I started modeling around fourteen after winning a local competition in North Carolina with scouts from New York City. Although I was painfully shy, modeling encouraged me to break out of my shell. Coming from a small town, my life wasn’t the picture of glamour. I was excited to get phone calls about potential jobs and be flown to New York City for castings and photo shoots. School was my priority, but I took pride having an exciting opportunity in the back of my mind, like my own private escape to a world full of culture and possibility.
However, around the same time I started modeling, I noticed changes in my body, and not the regular kind of changes. I sensed something was off about my back and hips, and I convinced my parents to take me to the doctor, who confirmed my fear–I had scoliosis. I was told that this was a common problem among young women, and there wasn’t much they could do, unless it got a lot worse. I feared my escape world shatter.
I accepted my new twist in fate, but I was still hopeful and continued to model during school breaks. As my modeling turned into a realistic career option, I had my doubts about how successful I could be, because of my physical asymmetries. One hip was higher. One shoulder blade protruded more. My sternum was pronounced, and my waistline only curved on my right side. Modeling put me under a microscope, it made me cognizant of everything about my body; how I looked, how I moved. I learned which hip to lean on to overcompensate for my uneven waistline. And as clients started to notice something was off, I grew more insecure about my scoliosis. The signs progressed over a few short years, and I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I was sensitive to a client’s gaze in my direction, wearing their clothes. I didn’t like how I looked when I walked the runway. I sensed all eyes on me, noticing my flaws. Scoliosis took a toll on how I felt about my body.
As my curvatures progressed, I started feeling physical discomfort. Sneezing caused my body to tighten up in pain. I went to see another doctor, who recommended I see a specialist outside of town. The specialist advised that I get a spinal fusion, because one of my curves had progressed past 50 degrees, and my scoliosis could cause a slew of other health issues. Throughout the rest of my senior year, the possibility of an extensive surgery never left my mind. Once I graduated, I had the operation soon after. I told the surgeon I was a model, and asked him to give me the smallest scar possible. Even still, I was nervous about how clients would respond. The surgery used titanium rods and screws to straighten my spine.
Overnight I went through a dramatic change physically and mentally. I looked scary stiff and robotic after my surgery. However, I gained an inch and a half in height, and for the first time, I looked in the mirror and saw curves on both sides of my waist. Although my surgery was successful and the experience made me stronger, I made it my personal mission to fully understand the disorder, to ask more questions and to discover if something other than surgery could have prevented my curve from progressing.
I recovered over that summer, and finally moved to New York, to pursue my career full-time. Although I began working consistently, I was not an overnight sensation. I got to travel the world, but faced rejection often, and there were times I wanted to toss my suitcase into the middle of the Parisienne streets in a fit of fury and resentment. I eventually reached the point where I wanted to quit entirely, but I persevered. The patience that it took for me to finally achieve a high level of success came from a place of resilience.
Throughout my trials and tribulations, scoliosis was an unwavering source of motivation for me. I was emphatic that some day I would share my scoliosis journey with the world to help others inform themselves, feel less alone, and learn more about scoliosis in the process. I never doubted that purpose, but the timing had to be right.
I was still riddled with insecurities as a consequence of my battle with scoliosis. Although I had a successful operation, it did not completely fix the condition, nor was it meant to. It helped balance my spinal curves, but I didn’t become totally symmetrical afterwards. Many people are burdened by scoliosis during their formative years, and some of those insecurities do not go away, even after their brace comes off, or scars are stitched up.
A pivotal shift in my career did finally happen. Before I knew it, I was walking shows for the biggest fashion houses in Milan and Paris, from Prada to Chanel. The more shows I walked, the more confident I became, and I even secured my first Victoria’s Secret show, a highlight of any model’s career. I had joined a legacy that represented the most beautiful and empowered women in the industry.
There was a time when I felt I was scamming the industry, that inevitably clients would pick out my flaws. I thought my slight limp and 14-inch scar down my back deemed me imperfect. I dreaded negative feedback, but it never came. In fact, scoliosis gave me an edge, because I had to keep it in check, I had to keep my core and back strong for pain management. The adversity I faced with my career and body image ultimately empowered me. That drive trumped my hesitations about what brands would think of my abnormalities. If I didn’t use my platform to shed light on scoliosis, I would miss out an important opportunity to impact the scoliosis community. When I was diagnosed, I did not have a public figure to relate to, and I yearned for that kind of awareness to better understand what was happening to my body.
I researched a way I could get involved with the cause. I came across the Scoliosis Research Society, and reached out to them. They vetted my background and requested my written scoliosis story with photos, which they later published to their website. I remember the overwhelming anxiety I felt about sharing such a personal, but important piece of my own narrative. I was accustomed to sharing my image, but not a shred of vulnerability. I posted the link to my SRS story on my social media accounts, and immediately received an outpour of support and messages from friends and followers. Soon after, the SRS reached out to me about sponsoring a trip to the Capitol to advocate for Orthopedic Research Funding. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to turn my passion into action. Not to mention, who isn’t fascinated by Capitol Hill?
I took advantage of two separate visits to the Capitol, where I requested funding for Orthopedic research face-to-face with lawmakers. My political activism was a fulfilling start, and a gateway to my real goal. I always dreamed of talking to young people that had been through their own scoliosis journeys, so I decided to team up with a support group dedicated to that very notion. I co-designed a jewelry collection with my friend Cannon Brendan, of Pluma Italia Jewelry, to sell one necklace to benefit Curvy Girls Scoliosis, and one to benefit Scoliosis Research Society.
I worked with the founder of the Curvy Girls Scoliosis Foundation, Leah Stoltz, selected fifteen young leaders from around country, and planned a photoshoot in time for June–Scoliosis Awareness Month. The whole concept was built around making a fun, inspirational, confidence-boosting day for the girls. We asked them to show off their brace or surgery scars while wearing the “Alyson” necklace. I enjoyed having some creative control, and the wheels in my head turned as the concept evolved. I wrote catchy captions for the girls to choose from for their copy, and we decided on a hashtag to accompany our shoot, “#gotyourback”. I had never worked so tirelessly on something where I wasn’t meant to show up as the talent. I put a producer hat on and organized catering, a studio, photographer, graphic artist, videographer, hair, makeup, nails, stylists, gift bags, and even an artist to paint the girls’ braces. Luckily, having attended countless shoots, I knew what to expect when I turned up on one! I helped coordinate a date with the help of Leah, and she provided me with organized information and schedules for all the girls. Every minute detail mattered from the minty green backdrop and pink text to compliment the Curvy Girls colors, to flying a girl and her mother up from North Carolina to showcase someone close to my roots. We pushed from every possible angle to get the shoot featured by Teen Vogue for their targeted young female demographic. They finally confirmed the feature, and the reality sunk in. We had achieved our biggest cross promotion goal, what else were we capable of?
The day of the shoot finally came, and I had never been so nervous before a shoot. I was excited, but not without concern. What if the girls weren’t affected by their scoliosis the way I was? What if they completely shut down and the camera made them nervous? It had been a decade since my spinal fusion, so I had fresh x-rays ready to show everyone, counting on them as an ice-breaker of some sort.
I decided to go early, be the first to shoot, and provide an inspiration photo. The days leading up to it I had printed and posted photos to pinboards, so I had a clear vision of the youthful positive energy I needed to bring to set. The girls piled in to hair and makeup chairs, and I juggled introducing myself between interviews for Teen Vogue. Fortunately, right out the gate, it was apparent that all of the girls were connecting. We dove right into the gritty stuff: hospital experiences, surgery scars, exercising after surgery, body confidence, and how uncomfortable braces can be! It struck me how much fortitude it takes for a pre-teen or teenager to wear a brace for over 20 hours a day. I had never been in a room with so many people who had experienced feelings so similar to my own, and that sentiment eased all of my nerves. I was committed to being an advocate for each of them, so I stood by on set to help with posing, or to boost their confidence. To my delight, the girls were fearlessly giving all they had during the photo shoot, and even cheering each other on while taking turns posing. The older girls enthusiastically lead by example as the younger girls took in how encouraging of a community they were part of. The mothers watched proudly, as their daughters confidently showed off their braces or scars, their testaments to their resilience. I felt grateful to the parents for supporting their daughters, as my mother was my ultimate source of love and strength during my check-ups and operation. Each of the girls received a necklace which Leah, Cannon, and I named after our mutual friend Alyson Gerber, the author of “Braced” from Scholastic, a novel written about a girl coping with wearing a brace throughout her adolescent years. Alyson joined the shoot as well, and together, our team felt invincible! By the end of the day, we were all getting to know each other and having such a great time, that no one wanted to leave! There’s nothing better than experiencing a day you know you will never forget.
I finally felt like I was making a difference in peoples’ lives firsthand, and that gave me the purpose I had been searching to fulfill. In an age where we shamelessly project images of perfection, sharing truths about imperfection couldn’t be more critical. Sometimes the things that make you different make you the best. Our shoot reminded me why it matters to genuinely care about a cause you’re supporting, and that taking action is far more gratifying and impactful than writing a check. I was inspired by the girls’ spunk and mobilization as they eloquently spoke about how the condition impacted their lives yet they found a sense of understanding and friendship in one another. We were all united by this profound obstacle that made us feel inadequate, yet manifested it into a positive thing in our lives. By these young leaders coming together to wear their imperfections with pride, they were role models to me, with the world at their feet.