In spite of my best efforts in the spirit of bitterness, the modelling industry has remained an interest of mine a year into my retirement. The politics of the industry are primarily what I concern myself with, and I also keep tabs on new faces. I don’t particularly care about their models.com rankings or how many shows they walk in a season, but I do care about their personal histories.
There are a lot of reasons to dislike the female modelling industry, but there is a stand-out reason why I love it; girls and women come from all continents and classes to do the same job and begin on an equal playing field called “new faces.” Of course there are often still advantages to being of teenaged years, European heritage, and financial stability, but when a model is in front of the camera, her personal privileges and disadvantages are stripped. Shows and shoots are not cast according to personality or heritage or age or sexual orientation, but according to “look.”
One’s “look” is a composite of preconceived images that an audience projects onto a model, and has very little to do with who the model is in reality. Looking at a model, you may not know that she is 15 or 30, that she is a single mother or a cancer survivor, that she is straight or gay, that she is a Sudanese refugee or a Canadian university graduate struggling with $30,000 of debt. When an average reader takes the time to think about the woman on the pages of a magazine, they either criticize, envy, or objectify her body, and/or assume that she is privileged in one way or another. This is when a model’s anonymity becomes dangerous.
Aymeline Valade and Saskia de Brauw are two of my favourite new faces; their bone structures and expressions are intense, powerful, and hint at confident, matured sexuality. Their careers have both taken off in the past year and they can be seen everywhere from US Vogue (above) to campaigns for Chanel and Lanvin.
Aymeline was recently criticized by the UK tabloids for looking “corpse-like” in images she shot for H&M due to her pale skin, deep-set eyes and prominent cheekbones. Had these “journalists” bothered to research the woman they were criticizing, they would have discovered that her appearance is not due to an under-age eating disorder but due to her ethnicity, age, and athleticism. She has pale skin because she is a white Frenchwoman, and a very thin face because she is 27 years old and incredibly athletic (she used to be a ballerina). This is one of countless instances in which models are reduced to objects devoid of history.
I am fairly well-read in the histories of these women so when I look at a runway show or an editorial I see more than just a body selling a product. Unfortunately, most consumers of fashion images are not so educated. When combined with emotions such as envy, the reader unconsciously objectifies the women staring out at them. I’ve collected three images and one video to illustrate my point:
IN this Valentino campaign, we see a young, thin, white woman. She is parading her wealth and freedom and selling a privileged lifestyle.
That woman is a fictional character portrayed by Freja Beha Erichsen. She is a very successful 25-year-old, Danish model who made her mark in the runway world with her androgynous body and haircut, numerous tattoos, and tomboy street style. She is also openly gay.
THE next image is of a nude, young European lady in a suggestive pose selling a fragrance. Very obvious feminist comments can be made regarding the objectification of the female body.
The model is Natalia Vodianova, a divorced, Russian mother of three. She was born and raised in a poor district of Gorky, USSR (now Nizhny Novgorod, Russian Federation) with her mother and two half sisters, one of whom has cerebral palsy. She was raised primarily by her grandmother, as her mother was very young when Natalia was born and her father left the family when she was a toddler. As a adolescent, Natalia worked with her family selling fruit on the street. She started modelling at 15 and has since worked for every major designer. She founded the Naked Heart Foundation which raises money to build safe and stimulating play parks for children in poor areas of urban Russia. Since 2006 the organization, which she is President of, has built over 38 parks.
IN this image we see a European model wearing silly clothes in the middle of an American football game. Criticisms are easy enough as this is the kind of high-fashion editorial that alienates any reader who isn’t an admirer of post-modern design or Americana. The feminist critique would be that she is fulfilling traditional a gender role with her clean, delicate pose in contrast with the stereotypical American demonstration of aggressive masculinity in the background.
The model’s name is Kim Noorda and she is a 24-year-old from the Netherlands. In 2006 she opened up about her struggles with eating disorders in a very public way, through an article in American Vogue. Here is an excerpt from the article:
I was fifteen when I started, and by the time I was eighteen I did my first catwalk shows. I struggled to prevent gaining weight, whereas already I was considered to be a “heavy” model compared with the others. My agent told me I was beautiful as I was, but I had to make sure that I would not gain more. She encouraged me to lose at least some of my weight. I was ashamed that I had to diet. [...] During a show season, when a model is not slim enough, people tell her, “Oh, you look so good, so healthy!” whereas the agencies recommend she lose weight.
Before I discuss the image below I’d like to explore the usage of problematic terminology. The term “ethnic model” is used by the fashion industry to group all models who aren’t of European heritage in one group. This is problematic in that it implies that Russians, Serbians, Norwegians, and Scots somehow lack ethnicity, and simultaneously implies that Nigerians, Koreans, and Iraqis belong to a category of “Other.”As this language is incorporated into descriptions of well-known public figures and celebrities (such as actors and musicians), it slips into popular discourse and gets applied to everyone, not just models.
THIS image is of a distinctly “ethnic” woman. The audience may assume that she is South Asian, Hispanic, or “mixed” (another problematic term). Not uncommonly, the audience may also conclude that because she is beautiful, she has always been beautiful, felt beautiful, and been treated well and privileged because of her present appearance.
The model is Jade Willoughby, an up-and-coming 22-year-old model based out of Ottawa, Ontario. She spent most of her childhood and early teenaged years being treated for Minimal Change Disease. She is Jamaican and Ojibway, and is the only model that I know of who has lived on Reserve. She is also two-spirited, a term used by North American Indigenous nations (such a Lakota, Navajo, Mohave, Anishinaabe, etc.) to identify an individual who fulfill multiple gender roles. This includes social roles (healers, storytellers, makers of specific regalia, etc.) as well as sexual orientation. Jade recently became engaged to her long-time girlfriend, a very accomplished hoop-dancer and grass-dancer (traditionally a men’s dance style). I interviewed Jade in the Spring for Models By Models. She’s a very interesting individual, so I encourage you to check out our videos of her.