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Gemma Ward, Who Was Shamed Out Of The Modeling Industry For Growing Up, Has Made The Comeback She Deserves

By Jenna Cullman··  7 min read
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While the fashion industry is more size-inclusive today, this was not always the case. Such is the story of model Gemma Ward and her 2008 scandal.

The fashion industry is always looking for new, stellar models to walk the runways of the world’s most high-end fashion shows. Modeling agencies only choose who they deem as the best and hold strict rules when it comes to their model’s physical appearance. Before the rise of the body positivity movement, models had to be as skinny as possible; that was the top priority. Runways are a form of art, so it’s understandable why designers want to present a specific look when it came to their brand’s image. But the effects of these expectations on the model’s physical or mental well-being were often not taken into consideration. 

The stereotypical model look has changed in recent years, in reaction to an industry that influenced so many young girls to question if their changing bodies were beautiful. To be pretty meant being a size 0 which should never be the standard for grown women, even in the modeling industry.

Gemma Ward, Normal Girl to Cover Girl

In 2003, Gemma Ward, a 16-year-old Australian sporting a fresh look and high hopes for the future, hit the runway. The fashion industry loved her whimsical, angelic features, causing her to appear in numerous fashion campaigns. Gemma influenced the industry with her “baby doll” features, popularizing the look. 

One of the most well-known modeling agencies, IMG Models, discovered her, and she quickly became the cover girl for brands like Burberry, Valentino, Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Dolce & Gabbana, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, and many more.

Gemma’s career was growing, including becoming the youngest American Vogue cover model at 16 and replacing Kate Moss as the face of Calvin Klein Obsession at 17. By 2007, she was at the peak of her fashion career; she made it on the Forbes list as one of the highest-paid models at the time, making $3 million in just that year alone.

Gemma Is Publicly Disgraced 

Gemma’s troubles began in October 2007, when she walked the runway wearing a denim bikini for Chanel. The trouble? Her body had “betrayed the entire fashion industry by maturing into that of a woman.” One fashion editor in attendance commented that when she saw Gemma on the Chanel runway, “I almost didn’t recognize her.” She looked “big, almost bloated,” like she had gained 10-15 pounds.

Commentary online and news articles also published negative feedback. One headline said, “Chanel Spring ‘08 Embraces the Big Girl.” Another article described Ward’s “not so itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny Chanel bikini.”

Unfortunately, 2008 only brought more hardship for the 20-year-old Gemma and her career. That year her then-boyfriend Heath Ledger died, leaving her heartbroken. She was given no space to privately mourn and was followed by paparazzi everywhere. On a private beach, the paparazzi took pictures of her body in a swimsuit and mercilessly degraded her in the media over her weight gain, with one headline even calling her a “Roll Model.”

Gemma later said, “It felt like a public shaming.” The media body-shaming her made it almost impossible to get signed for jobs, because nobody wanted to work with a “big” and “bloated” model.

This took a massive toll on her mental health. At the time, her agents told her to not speak publicly and to avoid being seen publicly. In 2008, she decided to quit modeling to focus on her health and began getting therapy and counseling for an eating disorder and body dysmorphia.

Gemma Comes Back for Good 

After taking six years to recover and gain control over her eating disorder, Gemma took the fashion industry by storm again in 2014. She opened the spring-summer 2015 Prada fashion show, causing a massive stir by her sudden reappearance. She had not only gained control over her eating disorder, but also became a mom during her time away. 

By this time, she was ready to speak out on what happened in 2008 and how it affected her. She touched on her journey of recovery by saying, “I always wanted to get to that place where I could talk about it, because it would mean that I was no longer in it. People would say to me, ‘You’re never going to get over this – it’s with you for life.’ And then you get desperate, and you’re like, ‘If this is an unbreakable cycle, do I just end it?’ It’s amazing even to be sitting here, going, ‘Wow, I actually got through it.’ Because I did get trapped in a cycle until I finally got help, which people should be aware that they can get. Thank God I was – otherwise I might not be here anymore.”

What Is Gemma Doing Now? 

In recent days, she is back gracing the runways with her presence, but prioritizes her family above all else. Gemma, now 34, is enjoying being the mother of three children with her beau David Letts. What is the biggest lesson Gemma has learned from her experience being a mother? “How strong women are!” she said

When asked about embracing her femininity, she explained, “I like when I can embrace that as a strength – that makes me feel empowered.”

Gemma has a great passion for women’s health, which has influenced one of her recent projects, promoting Georg Jenson’s jewelry campaign to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF). After learning of the reported rates of women dying from ovarian cancer in Australia, she was inspired to help the women in need. 

Adolescent Girls Shouldn’t Be a Beauty Standard

While the fashion industry has done a better job in recent years, the influence on women to achieve an unrealistic body standard is still a major problem today. Many encourage girls to stay as skinny as possible even as they get older and hit adulthood. Just as boys will turn into men and grow into their adult frame, such is the same with girls maturing into women. 

The fashion industry wants models to look as young and skinny as possible, in order to be a clothing rack for their brands. How is this ethical? The industry has prevented girls from forming a healthy relationship with their bodies, by not so subtly telling them that having womanly curves is a bad thing. In Gemma’s case, she was in therapy for years because the industry belittled her for not having her teenage body anymore. 

Closing Thoughts

The super skinny model in recent years has mostly gone out of style and has been replaced with a much curvier image. Mental health struggles as they relate to body image are still a major issue however; most women at some time in their lives have suffered from a case of body dysmorphia or even an eating disorder. No matter what body type and size is trending, body trends still prove to be toxic to women of all generations. Health, not a specific body shape or size, should be what is glamourized in the media and society. 

What we can learn from this is that we shouldn’t take other people’s opinions as fact and that women’s bodies shouldn’t be held to the physical standard of the fashion industry. Gemma Ward found her beauty and worth outside her body, by showing how strong women are, and by conquering the false beliefs she had received about herself.

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