Emma Sanders Turns Weakness To Strength
"Back in Hamburg I was finishing up my university studies, writing my bachelor thesis, and suddenly, I was approached by four different agencies. I’d heard before that I should consider modeling — if I’d just lose half my body weight. I’ve been this size and shape all my life, so it would have been completely unrealistic to change my body. So, when scouts started approaching me, I waved them off saying ‘this is not for me.’ But then, some of them said, ‘No, you can be exactly the way you are. There’s this thing called plus-size modeling.’ The Vogue Italia cover with three plus size models had just come out a year before and when I saw that, I thought, ‘oh wait, maybe that is something that could be for me.’
I’d just finished up my studies, and I gave myself six months to see if I could live off modeling. I scraped together the last money I had and went down to Cape Town because I knew a photographer there. In Germany, plus size modeling is so far behind. So I took it into my own hands and said, ‘Let’s get my portfolio together.’ I also wanted it to be in my own clothes, because a lot of plus size models are just stuck into linen tents. Taking responsibility for myself and my portfolio helped me support myself full time as a model. I got sent to London pretty quickly, and it just worked out straight away for me. It was lucky, but I also had to show some initiative and take a risk as well.
Prior to that, I’d often felt I was ‘almost’ good enough — I’d be good enough if I could change my body... but it’s ridiculous because people who know me know I work out a lot. I eat healthy, because I want to — because I want to give my body fuel. The rest of my family is not curvy at all, my skin and hair are slightly darker, I have bigger boobs, bigger hips — everything my family doesn’t have. They all thought my mom was secretly feeding me extra sweets. My grandma would throw me out of the car and I would have to jog alongside it to get home. I got checked into weight watchers when I was twelve. They didn’t have bad intentions, they just didn’t know where it came from. I was a ten pound baby, I came directly to this world this shape and size. So, I had to accept it for myself and to turn what people said was a weakness into my strength. I think it helped that I went to University first, and that I wasn’t told all my life that I was great or beautiful, because it helped me to build character. I just don’t have to rely on my looks in that way. People would tell me, even after I started modeling, ‘this plus size thing is great, but if you’d only lose some weight you could be a ‘proper’ straight size model.’ They still didn’t get it.
Those comments used to really affect me. As a teenager I didn’t have anybody to really look up to. People would just say to look at Marilyn Monroe, or pin-up girls — absolute sex symbols. And when you’re so young, and just still a bit awkward, you can’t relate to it. Luckily, my mom was super supportive. She could see that I was not sneaking treats or anything — she would never, ever, put me down about [my body] at all. She just wanted me to be happy, and because I felt pressure from friends and family and society, she could see I was healthy and active. And I’m very much the type of person where, if someone gives me a degrading comment, I’m going to be like, ‘you just wait.’ In the beginning I often felt the need to prove something to that person. After a while I realized that, if you look for the validation of that person, they most likely only said what they did because they themselves are insecure. So it’s not worth it to change yourself because of them.
I was actually the first plus model from my agency in Germany, and they’re the biggest, most historically strict agency in all of Germany. It took some transitioning, because they really didn’t know yet how to handle me. When I walked in, the first thing they said was, ‘first of all, lose three inches around your hips.’ And I was like, ‘How about I don’t, and you pitch me first and see how I work.’ I started working straight away. Suddenly they weren’t interested in me losing weight. At the time, I was surprised because it was a phase when I was still somewhat insecure to even go to the beach. It was an unhappy time because I love the beach — I was born in the South Pacific — but I wasn’t quite secure yet. I just had to really throw myself in the deep end. I went from feeling insecure at the pool with my friends, to walking the hallways of an agency, in front of judgmental agents, in nothing but my underwear. My first job was a lingerie job. They did a crop shot of just my undies, just my bottom— they were actually just checking the light — and suddenly I had eight people standing around a screen looking at a zoomed in version of my butt cheek. And I just kind of got over myself. Like, ‘they booked this butt, so it must be fine.’ It was still a bit of a discrepancy between my private life, where I could still feel insecure maybe undressing in front of like a boyfriend for the first time, and something else when I’m at a job — there, I’m way more confident. So there is still a difference between those. That’s beautiful as well, because it shows a vulnerability. A softness. And someone who really loves you will then also love your small insecurities, or will make you feel comfortable about them. I don’t want to be all hard and tough — that’s not me either.
In the states, I can just say, ‘I’m a model,’ and people will say, ‘OK cool.’ Whereas in Germany, when I started modeling, I’d say I was a model, and 100% of the time would get the once-over look and hear, ‘...really?’ And then I’d have to add a side note that I’m a plus size model, and I’d get another once-over look, and they’d say, ‘well you’re not that fat.’ Like, OK, you didn’t believe I could be a straight size model because I’m not skinny, but then as a plus-size model I’m ‘not fat enough,’ so which category would you feel is acceptable, would you say OK, you are clearly a model. I might be between two markets, but what is in-between? We’re all normal and we’re all really different.
I’ve always been into fashion, and always had to get more creative — I’d go into a boutique and they’d say, ‘we don’t have your size here, maybe just try some men’s jeans.’ And then I’d try to find inspiration in fashion magazines, and it would always say something like, ‘This summer, cut off denim shorts are super in trend, but only if you have skinny legs!’ This would be magazines like InStyle, stuff people read all the time. I’m like, right, well what can I wear? This is so not inspiring. I hope someone will see this and feel like, this is what I’ve been going through. Nobody in my family had the journey that I had of being bullied at school because of the shape I am. They tried to help, but they just didn’t have the same experience. I hope this might help someone out there. Modeling wasn’t something to boost my ego at all, and I tell everyone who thinks it’s going to make you feel better: do not get into modeling. You have to have a super thick skin, people will tell you things to your face about your cellulite, your face, anything that could break you if you don’t already have a strong foundation from within. So no matter what you do, I’d say, build your own character, feel a calmness from the inside, and then see what things people have called weakness that you can turn into your strength.
Sometimes at work, I have two hours downtime while I’m getting hair and makeup done. And I kind of have the choice of looking into the mirror for two hours — which I believe isn’t healthy either — or looking at Instagram. I can bring a book, but people speak to me and I lose train of thought, so it ends up being either looking in the mirror or on the phone, and I realized that if I’m on my phone too much, like anyone, it really starts affecting me. Someone got a job you wanted, their life is perfect — this paradox. I sometimes, just over the weekend, log out for the full weekend. Because it’s kind of a job for me as well, I’ll treat it like a Monday to Friday and on the weekends I’ll log out. There is a reason why I have a sticker on the back of my phone that says ‘Social media seriously harms your mental health.’ I think Instagram is great. But you have to decide for yourself what you want to show. For me, I like to show places I travel to and things I wear. But not much how I feel in my heart. That’s just the deal I’ve made with Instagram and I’m comfortable with that. It’s still such a young media, it’s going to really show how it’s going to have a long term effect on us. I’m taking it step by step. Testing it out. I still protect myself. That’s just me.
It’s such a young media, we’re still figuring out what it really means — the Instagram politics. Say you like a boy and you see that they’re liking someone else’s pictures... it’s these stupid Instagram politics where someone is following or unfollowing — what does it all mean? The rules aren’t really clear yet and might never be. So you just have to decide for yourself how you want to let it affect you."