Rural Youth Fashions Identity to an Evolving Modeling Industry

yli is My Story

“Aaron Smith, a 17-year-old highschooler from Atwater, brings her identity in front of the camera despite controversy surrounding gender norms in the Central Valley.”

Photo Credit: Joel Hernandez Fregozo

It was time for back-to-school shopping down on Main Street in the Central California desert town of Merced, when Aaron Smith was hoping to find some fresh clothing for her final year of high school.

Thrift stores are my favorite because it gives me a challenge in fashion,” the 17-year-old said. “When you’re thrifting, it’s like a blank canvas; it’s just like clothes everywhere, and it’s your job to figure out what you want to do with them.”

Smith rummages through clothes, trying to find the right outfit that suits her palette. But while the 17-year-old loves thrifting and finding her own fashion, her identity hasn’t always been presented as it is now.

“I identify as a woman. I was born a man,” Smith said. “I always saw myself as a girl… so I don’t feel comfortable identifying as transgender because I haven’t identified as a man yet.”

And that’s why Smith goes by the pronoun “she,” something that took her a few years to express.  

“I knew in the back of my head who I was, but I didn’t know how to show it really, because I was always told who I was instead of being who I wanted to be.”

Smith lives in Atwater – a small town in Merced County of just 29,000 people. She goes to Atwater High School, a place where she’s faced both discrimination and support because of her identity. Acceptance of identities outside of societal gender norms varies in this area.

In Modesto – a city in a neighboring county – a group held a straight pride parade which created loads of controversy in the community. Even though at times Smith has been praised for who she is, being accepted in the Valley remains a challenge.

She still remembers the first day she wore a dress to high school. “I was kind of nervous… I walked into class and everyone just looked at me,” she recalled.

It could have been a teen’s worst nightmare, but Smith held a different mindset. 

“I just felt so comfortable and was just so happy with what I was wearing, nothing really mattered. I was just myself and it felt great,” she said.

Photo Credit: Joel Hernandez Fregozo

Today, being looked at is the least of Smith’s problems. In fact, she gets looked at quite a lot for her job: as a model for We Love Your Genes, which scouts models for IMG, an international modeling agency.

“My interest in modeling started when I was about a sophomore. I just always had a feel for the camera,” Smith said.

This past May, Smith went to prom with her thrifted $14 dress bought from a unique little store on Main Street in Merced called Cloud 9 Collections. Others have come to notice Smith’s style.

“She was trying on dresses and I think that we just thought she was very unique and exquisite, but she had very serious looks to her but in an amazing way,” said Rhiannan Amaheim, a worker at the store.

Smith has modeled a few dresses for the store and had the photos posted on both her Instagram and the store’s. Though she is not sure exactly how welcoming the industry will be, Smith plans to do more with her modeling in the future. Victoria’s Secret recently hired their first openly transgender model, Valentino Sampaio. Sampaio is someone Smith admires, but she still strives to be seen in her own light. 

“I just want to show everyone what I think fashion is because my view is so different from everyone else’s. My goal in the modeling industry is to be with Victoria’s Secret one day,” Smith said.

Smith lives life choosing to see both positivity and negativity in her favor, like the first day she wore that dress. “I’ve always known my entire life that everyone has their own opinion. It’s really nice to hear other people’s opinion – whether it’s good or bad, because it just builds me up as a person,” she said.

Being a unique individual has its ups and downs, but being an optimist changes the world Smith chooses to see. In a world that still challenges those with different identities, Smith decides to face it all with resilience and style.


Seven young women from across California engaged in yli’s Calafia fellowship to produce a magazine centering Intersectional Feminism. This is just one of the many stories published in the ‘zine – articles that take on issues such as: street harassment, gender norms, beauty and identity, queer issues, women’s history in classrooms, and women farmers.


Download a digital copy here, and contact Michael Lozano for a print edition. Click the link below to for the audio story on SoundCloud.