Nat Novaes on carving her own path in the modelling industry
The lovely model and gender studies student opens up about her struggles in the industry. Content warning: disordered eating.
Nat! Thanks so much for being here with us. For those who don’t know you, you are a successful model and gender studies student in New York. However, your modelling career has not always been so smooth sailing. Could you explain a little about the struggles you first faced when you entered the industry?
Thank you so much for having me! I am super happy to be chatting to you! But yes, you're right- ever since I first set foot into the modelling industry (when I was 19) I heard the same thing; that I had potential but that I needed to lose weight. In fact, it was only after months of intense and unhealthy dieting that I actually started working as a model; I built my career with a body size that was not healthy or sustainable for me. Long story short, I ended up developing huge issues with body image and eating habits that culminated in an eating disorder which I left untreated for at least 5 years. Somehow I managed to continue to thrive in my career throughout this time, especially given that the industry is not exactly worried about a model’s health. Still, I became so depressed and was living such an isolated life that at some point I realised that I needed to chose a path towards recovery. It took me about two years to get my health and happiness back.
In the process I gained a lot of weight, and interestingly that was the first time in my life that I started to truly feel beautiful and whole, even after the industry had turned its back on me due to the changes in my body.
Around that time I began working in the plus size industry and began to look at my work in a completely different way. It was a very difficult transition, and I went through a lot of self-esteem issues. But choosing recovery and changing my career path ended up being the best decision I had made in a long time.
You’ve managed to carve a successful career in a body that typically was not accepted by the industry. How did you manage that?
While I progressed in my ED recovery, my measurements began to increase, while my clients began to disappear. It did not matter that I had been working for them for years and it did not matter to some of my agents that I was an established model; the changes in my body forced me to face the end of my career. But at the same time, I wasn’t ready to quit. That’s because, finally, I was feeling beautiful. It just did not make sense to stop modelling when I finally got the courage to embrace my body in its healthy, natural state and when I knew that I was a better professional than when I was starving myself. It became this sort of silent activism, I wanted to prove to myself that my happiness would eventually materialise in my career. So I began to search for agents that would be interested in representing me, signed with a new agency that liked me the way I was and slowly, but steadily, I began a whole new career. I had to do castings and ‘go-sees’ as if I was just starting in the industry, I had to build a whole new portfolio, change all of my agencies in several countries, etc. It was like starting from zero in a career, with the only difference being that I already knew everything about it. I think that my experiences as a straight size model made me stronger and guided me in this new journey, mainly because I did not commit the same mistakes I made in the past. For example, I was often working for plus size clients, so the industry now began to push me to gain weight to work more. I simply ignored that, instead of letting my life and body become, again, completely subjected to other people’s standards or ideals.
I learned the hard way that it’s never a good idea to compromise one’s health or freedom for any career and I live by that standard to this day. I think that is how I have succeeded in my ‘new’ career.
We’ve been hearing a lot about body diversity starting to enter the industry, however it is hard to tell as an outsider. Have you noticed this or is there still a significant lack of body representation?
It is definitely getting better. When I first ‘transitioned’ to plus there were less jobs for any model bigger than a size 4 and now I feel like there is much more. But at the same time, there is still this broad narrative of “inclusion” that I think is not really ideal. I don’t think that this will ever lead us to real representation. Ultimately, this narrative is false because it tends to ‘include’ in a tokenised way. There are still many big clients showcasing a diversity of size, race, gender identity, abilities and ages in ways that only highlight these models as “others”. The brands are usually like “hey everyone! Look at me, I am so nice and I am including these ‘different’ people!”. I think that until we see significantly more models that are outside of what has been considered the “beauty standard”, we will keep having issues as an industry to actually be inclusive.
I always say that we need to create a different (and healthier) way of looking and interacting with beauty itself, not simply include more people in an already established and toxic way of looking at beauty. That is why I dedicated my final thesis for school to talk about this, because I don’t really see anyone questioning or talking about the real issues behind representation. We keep being satisfied with these sort of superficial ‘fixes’ of inclusion and do not really talk about why we are so obsessed as a culture with the idea of beauty as we know it. One of the things I discuss in my thesis is the idea that beauty can be either purchased or achieved with “hard work” such as dieting, cosmetics and exercise. Until we properly reflect on the roots of this issues, we will keep believing that this inclusion narrative is enough to create a society in which people are comfortable with their bodies and compelled to take care of it, and make their health and wellbeing a priority. But, well, don’t get me wrong, what we have now is definitely better than nothing. I am very happy to see the inclusion, I just wished that we talked more about the underlying and structural issues behind all of this.
Do you still face criticism over your body?
I don’t. But I believe that this is because everyone that works with me knows that I will not really listen to it. I've had a couple of uncomfortable conversations with people in the industry, explaining that I will not change my body for my career anymore and that it is pointless to talk about my body. I maintain the healthiest lifestyle that I can have, while enjoying my life and that is the best I can do. It is pretty cool though, because my weight did fluctuate through the past 4 years and it’s been so liberating to have my agents and people in the industry not talking about it and working around it. I really wish that all models could experience that.
After all, it’s not that difficult to respect the fact that we are human beings and we have human bodies that inevitably change.
But I do feel very lucky to work with very professional and respectful people and I know that this is not the experience of many models today.
How did you deal with the comments that use to come towards your body?
When I used to get the nasty comments as a straight size model, I would just internalise them. It was really toxic; I used to feel terrible after any criticism about my body. But that was only expected, I was so young, I wanted to succeed in this career so badly, and had professionals call me things such as a “balloon”. I really just accepted it, conformed to other’s standards and starved myself. I really think that my eating disorder was partially due to this toxic internalisation of others ideas about my body.
You’ve previously spoken about believing that your peers, fellow models, have some of the worst self-esteem and body image issues out of anybody. Do you think this is still the case?
Well, as with any generalisation, it is doomed to be inaccurate. The truth is that models are an extremely diverse group of people with very complex experiences. But taking that into consideration, I do see a lot of my friends and models that I work with feeling very insecure about their looks, definitely. Some of my closest friends (and also models I interviewed for my thesis) experience or have experienced serious self-esteem issues that were often related to their body image. It is kind of expected though, because when your income and identity is often based on how you look, you will develop higher standards and you will tend to pay more attention to your physicality than other people. I think that many people believe that once a model (especially “straight-size” models) are established in their careers, they automatically get like a “beauty diploma” and are good to go to feel “beautiful” in the world. But that is far from being the reality, many models feel very insecure about their looks- probably more than if they were not modelling. It goes without saying that, as I was speaking previously, this current conceptualisation of human beauty that we have as a society does not work to make us feel happier, more confident and free. Models are a great example to illustrate how this idealisation and commodification of beauty is coercive and toxic.
You’ve also spoken out about the industry’s darker side and the prevalence of sexual harassment. Is this something that still occurs frequently and how do you deal with that?
Aside from some uncomfortable situations, I have never experienced any abuse during my career. But yes, we do have a huge issue of sexual harassment in this industry and I have heard terrible stories from both friends or during some of the activist work that I do. In that sense, I am grateful for the work of Model Alliance, especially with their ‘respect program’, which hopefully will become the norm for most clients. Also, from a purely personal experience, it seems to me that many professionals are behaving differently in the industry, especially after the #metoo movement became so big. I feel more respected as a model, but, well, that might just be more of a reflection of my own career than a structural change in the industry.
What is next for you personally?
I am still modelling full time and that does take a lot of my time. But I am thinking about applying for a masters degree and trying some writing because I feel like my experiences in the industry, combined with my experiences in school enabled me to have a unique perspective on some issues and I would love to turn this knowledge and experience into something that will impact more people, not just me. Although, I’m not gonna lie, I’m still not really sure about how I want this to happen. I just graduated last week so at this very moment I am trying (and failing) to just give myself a couple of weeks to rest and reflect, as the last couple of months have been insanely busy with school and modelling work.
Any advice for young girls wanting to get into the industry or idolising models and their lifestyle?
If you can remember one thing from this interview, never forget that you are more than a body.
Of course, it’s great to have fun with our bodies, adorn them in ways that makes us feel beautiful and unique. But never forget the difference between feeling the pressure to change yourself to achieve a collective/coercive beauty standard and the pleasure of celebrating your body, physicality and your unique beauty. In more direct and simple terms: don’t compare, don’t measure, don’t commodify your body. When we do that, we tend to forget what our bodies’ beauty really is about- being unique! We have all different features for a reason. Let’s celebrate it.
In regards to modelling, it is hard because modelling has provided me with incredible opportunities and I love my career. But at the same time, I look back at when I was about 13 years old and used to think that modelling was the most amazing thing I could do with my life. I thought that being beautiful was the biggest asset a woman could have and whenever I see other girls being exposed to this mindset it scares me. This patriarchal and toxic line of thought (that I obviously did not invent, it was passed to me) is simply a lie. It sounds silly to point this out, as it is such an obvious point when you say it out loud, but it is very easy to get caught up with the idealisation of celebrities and “beauty” in our culture. You are more than beautiful, you are interesting and complex. And I am not saying that a model can’t be those things, I am saying that being a model is just like any other job. In fact, it is much less interesting than many other jobs.
When I think about astronauts, scholars, scientists, activists, diplomats, and many other occupations it is hard to believe that I once thought that taking pictures was the most amazing thing I could do. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, I am very happy in my work environment, and in some jobs I do feel like modelling is a form of art. What I am trying to communicate is that modelling is not as amazing as it had been sold to me when I was younger. It is a profession, and models deserve respect and protection as in
any other occupation. But I don’t think modelling should be idealised at all, there are more interesting and meaningful things to be idealised.
Still, if even after reading this your desire to model does not diminish (and if you are older than 18), go for it. The first step is finding a reputable agency that wants to represent you. Don’t believe in anyone that tells you that there are other ways. Don’t believe anyone selling you photoshoots or agencies that do not have at least a couple of established models on their books. Good luck, have fun and if it doesn’t work I’m sure you will find great things to do with your beautiful life!