Who hasn’t seen Priyanka Chopra’s hit movie Fashion, where she plays a hot model? Or who hasn’t seen the yearly Victoria Secret Fashion Shows in which numerous gorgeous models strut down the runway wearing nothing but lingerie? They are beautiful and living such glamorous lives. Who wouldn’t want to be part of their world?
Earlier this year Ted.com posted a talk hosted by super model Cameron Russell entitled “Cameron Russell: Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model” (Linked below). Having worked as a model for over ten years and having walked the ramps for names like Chanel and Victoria Secret, she knows first-hand the business of image construction and image internalization. Through her talk, she demonstrates that “Image is Powerful, but Image is Superficial.”
In deconstructing the modeling industry, Cameron begins by narrating her own story—how she became a model. And while she tells people that she was scouted by talent agents, she ultimately says all that scouting amounts to nothing. As Russell puts it, she became a model because she “won a genetic lottery” and because she is the recipient of a “legacy.” This legacy to which she refers has, in the past few centuries, come to not just define beauty as youth or health or symmetry, but as something for which we are biologically programmed to admire, and which, in today’s world, is defined as tall slender figures, femininity, and light skin. She states that this was a legacy that was built for her and one on which she has been cashing-in.
She also makes it a point to note that the modeling industry remains very euro-centric, and that although women like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks have enjoyed incredible success, they are a minority, no pun intended. Cameron cites a statistic from a study done by a NYU Ph.D. student in 2007, which found that out of the 677 models that were hired, only 27 (less than 4%) were non-white.
Perhaps most interesting (and perhaps telling) is Russell’s answer to the second question she frequently encounters. When asked by young girls, “Can I be a model when I grow up?” she first attempts to parry the question and convince these young girls that there are far more exciting and creative things in the world they could become. If still she remains unable to change the minds of these young women she states that “saying you want to be a model when you grow up is akin to saying you want to win the power ball when you grow up. It’s out of your control, it’s awesome, and it’s not a career path.”
Cameron then addresses whether photos get retouched. “Retouching” by itself is not the full story, she notes, but only a small component of what is truly going on. Russell adroitly pairs a professional shot and a quick everyday snap of herself taken around the same time and demonstrates that the professional shots are not pictures of her but constructions. They are constructions by a group of professionals: make-up artists, hairdressers, stylists, photographers, designers, all of their assistants, preproduction and post production--they build a construction, and that’s not Cameron Russell.
But certainly the most powerful and moving piece of Russell’s talk is her talking about her “free stuff.” She goes on to say she has too many eight-inch heels, which she never gets to wear, but the free stuff she gets is what she gets in her everyday life, which is what people don’t really like to talk about. She recalls a time when she went to a store and left her money at home but was given the dress for free. She mentions another incident where she and a friend ran a red light, got stopped, apologized to the officer and were on their way. Russell herself acknowledges she got these things for free because of how she looked and not who she is and that there are people paying a cost for how they look and not who they are. She states that last year out of the 140,000 teenager in NYC who were stopped and frisked 87% were black and Latino and most were young teenaged men; considering there are only 177,000 black and Latino men in NYC it is not a question of IF they’ll get stopped but rather how many times they will get stopped. And equally tragic, she notes that 53% of 13 year old girls don’t like the way they look. This grows to 78% by the time they are 17.
She ends by saying that it’s very hard for her to strike a balance. It was hard for her to say, “hey I reaped all these benefits from a deck stacked in my favor”, and it was harder still for her to say “and that doesn’t make me happy.” But it was most difficult to “unpack a legacy of racial and gender oppressions when she’s the biggest beneficiary.”
The take-away message here should be that image is powerful because it creates perception. A person’s self-perception and self-image governs not only how he sees himself, but also how he sees and judges others. But when this image is created by a false standard, perpetuated by a false media, it becomes superficial as it creates a perception that isn’t truly real.
After listening to her talk, I spent quite a bit of time researching body image and the impact of what one’s own body image has on his or her life. Statistics show that more than 90 percent of girls – starting as young as 10 – want to change some part of their physical appearance. Roughly twenty-five percent of young teen girls would undergo plastic surgery to look “prettier”; thirteen percent of young teen girls admit to having some form of an eating disorder and 5 to 10 million adolescent girls and women struggle with eating disorders and borderline eating disorders. So what’s going on here?
A child is born without knowledge of social norms and constructs. As it grows older and is socialized and assimilated, there seems to be a sort of brainwash that happens. That child internalizes not only society’s definition of beauty, which most commonly comes from mass media in the form of images, but society’s pressure to feel accepted and conform. As the child grows older, the need to be accepted grows and thus so does the need to look like the images that have now been internalized. In this process, we see the first shreds of self-esteem emerge. Those children, who see themselves resembling the images more closely, feel more accepted by society and therefore develop a greater sense of self-esteem, whereas those who feel they either do not conform or resemble these images are left with self-doubt and esteem issues. Yet these issues and “mores” are imposed on girls and women far more heavily than on boys and men.
This gender suppression is wrapped up neatly in a glitzed and glammed-out package. There isn’t a girl who hasn’t ever wanted to experience this glamour. Cameron Russell, herself, calls the modeling industry the jackpot of winning the genetic lottery and agrees to having cashed in heavily. And while the modeling industry will likely always have a place in the society, it need not leave such a deleterious, toxic impact on so many young women.
Although the ability to change an entire society is limited, one can make an impact by making others aware. I firmly believe that one person can change the world. Through writing, I hope to accomplish just that. I highly recommend the video below.
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