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Photo: Sable Yong for Racked
Photo: Sable Yong for Racked

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Body for Rent: Paying the Bills as a Professional Fit Model

I'm a professional fit model — a mannequin with opinions.

I'm a professional fit model — a mannequin with opinions. Fit modeling is a little like being a foot or hand model, but it incorporates your whole figure. Folks like me must possess certain precise measurements and proportions, according to the preference of our clients, the brands. Our bodies inform how a brand designs its clothing: what makes a pair of pants a size 2 or a size 4, petite or plus-size. You never see us, but we have a major impact on the clothing you wear every day

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I didn't plan on becoming a body for hire. My introduction to the field came about accidentally one day when I stopped by the office of a friend who works in the technical department (tech as in garment construction, not Google) of a clothing brand. I've never been particularly big nor rail thin, and I clock in at 5'2", so modeling had never registered as a plausible career choice for me.

It was only after someone at my friend's office casually suggested that I try on a troublesome pants sample that I discovered I happen to be the precise proportion of this brand's missy fit model—minus two inches all around. That made me an ideal body type for their petite section.

It's a bit old school in today's fast fashion universe, but lots of clothing brands still offer regular (aka "missy"), petite, and plus sizes in their collections. Being 5'2" and, as my model comp card says, a 6/8P, I happen to fulfill a narrow margin for a certain body type. Clothing companies tend to make clothes starting from the middle size (about an 8) and then scale up and down for sizing. Lots of them grade the same way, proportionally, if they offer petite or plus sizes, but it's ideal to have three different human models to fit on.

Brands seek out fit models based on the kind of customer who shops the line, and the styles and fit that sell the most. It may seem like all clothing is made for tall, leggy waifs, but designers know they can't make a living selling exclusively to that small percentage of the female population.

Why use a human and not just a measurement-specific mannequin form? Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately, depending on how much robots creep you out), a mannequin can't showcase how a garment moves on a body, demonstrate its range of mobility while wearing it, or tell you how it feels — whether things are itchy or uncomfortable. I can do all the jumping jacks and complaining I want, and it just means I'm helping!

Generally, I'll work with a clothing brand for an hour a week at an hourly rate. Two years ago, as a newbie with "shop girl" all over my resume, I started pretty much at the bottom — which is still over $100 per hour. Keep it up and most fit models garner anywhere between $250 and $400 per hour. It's strange to consider how you're renting out your body by the hour, but if you can keep a few consistent clients, it's easy money.

But easy isn't the same thing as free, and the price to pay is rather steep if like me, you're allergic to exercise and dieting. Your measurements are your meal ticket, though, so keeping them in check is paramount. I tend not to work out so much since my body bulks up easily, but I keep my food intake in a healthy balance to maintain where I'm at, rather than aspire to lose or gain weight. I've learned certain things about my own body, like that I have rather sloped shoulders and with a bit of shrug-like posturing can make a blouse go from slouchy to correctly draped.

I've heard horror stories from other fit models working for more high-end lines where the tech people and designers are brutal with bodily commentary. Thankfully everyone I've worked with has been nothing less than respectful and professional. I have had a few spells of slight weight fluctuation, generally requiring me to pad certain areas, but nothing of the cup-runneth-over variety. Having a good relationship with your accounts totally saves your ass in times like these because like any other job, if people like working with you, they'll do what they can to keep you around.

Personally, I'm not a part of any fit model community. (If you're in one, can I join your club?) Unlike backstage at a fashion show or in the studio at an editorial shoot, models don't congregate at brand fittings. That said, there are definitely boldfaced names in certain fields. Models can specialize in swimwear, evening gowns, outerwear, sportswear (that's me), lingerie — there are as many departments as any other office.

The missy and plus size fit models working for the same brands I do are both agency-repped, full-time career fit models who spend their weeks rushing about to different offices in Manhattan's Garment District. They're both a bit older than me (I'm in my late twenties), come from non-model backgrounds, and have enriching, married-with-children lives.

Most clothing companies find their fit models through modeling agencies with a fit department. And generally, if you're with an agency, you are made acutely aware of your competition. I've always been a free agent since, so far, no agency has ever offered me a contract that has my best interests in mind. I'm told this isn't all that uncommon even with "model" models.

I'm not too upset about that, considering the other half of my professional time is spent as a freelance writer; the two jobs balance each other out. There aren't as many openings for petite fit models, since lots of companies would rather save money by just grading measurements to be slightly shorter all around. I've never been full time, but I'm the only fit model I've met who isn't.

When I explain what I do to other people, they're often bemused. I get a lot of "Huh, must be great to be the ideal size!" But there's a near total lack of glamour in my kind of modeling. It's a lot of pinching, pinning, and making funny gestures in clothes to see how they wear and what needs to be altered. It's great that it's so much less pressure than runway or editorial modeling, but I don't have the glossies to show anyone, just a paycheck (and I don't go around showing people my paycheck).

That said, there are other perks to the job besides just getting paid. For one thing, there's the free clothing samples. And while I may not be able to throw any old thing on and look like street-style bait, whenever I go shopping, I know exactly why some items work for me and why others don't. Sure, I'm bummed my hips aren't right for Cheap Monday jeans, but Levi's serve me just fine. The truth is, being a "perfect 6" really isn't so perfect. It just means that I have fancier things to take home from the office than rainbow Post-Its.


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