for what turned out to be honestly one of the coolest shoots I've ever worked on. This casting meeting, however, soon got my back up, as the team and the photographer's people started talking about the kind of extras that they wanted involved. I'll give them props where it's due, it was fairly inclusive in terms of representation, and I was somewhat impressed, right up until they said 'we need a fat woman in there somewhere to add a comical element.' Don't get me wrong, there are some funny fat women out there - Dawn French, Rebel Wilson, Melissa McCarthy just to name a few - but they didn't mean funny in a stand-up-hahaha kind of way, but in a tokenised, fatphobic way. What pissed me off even more was how they then sat perusing through headshots of tonnes of fat women, criticising how they either were too fat, or too fat AND ugly, or not fat enough. Having not been there any longer than six weeks, I bit my tongue, and said nothing for the rest of the meeting.
After that, there were no other incidents for a while. It wasn't until a few months later when it came to the retouching for one of our main shoots, and we sat down for a meeting. In front of me were five incredible photographs, completely unretouched, and I was in awe at each individual girl's beauty. I had faith that others felt the same way, and held onto that faith as the red markers came out. They'll just point out lighting issues and other little tweaks, these are gorgeous, I thought. Sadly, my hopes were too high, as I saw one of the team reach for a Victoria's Secret model's face and started drawing thick circles around her head. 'Eyes too far apart... Ears too big, have you ever noticed that before? I haven't! Very big ears... Her lip looks deflated on one side, pump that up... And can we do something to these irises? She looks dead inside.' I looked at them in astonishment, thinking, you can't be serious? But unfortunately, they were. Another girl from the same shoot was actually a 'personality' and not a model, who was larger than sample size, but not in any way fat. 'Can we sort that waist out please? She looks like a block. Let's bring that in... And the shadow under the chin... May as well sort the whole jaw out whilst we're at it, it'll take 30lbs off of her.' By this stage, I was visibly angry, and began to retaliate. 'I think her waist looks good as it is, plus her face is a gorgeous shape naturally.' 'Yeah but it's not what the advertisers are going to want to see, is it? I mean look at her.' 'But she's wearing vintage, we don't have to consider advertisers in this shot?' 'I know, but still, we don't want to put other brands off.' I nodded, defeated, got up and walked away whilst my job was still in tact.
What was wrong with not having a hourglass figure? What was wrong with having big ears, that WEREN'T EVEN BIG? If they did that to a Victoria's Secret model, what fucking hope have the rest of us got? It was then that I realised a lot of things about my love affair with fashion. I loved the clothes, the art, the frantic upside down world (well, sometimes), and the characters that I often came across in my job. But then I realised that what I loved was no longer the industry itself, or the career that I desperately craved. It's all fun and games - and pretty cool - to say you work at a fashion magazine; to meet the people others only see on their Instagram feeds, to chat to designers about their inspirations. But I remember thinking to myself, how can I be part of the solution, if I'm part of the problem? Once I had that thought, it was game over. Going to work angered me, I resented the industry more and more, I RSVP'd no to our advertisers' events, my spark went out. I refused to be made to feel bad about myself or to encourage companies to profit from other people's insecurities, and this became a real shift for me and my body positive journey.
Call it fate, good timing, or maybe even unlucky, but only a month later I was diagnosed with lung failure and I had to pack up work. After working up to 115 hours a week during high season, doing nothing but watch Netflix and twiddle my thumbs between almost-daily hospital appointments for months on end got old real quick. With that, I decided to put everything that I'd learnt from my time in high fashion to good use. (And, if you're wondering what I mean by good use, you're reading it right now.) Fashion worked its way through my insecurities and, when they couldn't be touched anymore, went for the jugular and attacked everything I believed. It certainly succeeded in simultaneously disappointing me and making me more aware of the truth. I'm grateful of the latter though, because without that I probably wouldn't be where I am now.
So, would I say that my relationship with fashion is over? Not really - in fact, it's far from it, and I know I'll love fashion until the day I die - but let's put it this way: if fashion was my boyfriend, I'd probably be taking a few days to reply to his texts.