I grew up watching America’s Next Top Model – it was my guilty pleasure. “Guilty” because I felt like I was doing something wrong by watching it. Although I admired Tyra and thought the show might have had some elements of female empowerment, I recognized that the fashion industry was overly concerned with appearance and I worried about the effects the show might have on my perceptions of my body.
For instance, I distinctly remember the episodes where the contestants would comment on each other’s eating and exercise habits, and one particular episode where Tyra even staged an intervention for one contestant, Ann (pictured to the left), who everyone thought was suffering from anorexic tendencies (Missinger 76). Missinger argues that “Tyra Banks has been careful to highlight the importance of maintaining a proper body weight,” (76) even having models pose for pictures that depict anorexia (such as the image featured in this post). Yet, the contestants’ body weights are still grossly far from average. As Ashley Mears points out in her research, the average fashion model in America is 5’11’’ tall and weighs 117 lbs. while the average woman in America is 5’4’’ and weighs about 163 lbs. (23). Ultimately, “fashion models represent what feminist scholarship has critiqued as oppressive beauty standards and the objectification of women’s bodies for patriarchal and capitalist gain” (Mears 23).
Rhonda Loverude, who wrote a 352-page doctoral dissertation, commented in an interview that if a viewer had never been exposed to America before, they would think that “in the United States you absolutely have to be thin” (Fetters). In her dissertation, she explains that contestants with large breasts would “often hear comments that have to do with their appearance being more suitable to men’s magazines, not high fashion” (Fetters). There is a “classic tension between art and commerce” in the fashion industry, where models who are “conventionally attractive” (which equates to being someone women want to look like and men adore) become commercial models while women who are “unique” looking become editorial models (Mears 28-29). These editorial models must have “perfectly discreet bodies that will display the clothes but not detract from them” (Mears 35) by having curves that remind the viewer that a woman is wearing them. This editorial “art” apparently must be far removed from the sexualized nature of women’s bodies.
So, no wonder so many women in high fashion struggle with anorexia – it’s not just about the industry wanting skinny models, it’s about them rejecting female bodies, which they seem to think equates to sexualized bodies that appeal to other people. As Susan Bordo explains, anorexia nervosa “can be seen as at least in part a defense against the ‘femaleness’ of the body and a punishment of its desires” (8). Women so often “[hold] themselves to blame for unwanted advances and sexual assaults” (Bordo 8). Perhaps not having curves serves as protection against the “male gaze.” Yet, why is it that the fashion industry gets to exploit women by using them as commercial models for a male audience while at the same time drawing on their fear of the male gaze to use them as editorial, high fashion models? While Tyra’s series help to give a behind-the-scenes perspective on the fashion industry, it ultimately did nothing to change the nature of modeling and the perspectives of the female body. How much awareness will it take for the amorphous power that is “the fashion industry” to finally alter its valuing of female bodies?
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Univ of California Press, 2004.
Fetters, Ashley. “The Tyra Banks Matriarchy: A Scholar’s Take on America’s Next Top Model.” The Atlantic. May 20, 2013. Accessed May 02, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/the-tyra-banks-matriarchy-a-scholars-take-on-i-americas-next-top-model-i/276027/.
Mears, Ashley. “Size zero high-end ethnic: Cultural production and the reproduction of culture in fashion modeling.” Poetics 38, no. 1 (2010): 21-46.
Wissinger, Elizabeth. “the top model life.” Contexts 9, no. 2 (2010): 75-77.