Growing up, my father would lovingly refer to me as a “baby woman.” And that’s what I was: a 12-year-old with D-cup breasts who still woke up in the night and asked her mom to come and sleep in her room.
As an only child in a tightly knit family with two of the most loving people I have ever known — think Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird — I was safe in the in-between place of half-baby, half-woman. The confusion came from outside our small, ivy-covered, wood-floored home in Southern California.
In eighth grade, a vice principal snapped my bra strap in front of an entire room of my classmates and other teachers. She did it because the strap was falling out from my tank top and that broke the school’s dress code. When I was 13, a close family member came to see my performance in a play. I remember feeling pretty — tanned, wearing lip gloss and a red button-up ribbed top over my bra and a mod-style zip-up miniskirt from Forever 21. Our family member sobbed to my mother and me at dinner after; she was worried for me, worried about the looks I got from men, because I was wearing what I was wearing. I needed to protect myself, she explained.
The same year, my parents hosted a dinner party where I spoke freely, keeping up with the mature humor and storytelling, an only child comfortable sharing my conversation with adults. On my way to the bathroom, before dessert, an older family friend took me aside, separate from the rest of the party: “You need to hide out, a girl like you, keep a low profile.” Whatever that meant. I truly believe he felt he was being protective, helpful even.
When I was 15, the adults in my life were concerned by my modeling at such a young age. They’d heard the horror stories of creepy middle-aged men taking advantage of young women, or agents pressuring girls to lose weight. Surprisingly enough, dealing with the world outside the industry was the toughest part of my adolescence and young adulthood. Teachers, friends, adults, boyfriends — individuals who were not as regulated as those in the highly scrutinized fashion world were more often the ones to make me feel uncomfortable or guilty about my developing sexuality. I was modeling only occasionally at that time, but I found the same people who faulted the modeling industry for being oppressive and sexist were frequently missing entirely their own missteps and faux pas. Their comments felt much more personal and thus landed that much harder.