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A Woman’s Work: The Outside Story

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | January 2, 2019 | 5,775 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Feature, Featured, Nonfiction, Story, Unapologetic Women

A Woman’s Work: The Outside Story

Carolita Johnson catalogues her efforts to maintain her appearance from about 1970 to 2018.
All artwork by Carolita Johnson

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | January 2019 | 23 minutes (5,775 words)

When I freelanced as a “fit model” in the early aughts (the unglamorous kind of modeling that helps patternmakers adjust their patterns to fit humans correctly) I signed a contract with my agency that legally bound me to “maintain” my “appearance” while they represented me. My skin, all my visible hair (on my head, my eyebrows, my legs, armpits, and face), as well as my weight and several key body measurements all fell under this rubric.

There is nothing unreasonable about this: the main part of the job, besides the obvious — trying clothing on for patternmakers to see if there’s anything in an item that needs correcting, to avoid producing thousands of flawed garments — is to make sure your body is always the same so that a designer can produce clothing that is a consistent fit. The unspoken truth is that even though it’s technically only about measurements, it wouldn’t do to show up without a minimum of good hair and makeup, looking as attractive as you possibly can with whatever looks you pulled in the Lotto of good looks. This goes for all size categories, from junior to plus size.

Accordingly, my accountant and I came up with a deductible category we called “maintenance” — well, I came up with it and she translated it into the IRS-accepted language — and under this category I placed gym membership expenses, haircuts (and eventual hair color as I aged, because my gray hairs upset some designers even if their clothes still fit me perfectly), mani-pedis, and occasional waxing for lingerie and swimwear jobs. I might even have been able to get Botox deducted if I’d kept doing the job long enough. I left it to my accountant to decide what I could legally include.

For context, just because most people are curious about the job description, the ideal fit model has a body that isn’t extraordinary in any way. I was a size 6/junior medium, a size for which there’s a relatively small market, so I didn’t work 9 to 5 like a size 10 or a size 18W would have. This was what made the job perfect for a cartoonist/writer like me.

It was extremely enjoyable to be able to deduct these expenses for that relatively brief period of my life as a woman. It never escaped my ironic notice that with few exceptions, most women feel contractually bound to maintain their appearance in all the same ways I had to as a pro, while paying for it all on a sliding scale from “religiously” to “happily” to “begrudgingly,” usually depending on the amount of social and financial power they are born into or acquire through hard work or marriage.



The first memories I have of a deliberate effort to modify my body to conform to ideals of femininity are of taking ballet and piano lessons. No one would normally think of this when considering the cultural oppression of women — no, we think, “Doesn’t every girl want to be a princess/ballerina?” I wanted to be an astronaut or a genie, if you care to know.

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