Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Thank God I'll never be a model.
A friend shared this TED Talk by model Cameron Russell, in which she discusses appearance and privilege in our culture. She's very honest about how cultural factors have worked in her favor, and about how she didn't earn her privileged place in our society.
Russell makes a lot of interesting points in her talk, but there are a few things that bother me. She shows photos from her early career when she was very young, which show her in very sexualized poses, and struck me as exploitative when she described the circumstances. She also states a statistic about 53% of 13-year-old girls not liking their bodies, and the number jumping to 78% by the time girls are 17. And I wanted to say, "Yes, and part of why so many girls don't like their bodies is because they're looking at magazines full of people with bodies like yours!" I remember looking at those magazines and worrying about the ways my appearance deviated from the models', because I wanted to be a model when I was around 12. The way they looked was the best way to look; that's how they got in the magazines, or at least that's how I reasoned it as a tween. I wanted to be famous. I wanted money. I wanted attention. I wanted validation. I wanted to be told I was pretty. I went through an awkward phase,
I did get over it, and with a few years' distance, I saw how unhealthy so much fretting over my appearance had been. Toward the end of her talk, Russell makes herself vulnerable and confesses that she is insecure, and that this is largely because of how much she has to think about how she looks. And when I heard that, I thought, Wow, I'm really glad I'm not a model! I hear the pain in this woman's voice as she describes the anxiety of constantly having to think about her appearance, whereas I worry very little about how I look.
I am aware of my physical "imperfections." Even when I trained for and ran a marathon and was in the best shape of my life, there was still visible cellulite on my thighs, and there always will be. The skin over my stomach is wrinkled because I've had two babies. My breasts hang lower than they used to because I nursed those babies. I'm congenitally missing my premolars and the gaps show when I smile big. I opted not to have those teeth replaced because the procedure is expensive and painful, and I'm not a model, so I don't have to have "perfect" teeth (or thighs or stomach, etc.). I love these "imperfections." They make me unique. They're part of the story of the life I've lived. (I have a friend who had maternity portraits done. The photographer asked if she wanted to have the stretch marks airbrushed out of the photos. My friend replied, "No! I earned those!") I am aware that I fit a lot of our cultural norms for what is considered attractive, and I do get attention because of how I look. I'll say it: I like being pretty, but I never would have gained this level of comfort with my appearance if I worked in a job where my appearance was everything.
Russell got into the industry very young, I'm sure unaware of a lot of the ramifications of the fashion and advertising industry. Now she's an adult, and this talk makes it plain that now she does understand the dynamic of privilege and oppression that has made her career possible. That she's continuing in her modeling career, with this full understanding, seems to me almost complicit on her part in the continuation of the cycle. She also talks about how it doesn't always make her happy. Nobody loves their job all the time, but her job seems to actually make her unhappy at times, something less benign than dealing with a few mundane tasks in a mostly-fulfilling job. I sincerely want to ask her, Why are you still doing it? Why, when you recognize the harm, to yourself and others, in the perpetuation of the false reality portrayed in these images, do you continue to be a part of it? I'm sure the answer is more complicated than she could explain in the ten minutes allotted to her on TED, but I really am curious. To me, no money or travel or perks in the world would be worth the constant pressure to measure up to someone else's standard.