I was 15 when my mum entered me into the Dolly Model Competition. She told me it was to help me with my self-esteem which, at the time, was shockingly low. She said I was so beautiful there was no way I wouldn’t win. A mother’s naivety.
At first I was horrified because I had no respect for fashion models. I told mum that if I won, no one would ever respect me. I wanted more than to be a pretty face. I wanted to be a writer.
But she said, “What better way to get you noticed than to have everyone see your beautiful face?”
And it occurred to me that I would like to win.
I was bullied badly at school, long before I entered the competition. I had freckles and a flat chest and I was terribly shy, I wasn’t tall but I was very thin. You see, I barely ate. And I did think I had a pretty face. I’m part Native American, so I have very white skin with Indian eyes. I felt like it made me stand out.
I began to fantasise about winning the competition and not telling anybody, so they would all discover it when they saw the magazines and be sorry that they bullied me.
Of course, I didn’t win. I didn’t even make semi -finals, or get featured on the collage of entrants in the magazine. And I was crushed because I didn’t know why. The girl that won was pretty, but I just couldn’t see how I was different, or what made her, or all the other girls ‘better’ than me.
And I think the thing that is so painful is that they aren’t really better. They are all beautiful for different reasons, and for whatever reason they didn’t like the look of me.
But none of the entrants ever got to find out what was ‘wrong with us’. That’s what hurt the most. Not knowing why. All we got was the silent rejection of never having been called and knowing that for some reason we could never be told, we weren’t model pretty.
And because that was the whole point of the magazine’s message, that ‘successful’ was ‘pretty’ and ‘model’ was ‘most desired’, I started thinking that I would never really be successful because I wasn’t good enough, and that no matter how hard I worked, no one would ever pick me because I wasn’t pretty enough. The cold and silent rejection stung, and reinforced the message that I was not good enough, and that my bullies were right to pick on me.
It made me feel so worthless.
So 11 years later, after two sexually abusive ex-boyfriends, an eating disorder, an anxiety disorder that I’m still trying to control, and three suicide attempts, I have finally learned the value of myself and my life, and have clawed back some semblance of self-respect.
And I don’t blame the Dolly Model Competition for all of these things, but I do recognise it as a catalyst, and I know I was never as happy or as sure of myself after that. It was just too big of a let-down, because it wasn’t a rejection from a high school bully, it was a rejection from ‘the experts’, from people with professional opinion, and it was a closing of doors in my face from a glamorous and revered industry.
Teenage girls just are not equipped to deal with the conflicting messages, and they are not equipped to deal with damaging competition and rejection.
If I knew what I know now, I would never have accepted the competition in the first place. If people had been less fixated on my looks and more on my talents and interests, I might not have accepted a boyfriend that hurt me, I might not have tried to starve myself, I might not have tried to die.
Girls are worth more than how they look, and I cannot accept that, with teens feeling the way they do, magazines like Dolly are willing to exploit them.
The Dolly Model Competition is bad news. They have enough girls clamouring for stardom in the industry, without bringing the rest of us into it.
*Real name withheld at author’s request.