Dying to stay young

Dying to stay young

Is the drive to remain attractive a form of ego-syntonic behavior?

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 05/17/2012

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Dear Patti,
I’m 24 and have been a runway model since I was 15. It may sound glamorous to do shows and fundraisers, but it really isn’t. The modeling agency often gets multiple bookings at the last minute, a scenario that requires me to drive for hours with a trunk full of shoes, wigs, hair extensions and makeup to accommodate whatever is needed. As tired and frustrated as I am, this work is all I’ve ever known. I don’t have any other skills and could never make the same money to support myself and my daughter. Due to my age and the associated weight gain, I’m called on less frequently for jobs.     

There’s no room for unprofessionalism. No matter what, I have to fit in a size 6 and look perfect. Being 5 feet, 10 inches tall and large-boned with a size 10 shoe has always made it a challenge to fit into the expected modeling apparel. Since this has become even harder to achieve in recent years, I’ve taken what my parents perceive as desperate, addictive and unstable measures, including plastic surgery, multiple face peels, a tummy tuck and four liposuctions. Despite these harmful habits to keep weight off and look youthful, I also eat healthy food, consistently exercise and keep a positive attitude. It’s not all bad.

I admit my behavior is partially due to vanity and insecurity, but much of the reasoning is I want to keep my career. There are a few models who actually work full time until age 30, and that’s my goal. How come a man can do extreme things to keep his job and it’s considered “supporting his family,” but when I do similar deeds, it’s labeled emotionally unwell?
 — Suze

Dear Suze,
Since you’ve been exposed to this environment your whole adult life, I’m concerned you’ve long ago learned all the pat answers to view/defend this behavior as the only acceptable option. If you were to divorce yourself from this world for a moment, though, would you be comfortable if your daughter grew up and began copying these same unhealthy actions? Treat yourself with the same standard.

When people engage in conduct they believe is wrong, seriously endangers their lives and requires help to discontinue, it’s called “ego-dystonic behavior.” An example of this is an alcoholic who realizes his/her life is being destroyed and very much desires sobriety. “Ego-syntonic behavior,” on the other hand, refers to self-destructive deeds that the individual defends with comments like, “I come from a long line of drinkers, so what do you expect? Besides, I always get up and get to work on time.”

In your case, it sounds like you believe you’re a well-adjusted, mostly well-functioning career person just trying to stay employed. What you have to ask yourself — and this holds true for either gender — is how far in extreme behavior are you willing to go for a certain career position. Are your actions “normalizing” a subculture’s definition and acceptance of physical beauty that may be at a higher cost than you realize? As long as your activities are ego-syntonic, you may change very little, no matter how concerned your parents are.

I recommend you meet with a professional psychotherapist trained in such issues and carefully explore, without rationalization, how much of your behavior is maladaptive due to your emotional issues and how much is due to adapting to a demanding work environment that financially supports your family.

When you started modeling at 15, it was more natural for your body to be gangly thin. As they age, many models fall victim to smoking to kill appetite, drugs and laxatives, self-induced vomiting and fasting — all to maintain the illusion of girlhood rather than gracefully entering womanhood. As if the day-to-day stress of modeling jobs weren’t enough, the pressure to be perpetually thin and youthful, coupled with the threat of replacement by someone thinner, sounds like serious damage to your self-esteem. In a profession where ultimately all that matters is physical appearance, your personal beliefs and values are at risk of being completely skewed.

How willing are you to sacrifice health for work? What are the long-term consequences on your emotional and physical well being? These aren’t easy questions, but they need to be explored carefully and individually. You are very experienced and knowledgeable for your age. By the rest of the world's standards, you’re still young, conscientious and professional and have plenty of time to create a new career. Your career dreams do not have to end at 30. What you need is the ability to put yourself first and start planning and creating a new, exciting future for yourself.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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