As a model, you begin to work at some of the most crucial years in female development. At an age where most women are figuring out what they will and will not stand for in the world, models are being told (both subliminally and directly) that their appearance is the most important factor in their life. They are being trained in diminishing their size and place on the earth, and to quiet their voices and creativity in favor of other people’s visions. Models do not get a training course on how to protect themselves, or who to be careful around in the industry. Most of the time they have to learn this for themselves, and often with devastating consequences.
It was not until recently that I developed confidence in my right to say no. A few years back I was shooting an editorial for a high-profile magazine. I had been assured that there was no nudity. Upon beginning to shoot, the photographer informed me that whilst there would be no nudity shown, he wanted me to shoot entirely nude – “for editing purposes”. I was intensely uncomfortable, and initially showed hesitation. But he pushed and pushed, and the next thing I knew, I was completely naked on a busy set. As there were a lot of mirrors in the room, he asked for everyone to leave the set. Not because I was naked and uncomfortable with a dozen strangers gawking at me, but so that he could get a clear shot.
Later that evening we were shooting outside. The only thing I was wearing was a fur coat, and I was aware that there were people watching us from the street. He asked me to take the coat off, and I refused. He asked again, and I refused. He asked again, and this time I took it off, feeling completely coerced and unsafe. The stylist was a woman, and she attempted to shield me from the street. The shot ended with me in tears, needing to take a minute to get my composure back. The photographer then came over and apologized, claiming that he didn’t realize we had an audience. I truly would love to believe him.
The fall-out from this episode was pretty tough. I felt guilty about betraying the line that I thought I had drawn in the sand. It is an awful feeling to state your feelings and needs, and to have someone completely disregard you and your voice. Growing up, I was a shy, introverted child. I had a safe childhood, and never really felt the need to speak up – I was privileged in that way. However, my development was also hindered. As a girl, you are taught that what you are feeling is not as important as your male counterparts, that their urges and experiences are much more intense and “out of control” than yours. They need the attention, whereas you are a “good girl” who is capable of taking care of herself. I feel that my family growing up did a good job of trying to keep things balanced between my brother and I. But it is hard to mitigate the message that most of us do not realize is being forced down our throats the second we leave the womb.
It is only recently that I have begun to feel my place on the earth, and to vocally embrace it. It has taken a lot of reading, therapy and painful work to reach this place, and I certainly did not have it during this particular shoot. I was at my smallest in many ways, and lacked the certainty in my rights that I now have. I could have walked off set the second he first refused to take my voice as serious. The fact that I didn’t saddens me now, but back then it drove me insane with guilt. I was relating purely with how it would affect the men around me – my husband, or my father, or the photographer himself. I did not want to give anyone the “wrong idea” of me. But I am no longer a woman defined by men. I am a woman defined by women. And I know now that no blame lies with me. It lies first with the photographer, but larger with the culture that allows for men like that photographer to function and thrive.
There is also the awful feeling of knowing that there is a man out there, with questionable morals coupled with a misogynistic approach to women, who has thousands of photos of you naked. Even if there was no nudity published in the magazine (thankfully there was not), I have no control over where they end up, or who sees them. There was a film crew there that day. Same situation. The control of women’s bodies by men is a tale as old as time. This was the first time in my life that I have felt the power imbalance so tangibly, and it forced me to look at the world in an entirely new light. In a way, I am glad that I had such a traumatic experience – it opened my eyes to the way the world works, forcing me to begin the work of reclaiming the right to my life. But, surely it should not take such exploitation for all women to wake up to their manipulation. I would certainly hope that all my younger female relatives would not be subject to such a rough awakening.
I am reminded of the importance of female friendship and closeness in life. No one can truly understand your experiences unless they have lived it. Whilst empathy is possibly the most important factor in connectivity, there is such power in a shared experience. I wrote here (bridgetmalcolm.com.au/blog/2018/5/29/metoo) about my experience with sexual assault on set. One day, when catching up with an old friend, she mentioned that she had also shot with the photographer. The editorial had gone well, he was professional and entertaining all day. Upon wrapping, he asked her if she would shoot naked with him the following week. My friend said she would think about it, and left the job. After I told her my experience with this man, she did not go ahead with the shoot.
Simply through talking, we can protect ourselves and our sisters. Through being open about our struggles (and being open to the struggles) we can begin to make the world a safer place for all women. The world has been defined by men and their belief of their rights. There is no denying that. However we are at an interesting time where we are able to take back our power, and align ourselves with the lives we should have always had the right to live. And this process begins always with conversation.