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It is Sunday morning and sunlight leaks through the windows of a Brooklyn café. The brunch rush hasn’t started and, other than the whispery din of dishes, there is only music. Barefaced, Ania Spiering sits across from me at a small table. Her hazel eyes are kind but confident. Thinking back on her modeling career, she pauses to sip her coffee from a black mug. “I may not be that young girl anymore,” she says. “But what’s the use in trying to preserve something that’s no longer you?”

There is no doubt: Aging is not easy, particularly for women. But for those working in the fashion industry, growing older can be downright devastating. In a field where women spend their days illuminated by fluorescent lighting and camera flashes, many find themselves cast aside once their external appearance is no longer deemed marketable. Having spent two decades working as a model, Spiering knows first hand how difficult this industry can be. But today, as she navigates her thirties, she is finally learning to let go of the idea that self-worth is bound to external beauty.

After arriving in the United States at 20, Spiering was met with near instant success in her field. She had spent several years modeling in Russia, but the United States was teeming with opportunities. “It was like everything would happen magically,” she says.

For years, Spiering graced runways from Los Angeles to New York—her look changing with each city and season—and worked alongside several top models and celebrities. Still, she remembers experiencing feelings of inadequacy despite her success. “I was never thin enough, tall enough, young enough,” she says, her voice slightly trembling. “I was never enough.”

When she turned 25, Spiering began to worry for the future of her career. “I heard that girls after 25 were no longer young,” she says. But it wasn’t until she turned 29 that her life finally began to shift. “It was a hard year,” she says.

“Once you are 30 you can no longer pretend that you’re 20,” says Spiering, recalling how her perspectives on womanhood and self-acceptance changed drastically in the months leading up to her 30th birthday. “A little part of me died, letting go of being a young girl,” she said, reaching to knot her long brown hair behind her head.

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Spiering remembers first developing wrinkles and gray hair in her early 20s. “I’ve always been expressive with my face,” she says, laughing. But her smile fades as she reflects on the marked differences between genders in the fashion industry. “Men have wrinkles and it’s considered sexy or mature,” she says. “Women, not so much.” Spiering has often asked photographers not to retouch her lines and wrinkles, noting how disconcerting it has been to see her retouched photographs. “I’ve looked at them and thought, I love that,’” she says. “But who is she?’”

Recently, on her way to a casting call, Spiering found herself in an elevator with two young girls. “They couldn’t have been older than 17,” she says. Spiering remembers looking at the girls, who were notably younger and thinner than her, and beginning to doubt herself. But, resisting her nagging negativity, she did her walk and left the casting feeling confident. She didn’t end up getting the job, but was grateful to have learned a valuable lesson from the experience. “Not getting hired has nothing to do with me not being enough,” she says. “If it’s not my gig, it’s not my gig.”

At 34, Spiering acknowledges she is no longer the young girl she once used to be. “No one can stay 16 forever,” she says. But for Spiering, learning to find comfort inside her own skin — with its flaws and fluctuations — has been empowering beyond measure. But she admits it is an ongoing process, underlining how important meditation and yoga have been on her journey. “It’s about the quiet moments,” she says. “The quick reminders that help you reconnect with who you are.”

Today, Spiering continues working as a model and has recently branched out into acting. Later this month, she will be back in New York City to participate in the KOTA Sustainable Fashion Awards, an event promoting awareness of women’s rights and sustainability in fashion.

In a world that profits off of self-doubt, Spiering acknowledges that self-acceptance is a lifelong journey. She admits it has been difficult, but is finally learning to find validation beyond her external appearance. She hopes that other women — no matter their profession, size, or age — will come to do the same. “I no longer feel that young, quirky ‘I’m going to conquer the world’ feeling,” she says, her eyes smiling. “But I’ve learned to love myself as I am.”

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Ludmila Leiva is writer and artist based in Brooklyn. She likes telling stories that matter, and her work has been previously published in the New York Times’ Women in the World and Brooklyn Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter and see more of her work at ludmilaleiva.contently.com.

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