My Life in Fashion
When I was a little girl, my Christmas wish list did not consist of the stereotypical trappings of the young female mind. There was no Barbie Dream House, no little ponies (real or otherwise). Instead I craved luxury: a fur coat, a leather skirt, caramel suede Frye boots, identical to my oh-so-stylish mother’s – all symbols of womanhood in my young mind.
I’m not sure how I developed a propensity for such largesse; I grew up in a so-called rough part of town, my mother struggling to make ends meet on her bank teller’s salary. Yes she was stylish, and I spent many mornings admiring her deft hand tying a silk scarf just so, or applying mousse to her impossibly glossy black hair – but I knew these were her only little luxuries, as she stretched her paychecks to accommodate rent, food, childcare.
I was approached by a modeling agency at 14, and all of a sudden my trip to the mall became a flurry of butterflies from my stomach to my brain. This gorgeous stranger thought I was beautiful? Me? With my glasses and bug eyes, my frizzy hair and the dot at the tip of my nose? I was beyond flattered, but suspicious all the same, not used to receiving attention for my looks.
You see, in stark opposition to the Western values of thinness as ideal or desirable, I come from a culture where perfection, beauty and femininity are embodied by an abundance of flesh and soft curves - both of which I was sorely lacking.
I devoured my monthly subscription to ‘Flare’ or ‘Fashion’ because I could relate to those waif-like figures more than I could to my own fuller-figured female relatives. Modeling validated my culturally non-desirable body type, and it exposed me to a world of fantasy and escape the mundane realities of my quotidian existence.
Because of my height and my ‘look’ (read: non-commercial viability – I was a model of colour after all) my work consisted mostly of runway shows and the occasional avant-garde photo shoot. At 14, I was too young to understand the political and cultural implications of this, and perhaps the glamour and attention helped further gloss over the fact that I was not getting nearly as much work as my white counterparts. I grew up in the fashion industry, both literally and figuratively, as it is an industry that forces most of its underage workers to take on adult personas for adult paychecks.
As I grew and learned to apply a critical eye to my surroundings, certain realties became painfully obvious. On set, I was usually the only model of colour, which typecast me as some exotic other. While the other girls paraded out in monochromatic looks that oozed effortless class and simplicity, I was often given the headdress, the suit constructed entirely of mink and leather, the Cleopatra-inspired makeup. Casting directors and stylists touted my unconventional look as uber-desirable and cutting edge; a white girl dipped in chocolate. Casual racism was so common it barely warranted a fed up side-eye from me, but I could see how it broke my mother’s heart; she was my companion and protector at every shoot and show.
At one of my last auditions, after I had walked for a casting agent, she asked if I would ever consider changing my nose. Changing my nose? What did that even mean? I was told it was “too ethnic”. Newsflash: I’m ETHNIC!!! I mean, aren’t we all, to some extent? I read this comment as what it was, a not-so-veiled attempt to let me know I was too dark, too exotic, too “other” – my whole and natural self would never be good enough for this industry, and with that in mind I quit. My sense of corporal validation was long gone, replaced by an all-too-familiar and nagging shame over my glaring difference and ethnicity.
My life in fashion was bittersweet. It was a dream come true for the little girl in me who craved a life of grownup excess, a chance to parade around in high heels and makeup. As a teenager, it satisfied my sense of rebellion, giving me my first taste of champagne and cigarettes, and allowed me to feel the power I could seemingly command with a bare shoulder or a smoky eye. As an adult, I look back on these experiences with mixed emotions; my early life was so completely directed by my appearance – I was literally paid to be thin and pretty – that it’s sometimes hard to separate myself from that way of thinking.
Alexis Ramgulam has been involved with NEDIC in various capacities since 2009. A former model and showroom assistant, this fashionable feminist has since shifted her focus to various social justice causes since graduating from Ryerson University’s School of Social Work, and is particularly interested in the intersectionality of race, class and gender as they pertain to eating disorders and standards of health and beauty.