I Interned At A NYC Modeling Agency When I Was 17

My high school ran a mandatory internship program, and every spring, the senior class would be released into the world for two months to spend 20 unpaid hours a week in whatever office would have us. At that point, my only understanding of internships was from The Hills, and I figured this would be my best shot to live out my half-baked dream of being the New York City-version of Lauren Conrad. Even though I didn't turn into the next L.C., my internship at a modeling agency was one of the best things I did for my body image at the age of 17.

I spent a lot of time in high school flipping through fashion magazines and loved reading stories of models who had been plucked from small-town malls and placed on European runways. Interning at a modeling agency seemed a like an opportunity to get a little closer to the industry I so worshipped and the women I thought were so beautiful. I thought I could maybe even learn some of the models' secrets, like how to stay thin and how to have flawless skin and all of that. Once I had this idea in my head, nothing was going to stop me, least of all my lack of connections to the industry.

I sent dozens of e-mails to dozens of agencies based in Manhattan, trying to sound much older than my 17 years. Out of all these cold e-mails, only one agency wrote back to me, and I jumped at the chance to work for them for free. I would come into their office twice a week and do whatever small tasks they needed me to do, and in exchange, I would get an inside look at the industry (and serious high school credit).

Those “small tasks” ranged from picking up everyone’s lunch orders from California Pizza Kitchen or sitting at reception and screening phone calls, to some slightly more glamorous things, like taking a black Town Car to drop off a birthday gift for Steven Meisel at his SoHo studio. I think part of me dreamed of being scouted by the agency as I buzzed around the office, but after a couple of days, it became clear that I did not have the body type they were looking for.

One of my main tasks was to organize the comp cards that lined the walls of the office, showing off the agency’s roster. A comp card is basically a model’s business card, featuring her portrait on the front, and her measurements and the agency’s contact information on the back. I had to make sure these cards were properly lined up, in alphabetical order, restock the cards as needed, and let the bookers know which sets of cards were running low.

As I went through these rows of comp cards, I studied these women’s faces and bodies and measurements, and it was by looking at these cards that I began to understand I would never be included on that wall. A vast majority of the models were taller than me; I remember the average height was around 5’10”. But somehow, these statuesque women all seemed to have feet several sizes smaller than my own women’s 10. I would get excited when I saw a model who was 5’8”, my height, but immediately disappointed when I saw the size of her waist, rarely more than 25 inches around. My waist, I learned when I measured myself at home, was closer to 29 inches. I was never going to magically grow another couple of inches taller. My feet would never shrink down, and neither would my waist unless I stopped eating or started running marathons, none of which seemed viable.

The staff also understood the lengths the models went to to maintain these measurements, even more explicitly than I did. When the agency signed a new model, a junior agent took some Polaroids of her in a yellow bikini. I was handed the pictures, instructed to staple one to the back of an old comp card and put it up on the wall, a placeholder until the new model got a real comp card. I picked a full-length picture of the new model and put it up on the shelves and was immediately scolded. “You can’t use that picture! Look at her belly,” an agent whispered to me. “You can see she’s… not healthy.” The model's belly was slightly protruding, bloated, a tell-tale sign of starvation or anorexia. Embarrassed by my mistake, I apologized and swapped out that Polaroid for a face-only picture. We didn’t talk about it again.

I overheard another agent asking a model what she had eaten that day, and the model’s response was, “Watermelon.” Just watermelon. She was complimented for her willpower. I decided to try the watermelon-only diet one day, to see what it was like and to see if I could maybe look like a model, too. I sat in Madison Square Park during my hour-long lunch break, with a container from the bodega, bottle of water, and a copy of Lolita, and I thought, “This is dumb.” I never tried an extreme diet again (and even that “diet” was short-lived, because I think I got a bagel at Grand Central on my way home that day).

The agents and the accountants cared about the women to a certain extent, but never forgot that modeling was, first and foremost, a business, and these women were the commodity. There would be gossip around the agents' table and in the accounting office about who was sleeping who whom, who had skin that was breaking out, who had put on a few pounds, who wasn't booking enough jobs. All of this, of course, in whispers and innuendos that I only started to pick up on during my last couple of weeks in the office. Seeing how the agents and accountants talked about the models behind their backs was disheartening, and made me realize the “real world” was going to be a lot more like the high school than I would’ve liked to admit.

The only time the ridicule bubbled to the surface was during the open call, when dozens of strangers would be welcomed into the office to strut their stuff and maybe, just maybe, get a contract. But really, “welcomed” might be a bit strong. The mood in the office on the day of the open call was unexpectedly festive because, I was told, “Maxine, you’re going to see so many crazies. It’s hilarious.”

And it was definitely a scene. I was responsible for corralling all of the wannabe models, escorting them from reception to the head of the table where all the agents sat. The women were each told to announce their names, age, and walk around the table like they were walking down a runway. Most of the women did exactly as they were told, but a couple were over-the-top, shouting their names and life stories and stomping around the room like their lives depended on it with a ferocity that would’ve made Tyra proud. But of the many women who paraded around the office, only one had the body type that could even be considered at the time, and the agents spent the rest of the day laughing about the whole ordeal, making fun of the most memorable failures.

Seeing the fashion industry from the inside at such a young age made me understand how superficial certain aspects of it were, and therefore how silly it was to follow its standards. I understood I would never be a model — not because I wasn't pretty, but because I wasn't the "proper size" for that particular agency, at a time before body positivity was leading to more and more models above a size 14. But I stopped trying to be as thin as a mainstream model because I saw that even the women who are paid to maintain this look struggle with keeping it up.

Trying to "look like a model" wasn't worth it, so I gave up on that idea and instead went to college, focusing on looking and feeling healthy. I also realized that even in such an image-focused industry, I was respected for my hard work and my intelligence rather than my looks, and those were the skills that really mattered if I wanted to be successful.

My last day in the office was the day before my senior prom, and the entire staff was so excited to see me off, asking me questions about my date, my dress, my plans for the future. They handed me a Jo Malone candle and a $75 gift certificate to Taschen Books and told me that if I ever needed a job, I could always find a short-term gig there. I never took them up on that offer, but I still sometimes pass by the office while wandering through Manhattan, and when I see it, I silently thank them for letting me poke around their world for six weeks and inadvertently showing me what I needed to know in order to let go of strict beauty standards, so closely tied to weight and size, and start accepting my body as it is.

Images: Maxine Builder; Giphy (3)