There’s something unsettling about the fact that the main modeling work I got between the ages of 20 and 22 was that of playing the role of bride or mom.
In a way, I shouldn’t have been too surprised: TV shows always seem to cast 24-year-olds as high school freshmen, only to cast a 29-year-old as the middle-aged mother of two. It’s all in a futile attempt to hide the fact that we’re awkward as adolescents and wrinkly as adults; that we get a good 10 years maximum where we’re not pig-faced brats or haggard old people (if we believe society, at least).
I never got that many runway gigs, and I was always passed over for jobs that needed someone to play the studious college student or spunky young adult (ironically, those always seemed to go to the 17-year-old who had flawlessly gone through puberty at the age of 10). I was too big for fashion, too small for plus size, and too offbeat for most catalogue work. But acting like someone’s bride or mom was my bread and butter.
There was something peculiar about trying on wedding dresses when I was still wondering if my college boyfriend was the real deal. Much like there was something off about linking arms with a gay 19-year-old boy and pretending like we had just gotten hitched. And there was something downright unnerving about holding or feeding someone else’s baby as if it were my own, especially while the actual moms – who were all old enough to have been my babysitter back in the day – milled about on set.
One minute I’m fawning over my new legal drinking age and the next, pretend-tossing a bouquet or rocking Mrs. Jenson’s baby to sleep in a new brand of cradle due out this fall.
It was all incredibly surreal. Here I was, going up and down the fake aisle to clichéd dance music during wedding expos and bridal shows. I felt like a princess, but the kind of princess that people don’t really talk about. I might has well have been an adolescent princess whose my father-king was working behind scenes, orchestrating the entire expo as some sort of weird type of fanfare before he married me off to a prince from another province. A prince who happened to be a year younger than me and very much into guys.
So, in a way, a lot like how arranged marriages operated for royalty in the olden days.
Granted, 20 is not exactly pre-pubescent, but when you’re an emotionally-lost college student who cannot fathom the idea of being an adult, you might be as well be a 12-year-old princess from a faraway land. Or a 15-year-old teen mom who is trying to pay the bills by having pictures taken of her while she holds her baby.
But the wedding gigs and the motherhood shoots were what helped pay the bills, so I didn’t complain. I did exactly what was asked of me and wondered if anyone would be able to look at the side of that highchair box or at that advertisement for a wedding boutique and wonder how the model could have ever been considered old enough for the job.
I got engaged at the tender age of 24: an age that lies somewhere between “congratulations!” and, “oh God, are you pregnant?” in terms of marriage eligibility. I dove headfirst into the complex world of weddings, with gift registries and vendor meetings and wedding websites to boot.
In some weird twist of fate, as I hit my mid-twenties, the mom and bride jobs ground to a screeching halt. I continued to work with one bridal boutique – the boutique I ended up getting my own wedding dress from – but, for the most part, I was done being a child bride and mom. Most likely because I wasn’t a child anymore.
I remember setting up a registry at one particular department store for my own wedding. To the right of me in the Registry Consultation Office was a picture of a bride and a groom standing in front a barn. The boy held the girl’s hand with the same tentativeness as if they were out on their first date. The girl looked 18 at the absolute oldest. The boy was maybe a year older. The dress looked less like a wedding gown and more like a white prom dress. She looked sweet and carefree and obviously without a clue as to what actual weddings entail.
And maybe that’s why clients want their models so young that they can’t yet rent a car or drink. Planning a wedding is about as stressful as herding cats into single-file formation, and with roughly the same results. Being a mother is about as frustrating and exhausting as it can get. You don’t want women who actually understand how the adult world works – what weddings and parenting actually entail – to model your wares. You want the spunky 20-year-old who whimsically dreams of a perfect white wedding in Tahiti, or swears she knows everything there is to know about babies because she spends a few hours a week babysitting the neighbor’s children. You want to draw the potential customer in with the idea that if you buy from this store, if you use this particular company’s service, then maybe you’ll be as happy and carefree as you think you were when you were 20.
A few years back, I ran into an old picture of me while perusing the local Babies R Us for a baby shower present. I found my mug on the side of a box for a highchair, feeding a happy baby with a serene smile on my face. The shirt was a completely different color than the one I had actually worn in the shoot, and they had Photoshopped my arm, shortening it to the point that my elbow essentially stopped at my collarbone (and was made of rubber). The baby did not meet my gaze, but instead smiled blissfully at something happening off-camera. I was holding up a plastic spoon that had absolutely nothing in it.
I compared that picture to the countless other pictures on countless other boxes beside me in that store. The model moms all looked so young and energetic, like motherhood was the easiest thing in the world – at least it was now, now that they owned this new bassinet or mini bathtub. I didn’t shake my head and wonder how anyone could imagine that the girl in the picture was old enough for that baby. I simply walked away wondering why anyone would think a woman’s arm could bend that way as she fed her kid in a highchair.