A version of this piece also appears on HuffPost here.
I saw Girl Model with my mother-in-law, and when we walked out into the bustle and glare of the Village, I was dazed and I couldn’t think of anything to say for a minute. I had that shaky feeling of not knowing what was real. A girl in fishnets, pink, spiked hair, and leather pushed impatiently by me. I watched her. And then a woman in her forties, just skin and bones, her makeup perfect, head up.
The film, from directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, was bleak—bleak Siberian landscapes, gray and low and cold, punctuated only by choppy veins of water, and by spindly, tacked together structures that house whole families. The girls who hope to become models will grow up in these houses, but they haven’t grown up yet. They are only twelve or thirteen when they are evaluated by the local branch of a large modeling agency. A few of them will be invited to go overseas.
They stand, hundreds of girls, in their underwear and bras, balanced on high heels, faces upturned as the camera passes over them. They give small smiles.
This is what they have to offer—this is their ticket, their chance, their thread of possibility. These skinny, naked bodies.
The scouts are quick to eliminate them. Too fat. Pimples. Just not right. Only a few are selected. Modeling, we are informed over and over again in the film by the men who run the agencies, is about charm. It’s about dignity. It’s about being a special kind of girl. There’s a higher purpose here. Something beyond frail flat chests in tiny cloth bras and shoulders held resolutely back, trembling a little.
The girls who are selected are promised money that they usually never get. Later, in a country where they don’t speak the language, kept in a dingy dormroom cell, they will go into debt, posing seductively for photos that the agency sells and never compensates them for.
The film follows Nadya, one of the girls who is chosen to fly to Tokyo, where she is told she will make money for her family. She is so excited. She feels so lucky and special, you can see it in her face. Off she goes.
“Say you are fifteen,” she is told. She is thirteen, all coltish limbs and round blue eyes.
Beauty, she explains, when she’s asked to define it by the filmmaker, is in the soul.
Which, you know, breaks your heart a little. Beauty, in the world of modeling, is in the measurements. In the specifics of the body. Beauty is in the fetish, you realize as you listen to the scout, a former model herself, struggling with her role in all this, explain that the Japanese market has very particular requirements. Very young, very young, she says.
Blond, wide-eyed, sexy children.
And of course, I think they are all twenty-five, in the photos, by the time they are made up and posed, lips moist and open, eyes slitted tauntingly. They must be twenty-five.
“She is really special,” says the owner of the agency, gesturing at photos of a smoldering hot woman, in black lace, her face fierce and inviting. She is fourteen, it turns out. So, not a woman yet.
Often, the line between prostitution and modeling is blurry, explains the scout who was once one of these girls herself. They are in debt after all, because most of them can’t find the work they are promised, and they grow used to their bodies as objects to be bartered, to be given up. She explains that some agencies, “very high end,” do both.
It is easy to think of models as a fact of life. The fashion industry is everywhere I look. Even the stock photos that populate average websites feature sleek-skinned, pouting models engaged in every imaginable activity, holding the things that you just googled.
I forget that so often, the features that I am used to being shown to me as the beauty ideal are the features of a child. Subtle, wide-spaced, soft features. Little blips of noses, huge eyes.
(she is sixteen. she was just the first face i noticed when i googled “model”. source)
I forget that modeling is an international endeavor, and that even when you read that your country has made new rules– they must be sixteen! They must not be starving to death!– that doesn’t mean those rules are being followed, or that they are being followed elsewhere.
I don’t think to worry about who is under the makeup. If I think of models at all, it’s to recognize the constant, incessant damage their images cause in the lives of girls who don’t look like them.
The thing I kept thinking, when I could think again at all, sitting in Westville with my mother-in-law, eating an enormous chicken gyro, was that the beauty we are shown in the endless images we are given is a fetish.
It is a specific moment in time. A dangerous moment that starves its adherents and its victims (the girl models in the film sign a contract with the agency that says if they gain even a centimeter around any part of their body, the contract is terminated). That cheats girls of their childhood and cons families into giving up their daughters, only to be plunged into debt. That twists our ideas and our ideals and gives us a version of sexiness that is disturbingly skewed and one-sided.
But it is only a moment. And in a way, it loses some of its power, when you see the inside of the industry. The spilling innards.
This is a roomful of anxious, nearly-naked children. These are the people who will make money off of them. It is a closed loop, the models being selected by the people who will photograph them and put them in magazines. The idea of sex appeal and beauty sustaining itself, feeding off of hope and desperation.
It’s clear that someone needs to protect these girls. Someone needs to stop this. There are other things that girls can do, that they are about, beside their bodies.
It’s also clear that this is not about me. It is not about the girls being bombarded by these images. It’s not about the women who are trying so hard to look younger and younger, to stay relevant in a culture where most of the women famous for their beauty reach the height of their fame in their mid-teens.
I have always been at least a little uncomfortable with the look that fashion demands of girls and women. There is something about it that is always nudging me, poking me between the shoulder blades when my back is turned. Beauty is bigger than this. I have thought so many people are beautiful in ways that don’t have anything to do with the prototypical beauty in the ads for anything and everything.
Every single girl in the big, blank room in Siberia is pretty. I can barely tell them apart. But the model scouts can. They know exactly what they’re looking for. They know all of the measurements. They have perfectly memorized the fetish. It’s a fetish that turns girls into things. I hate that. I am scared of it.
I hate that it is given any power over any of us.
And I know, at the same time, that it has almost nothing to do with beauty, as a concept. That’s the ironic thing. This is supposed to be some pure form of beauty. These are people who seek it out, in its most distilled, most perfect manifestations, in the freezing rural north, in school yards in certain small towns in certain parts of Brazil. They consider themselves connoisseurs, saviors, artists. But this isn’t beauty, it’s marketing. It’s money. It’s the predictable evolution of a hungry industry always looking for the next extreme. Younger, thinner, more scandalous, more scintillating.
Beauty is bigger than this. The scouts can’t master it.
The crime is that we have allowed beauty to be condensed, to be defined so restrictively that we can eliminate a whole gymnasium full of girls without a second thought. That we can allow the same, highly specific images of the same type of features and the same kind of body dominate the market to the point that everyone else is practically forced to feel inadequate at one time or another or all the time. The crime is that we are harming the girls and women who are confronted with these images every day. And the crime is that little girls who are only trying to help their families get some food and fix the leaking roof in the middle of Siberia are being used and thrown away, just as if they were things, and not people. That’s just about the ugliest thing of all.
* * *
Unroast: Today I love the way I look next to Bear in the mirror.
P.S. Speaking of different kinds of beauty, check out my column over at The Frisky about how awkward beauty should be its own category.