I've watched America's Next Top Model intermittently over the years. I can't really say why. I was never that interested in fashion magazines, which seemed to me to depict another planet altogether, accessible only to the very rich. I have, furthermore, never much understood the fascination with models. Understand that when I say that I am not trying to make any claims about the difficulty of the work they do - I don't "hate models" or anything so broad as that. It's just that they don't seem to hold for me the kind of visceral fascination they do for other people.
I admit I do have one philosophical objection to modeling. I simply do not know how we are going to build a world where everyone is valued if we keep insisting that no, really, some people are more valuable than others. Particularly if we do so on bases over which they have little individual control - such as being socially "attractive," meeting the critical mass of "pretty" that will get you on magazine covers and sigh-ingly acknowledged, by almost everyone, as "gorgeous." I don't see how that strain of the cultural conversation benefits anyone in the slightest.
Nonetheless, I very much understand why women want to be models. The dominant cultural explanation at the moment, often laced, in feminist circles, with grumpy middle-aged disdain for how young women are supposedly eschewing the glorious feminist legacy, attributes it to an aversion to hard work and a hope to get rich quick and lead a fabulous lifestyle. I think there might be something to that, but much more than it, I think, is the desire women seem to have, across even race or class lines, to be seen. I know full well that being culturally considered "ugly" can get you just as noticed as being culturally considered "pretty." But the particular kind of notice that is attached to someone calling you "beautiful," when you're female in this culture...well, for all my time spent being an angry card-carrying feminist, I haven't quite been able to eradicate my own desire for it. So I can't easily cast aspersions on people who actively run after that. They may just have had a better shot at catching it than I ever did.
That probably explains, now that I've come to it, the dramatic appeal of America's Next Top Model, because there is a universal appeal embedded, if not in "pretty" itself, to the quest for recognition of it. As a result, it's compelling to watch, even if your stomach rather twists in knots for these young women. Intra-lady discussion on beauty, after all, can be fraught with double-meaning and passive aggression. It usually quickly falls off the cliff.
For example, in this week's episode, the second of the show's fifteenth "cycle," a strange but characteristic thing happened. Anamaria Mirdita, a nineteen-year-old from Queens who claimed a lifelong ambition to be a model and encyclopedic fashion knowledge, was eliminated for being too thin. I wish it was less blunt than that, but that is how the show put it. Tyra Banks basically told the girl she needed to eat a sandwich - as I recall she put it, some avocado and bread-and-butter - because the message her body was sending was no good. She also, in a moment that I found rather cruel, told Anamaria that the photo she was judged on this week was selected "because your body is hidden."
A caveat: Anamaria has spoke of being on a calorie-restricted diet to "keep [her] weight down," which no matter your measurements is never a good sign. She also had a habit of making nasty comments about the other women on the show that didn't make her particularly sympathetic. While she didn't actively say so, I'm pretty sure she was thinking a few of her competitors could stand to lose a few pounds.
I think it would be a mistake, however, to claim this incident as a victory for fat acceptance in mainstream media. Within the context of the show, Anamaria's potential body image problems were dramatized in the most self-congratulatory way possible for the show's staff. "As President of the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America)," said Diane von Furstenberg, obnoxiously, "I have to say we think health is beauty."
Ugh. If there had been any more disingenuousness in the room there wouldn't have been any space left for the aspiring models themselves. High fashion is leading the charge against the overemphasis of thinness in this culture? Come. the fuck. on. How stupid do they think their consumers are?
Anamaria, after all, was not handpicked by some third party and deposited in front of the judge's panel sight unseen. Just last week, she was actually cast in the show over several dozen other competitors. Then too, of course, Tyra and the Jays, who formed the selection committee, made noises about how thin she was. But in retrospect, these seem like a setup for this week's elimination, as though Tyra wanted to make a point out of all this. As though Anamaria was not a real person to her, despite all of Tyra's mewling attempts to demonstrate her capacities for empathy.
It's incidents like these on ANTM that really make me question whether we can have a broader social conversation that gets to "inclusivity" and "positive body image" in the context of modeling and/or the fashion industry more generally. At a certain point, you see, all that even supposedly "body-positive" fashion shows like ANTM do is digest and repackage writing about the oppressiveness of beauty standards, and then try to sell them back to us. That's all von Furstenberg's remark is, after all, marketing, and it's marketing that falls pretty wide of the mark of reality. To the extent that we let these marketers own the discussion, it's almost certainly doomed to fail.