Before I went to college, I had never so much as glanced at Vogue. To me a $40 shirt was extremely expensive, and I had no real personal aesthetic. Mostly, that was because I wasn’t much of a participant in the social world until I was 23 or so. I had written off any chance of having the kind of looks that would get you noticed, and I liked the life I lived in books much better anyway.
At school, though, I made these two friends, who we’ll call M. and A.J. M. and A.J. loved fashion. Their apartment (they were roommates) had framed Vogue covers on the wall. And because I was pretty close to M. and A.J. – still am, actually – I picked up on the models’ names and slowly, the designers. I bought the magazines and leafed through them, idly.
Prior to this I think of myself as having more or less accepted what I looked like. I did not grow up around people who put a huge value on fashion – I lived in a part of the world where fleece is eternally trendy – who wore things that would last for years. So did I. I owned solid colours, only. I still wear, sometimes, the jeanskirt I bought in second-year.
But I realized, once I started to read these magazines, I was Doing It Wrong. Those thick cotton Body Shop t-shirts made me stand out, and not in a good way. I should never wear sneakers. And I should probably try to be a little bit thinner. Maybe cut my hair differently so I could let it hang in my face.
I did not have the financial wherewithal at the time to do much about this, so mostly, I just felt bad. I developed an approach to my appearance that was much more than the unstudied indifference of the past, that assumed effort was what I needed to be a radiant beauty.
I tell you all of this because it illustrates why I viewed models, as, well, models. (It’s right there in the job title, isn’t it?) Because someone told me to. To me it’s almost irrelevant who told me. It wasn’t M. and A.J. (I really think they would laugh at the notion that they cared whether I cared about fashion.) It wasn’t Anna Wintour – I didn’t know who that was until a year ago. In the end I don’t even really think it was the models, who, they like to tell us, thought of themselves as gawky and awkward until they were plucked from obscurity for the catwalk.
No, the thing that told me to like models was the same force that teaches us that pretty will get us accepted and celebrated far faster than intellect will. Intelligence in women is a double-edged sword: too much of it, and men beat a hasty retreat. But you can never be too beautiful.
That’s why I’d like to see an end to modelling.
I am told, by fans of modelling, that it has some intrinsic purpose. But they never seem able to articulate what that might be. The obvious one, of course, is aesthetic. People like looking at beautiful things; why shouldn’t they like looking at beautiful people? The rote feminist line is, “these standards of beauty are unattainable,” which is true, but seems to me beside the point. The point, it seems to me, is that all standards of beauty are unattainable. Because no one can look exactly the same as someone else.
See, to me it’s certainly true that even models are subjected, internally, to different and subjective standards of beauty. How many internet comments do you think one could find where someone is articulating that they really don’t find [x model] all that. I’ve always found this sort of objection curious, as though it really mattered what one’s personal standard was. As though there were some “pretty” number that rises and diminishes with the amount of compliments and criticisms one receives.
See, my problem with models has almost nothing to do with what they actually look like. We know from countless historical studies that over time, models and muses have been of different weights and heights. No, my problem with modelling is right there in the word: it’s suggesting that there is some other level of beauty we should all be aspiring to. The content is almost meaningless. The destructiveness is all there in the idea that our physical makeup should meet certain set levels of propriety and acceptability.
That these standards are incoherent, that occasionally certain bodies get to be called model-pretty even if they are different from the others, shouldn’t be enough. What I am saying is that in my ideal world, we would not so much have a diversity of bodies in modelling as we would have a resistance to the very notion that anyone needs a model of what to look like. What to think, sure; what to do with one’s life, right on. But how to look?
We’ve seen all the damage it does, the hours spent trying to get rid of that last ripple above your jeans, to exercise some curves into your chest, to dye and re-dye your hair. Why don’t we try working together to stop it?
Getting rid of modelling would be my ideal first step. Not that it would solve everything, or even contribute more than a tiny bit to ending the grip that beauty culture has on us. But subverting the very notion that we should admire someone else for their “beauty” – well, that’s revolutionary, in my book.