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Though she’s not in front of the camera anymore, Madison Schill continues to work at improving the modelling industry.

Photograph by Michael Woloszynowicz

Five years ago, I was a young, impressionable fashion model. Back then, the preferred "look" for a model was one of youth, extreme thinness and malleability; most visits to my New York agency ended with requests that I "look dirtier," "sleep on a park bench," "start smoking" or "eat fewer fats."

A few of these (smoking, park bench) I did not comply with, but I did stop brushing my hair as often, felt guilty after eating a single almond and tried the quintessential New York unaffectedness on for size. I wore it – this steely, prepare-for-the-worst armour – like a cloak along with my furrowed brow, all-black wardrobe and impossibly high heels. I was a small, optimistic 16-year-old girl who wanted nothing more than to be the editor of Teen Vogue one day. I would have sacrificed almost anything to push my way up in the industry and I think a lot of people knew that.

I left the modelling industry because it was proving detrimental to my physical and mental health. I have since graduated with a degree in metaphysics and French linguistics from the University of Toronto, spent time as a writer at Elle Canada, worked as associate producer on Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image, a documentary about diversity in the fashion industry, and started a beauty consultancy, where I vet products in a comprehensive, science-based process and empower inclusive brands to own their message through casting, creative direction and digital strategy.

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Meanwhile, since my departure, the fashion industry has made some minor advancements. There is now less of a stigma built around plus-sized models, a record 36.9 per cent of runway models were non-white last season and, as such, there is more diversity in the casting process. But there is still more to be done. Much more, in fact.

Over the past few years, I have watched the fashion industry change, witnessing its participants – such as model Cameron Russell, editor Elaine Welteroth, casting director James Scully, model agent Gary Dakin and anonymous Instagram accounts such as @diet_prada – begin the long-overdue task of creating a demand for models who look less like me. For models to be believed and included in the creative conversation, someone else needed to vouch for us. Now, though, our underdog influence is gathering steam; we're compassionately, consciously and collectively changing the world.

During my time as a model, my peers and I were not counted as individuals with more to contribute to our industry. Our biggest, shiniest assets were our faces, frames and bodies, often championed for the lack of space they took up. We were encouraged to speak little and to eat less. Do not chew gum, do not be political. Although part of the job, these concepts ate away at my understanding of personhood.

I used to believe that there was a limited amount of space I could occupy in life, be it physical or intellectual. The smaller my physical body became, the more currency my opinion held, I thought; the larger I grew, the less my voice mattered. It took several years for me to let go of this belief and it is my mission that younger consumers never have it at all.

It's been a profound pleasure watching my peers define beauty on their own terms over the past four years. One of my friends, model Charli Howard, is releasing a book this month chronicling her tumultuous journey in falling in love with her body. Former model and Harvard graduate Sara Ziff works with her team at the Model Alliance to help protect fashion workers.

In 2017, the Model Alliance worked with several universities, the New York City department of consumer affairs, The New York Times, the CFDA and the United Nations to empower individuals by sharing their stories, assisting in scientific research and urging policies be set in place to help protect those who, for decades, have worked with no legal protections. My friend and former Victoria's Secret model Grace Mahary has also established a charity that brings solar energy to impoverished communities across Africa.

I am inspired by these women, who do so much more than was asked of them. They are using their platforms as an opportunity to shift the conversation forward, to build better systems, concepts and institutions for others, both in and out of the fashion industry.

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Four years after my "retirement," I have managed to glue together the broken pieces of my self-esteem with pride. I attend events with industry folk who have seen my body look smaller, and break bread with agents who once warned me against eating it. I cast models for projects with inclusive brands and find myself in a new seat at our industry table; if anyone on set speaks ill of a model's body, I encourage them to explore why they think it's okay to make such a declaration in the first place.

Would I ever return to modelling? Perhaps, but that will never be all I am. I used to be afraid of the camera; I did not believe that, as a size 4-6, I would be worthy of being preserved, celebrated or appreciated on film. It is in being surrounded by change makers, and the joy I find in loving myself, unconditionally, that makes me feel confident in our future as multidimensional industry allies.

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