When I was 17 years old, I was signed with a small modeling agency in the Midwest area. I hadn’t been looking for modeling opportunities; I didn’t attend a modeling competition or send my pictures into agencies looking for representation.  I was “discovered” while shopping in a mall by myself one afternoon.

It was absolutely absurd to me that anyone would consider me beautiful enough to be a model and looking back, I should have taken that man’s business card and thrown it right in the trash; but for a girl like me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

I had spent a lifetime being told that I was ugly, worthless, disgusting, and no better than the garbage that sat on the curb. My mother made it her daily task to rip my looks from head to toe from the time I got up until bedtime that evening.  Her mental and physical abuse wore on me to the point that I became anorexic during my high school years to try and cope with my already distorted body image.

Maybe that made me a prime target.

Everything with the agency checked out and after consulting with some family members, I decided to take the leap and sign a one year contract; hoping for the best, but expecting nothing. I was sent on a couple of photo shoots, went to a couple of late night parties and felt more beautiful than I ever had before in my life.  It seemed like a win-win situation.  They made money, I made money, and my self-esteem was starting to rise for the first time in a very long time.

Then there was the first night. The night the president of the modeling agency asked me to stay late after a photo shoot.  The night he came out of his office with a glass of bourbon in his hand and told me that he saw “potential” in me and that “all models pose naked at some point”.  I didn’t want to strip down to my underwear that night and stand there covering my breasts while he walked around me pretending to snap a camera.  “Beautiful” he’d whisper.  “Beautiful.”

I was 17. 17 and scared that if I said no, I would never be called for another shoot again.  17 and naïve enough to think that this man was doing this for my own good.  17 and damaged from an abusive childhood and looking for affirmation from anyone who would give it.

He didn’t touch me that first night; I ended up putting on my clothes and going home. And even though he didn’t touch me, I still felt violated.  I remember shaking as I was driving home, tears in my eyes and anger in my heart.  But I remember justifying the incident in my head too; “Maybe that’s just how everyone in the industry acts at some point” “He was drinking and didn’t know what he was doing” “He did say all models pose naked” “It wasn’t that big of a deal because he didn’t actually touch me.”

I justified his actions and made his behavior make sense in my head. I took responsibility for his despicable behavior.

The second night he asked me to stay late at the agency; I hesitated. I didn’t want to get naked again, I didn’t want to stand there in the middle of an empty room while he prowled around me like a caged lion and I didn’t want to feel helpless.  But then I looked around and saw fifty other girls who would stay and who would say yes to him.  If I said no, then someone else would be right there, ready to take my spot.

I said I would stay.

He had me strip down to my underwear again and made me remove my hands from my breasts and put them down at my sides. I stood there, under a light, while he walked around me, swishing his bourbon around and smacking his lips.  “Beautiful!” he exclaimed over and over.  I was humiliated, but that humiliation quickly turned to fear when I felt his hot breath on my neck.

I froze; I should have ran, but I froze. He started breathing on my neck and reached around and grabbed one of my breasts with his free hand.  I pulled away and he laughed.  “What’s the matter with you?  I’m just playing around!”

Instead of yelling at him, slapping him, and telling him how inappropriate he was, I apologized for “overreacting”. There I stood, completely naked with the exception of a thong, apologizing to a drunk, middle aged man for not allowing him to grope me.

I was only 17.

I got lucky that night. I was able to put my clothes back on and leave before something worse happened.  I don’t know why he didn’t press me any further or attempt to have sex with me, but I was grateful to leave. I knew that by not sleeping with him, I was risking any future I had with the agency, and I was OK with that.  It wasn’t worth it to me.

Imagine my shock when the next day, I got a phone call from the agency offering me a “high paying” gig. A gig to “entertain” beer company executives on their boat for three days in the Lake of the Ozarks.

“What do you mean by entertainment?” I asked, rather naively.

“Well,” the agent replied, “anything that the execs want.”

The more I pressed, the more it became clear that entertainment included a lot more than some karaoke singing. I refused the gig and was fired the next day.  Needless to say, I didn’t shed too many tears when I was released from my contract and I never tried to model again.

This is the first time I have ever told this story to anyone, but I was inspired by the recent hashtag #MeToo. As I browsed through this hashtag and read the thousands of stories of woman who had been exposed to sexual assault and harassment in their lives, it struck me that we all had something in common.  We all allowed ourselves to be humiliated by someone we saw as more powerful than us.  We allowed someone to treat us in a disrespectful manner because we were afraid of what would happen if we said no.  We allowed someone to take away our dignity because we thought it was the right thing to do.

So who says yes to men like this? I did and I’ve been ashamed to admit that for over two decades.  Ashamed because it sounds like I was asking for it and asking to be treated in that way.  Well, I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t want it, and none of us ever want it.  We put up with it because we think that it is the right thing to do.  It doesn’t matter if you are 17 or 70; it’s never right and it’s time we stop accepting treatment like this as normal.

#MeToo

“Be an independent thinker at all times, and ignore anyone who attempts to define you in a limiting way.” Sherry Argov