I’m turning 30, unclear of what the next chapter has in store. Looking back on my early 20s, my immediate feeling is: Why would I ever want to go back there? As many 20-year-olds can attest, not much feels within your control, and navigating an industry that is based on physical beauty is no exception.
When I first began my modeling career in New York, my agents, who were presumed trustworthy, had complete control over my jobs and bookings. Since my schedule was organized in a spreadsheet that they had access to, I wasn’t able to glimpse at it whenever I chose, and it was hard to make plans with people without feeling like I may have to break them. I had a packed bag ready in case I’d have to fly to Milan on a moment’s notice. I was in a constant cycle of putting work first, and feeling like I had no choice but to.
But I wasn’t going to let the lack of stability stop me. Despite living with scoliosis and at times thinking I would never be able to overcome the odds stacked against me, I came to New York City with an outlook that I was going to “make it” as a model. I wouldn’t let myself think otherwise. I needed to believe I could overcome the challenges I faced in adolescence to fulfill my ambitions. Looking back, my fondest memory is trusting my intuition. During runway fittings, tailors would point out my leg or hip discrepancies caused by my scoliosis, but I wouldn’t let their doubts stop me from believing in myself. I used what made me different as an advantage: I learned that exaggerating my rounder right hip worked when I wanted to show a curvier side, and while I couldn’t physically slouch because of the metal rods in my back, I learned how to pose in a relaxed masculine way. When the going got tough, I remember telling myself: This is a challenge. Challenge yourself every day. These words became a regular mantra that I relied on to distract myself from negative thoughts.
The modeling industry follows the current trends. I never thought I was the prettiest or coolest or most on-trend, but I felt at home in New York, like I had found some sense of purpose. But my profession whisked me away constantly. I didn’t have time to build relationships or find a sense of familiarity. I yearned for the opportunity to feel grounded, to have friends, to be in one place — but that wasn’t what I’d signed up for.
I buried my frustrations and worked diligently on all of my various modeling jobs to save as much money as possible. I found solace in writing. My thoughts seemed to serve a purpose written down, a cathartic way to archive records of specific feelings or trauma I experienced, like when my kindness was sometimes mistaken for weakness. I was eager to fulfill my potential as a model, and that unfortunately came with the price of being disrespected by people with authority over me. Uncomfortable situations taught me how to draw boundaries. That reflection allowed me to regain some control, and shed light on the silver linings of my life.
My first global modeling trips were all in dream destinations: Paris, Hong Kong, and Japan. I had dreamed of traveling the world, but the reality was different than I had imagined. I was gone for months at a time and felt further away from the notion of building a home. My independence grew tremendously due to whatever strife I encountered: I had to learn how to get around via foot or public transportation, I lived with roommates from all around the world, but still, I felt lonely. Other models would come and go, and I became accustomed to working all day without talking to anyone, since most people on set didn’t speak English. During my evenings in Tokyo, I would turn on BBC or CNN to hear my own familiar language.
After those trips, I returned to New York with fond memories and little money. As I continued pursuing castings and jobs all over the city, I was filled with feelings of fear, self-doubt, and anxiety. Facing rejection was a regular occurrence, but it inspired me to prove others wrong. The hustle continued to be a challenging one, but my will to succeed was defiant. Through work, I met genuine friends and like-minded creative people. We bounced around East Village dive bars and indie concerts in the Lower East Side, ending our nights with a search for pizza or a better party. That curious youthful anonymity will always remain sacred in my memories. It was a liberating time when we celebrated the unconventional and lived like regular 20-somethings, blowing off steam and learning from our mistakes the hard way.
Then, my career took off in multifaceted ways. Being cast in the spotlight put pressure on me to perform as the “star,” and it took some time to embrace being the center of attention. I learned to value self-preservation. Having time for myself helps recharge my batteries when I feel like I constantly have to be “on” for others. Additionally, I was reminded that stepping outside of my comfort zone could be surprisingly rewarding: the more my shy inner self was challenged with public speaking and interviews, the more I discovered that I was capable of handling myself in situations I never saw possible. As a friend once put it, I found my voice.
Entering my 30s, I’m on a personal high note. I feel more capable and in control of my life than ever before. Maybe my path to reaching 30 needed to be challenging in order to grasp how fortunate I’ve become.
I’m most thankful for the mental fortitude I’ve developed that helped me prevail when faced with obstacles. In my 20s, I laid my foundation brick by brick. Now, I aspire to work harder on sharpening my mind to retain wisdom for when my looks have changed. I hope to bring the same energy and ambition into my thirties as I had in my 20s, with a healthy dose of gratitude for how far I’ve come. Ultimately, shifting perspective is in your control, even if not much else is.
I used to chew on drinking straws as a child. My older sister told me, “It’s a maturity thing. You’ll grow out of that.” She was right. At some point, the habit stopped, and I hadn’t noticed. Will 30 be like that? Will I be in the comfort of my own private space and suddenly realize I no longer spontaneously dance to blasting music? I envision my thirties will have far more to do with utilizing the lessons I’ve learned as tools to evolve my mind, career, and new projects that excite me in unprecedented ways. After all, it’s become clear to me that I’ve learned more from my failures than my accomplishments. But I also hope that I’ll always tap into my inner child, dancing to loud music whenever.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.