Watching The Model Agency on Channel 4 last night left me with a rather sour taste in my mouth. Not that its content was in any way surprising to me having worked in this industry for almost 10 years now, however I am surprised that Premier would allow themselves to be filmed in this way. I personally feel this is a PR disaster that was nonetheless waiting to happen.
Tonight’s episode focused on the lovely 16 year old model India, who, having been sent alone to New York fashion week, as many young models are, was immediately told she was ‘too fat’. Understandably, a minor meltdown ensued. India wanted out. Clearly a clever, articulate young girl, she felt she might like to go back to school to finish studying.
Cue frenzy and hysteria among her bookers at Premier, who reacted in horror at this proposed waste of her life (study, growth and education being a pointless alternative to modeling). India’s booker was immediately dispatched to New York to talk India out of this dreadful mistake, and spoke of being ‘gutted’ when it became clear she was too late. India had bravely made up her mind to quit, at least for the time being, until she felt a bit more confident about her choice to be a model. Perhaps she was presciently thinking about what she might do with her life once her looks inevitably faded.
Even as she explained her decision to her booker, she was told that ‘there was no pressure on her, however if she quit she would be making a big mistake, this was her moment, and once lost, would never be recaptured’. At the grand old age of 16. I was appalled at this. It was highly disingenuous to suggest this attempted intervention was born of any real concern for India’s well being, when it was patently obvious that it was really about the loss of highly lucrative contracts slipping from their grasp.
Perhaps what irked me most was the Managing Director of Premier describing India’s decision to leave modeling as ‘outrageous’. How dare this young girl change her mind about her own future!
Later, one mother of an aspiring young model said that she didn’t want her child to be told that she was overweight, aware no doubt of the terrible emotional impact this can have on a young girl. Yet this is EXACTLY what she will be told at some stage or another in her career, possibly as she sits alone, thousands of miles from home, by some client or booker. I have seen this happen many times. Mums, do not be under any illusions here. Perhaps it’s worth considering keeping your precious daughters at home for just a few more years whilst they at least get their A levels out of the way.
What is far more worrying is that the events depicted on The Model Agency are merely characteristic of a much larger problem in modern society whereby women, and particularly young girls, think that trading on their looks is a valid life choice. There appears to be little incentive for girls to educate themselves when they see the ubiquitous WAGS living the high life, or the get-rich-quick route of salacious kiss and tell stories, and TV shows like the truly horrible ‘The Only Way is Essex’ exposing the (albeit staged) lives of vacuous, fame hungry, surgically enhanced twenty-somethings.
Gone is the value placed on the cultivation of an independent, enquiring mind. And frankly, who can blame them? Girls as young as 6 are accustomed to seeing the women around them being judged and evaluated solely on their looks every day. Studies show that beautiful women achieve far higher levels of career success than average looking women, and disturbingly, actually tend to live longer. Even our successes are viewed through a lens of physical appraisal, so it’s no wonder that the idea that beauty matters above all else pervades.
As a slightly idealistic teen, I remember thinking that the most important thing I could do with my life would be to gain as much knowledge as possible, in order to be respected as an intellectual equal. I may not have achieved quite those lofty heights, but I don’t see much of this ambition in young women anymore, and it depresses me.
Some will no doubt find this post hypocritical. After all I write a beauty blog praising or criticizing products created by a multi-billion pound beauty industry that is driven by cynically astute advertising. And the primary goal of the advertising industry is to identify women’s insecurities and needs (80% of advertising is aimed at women), to persuade them to buy a product, and fool them into believing that by some magical process of osmosis, they will achieve a measure of the beauty presented in the ads and magazine pages. Your life will be better / you can be thinner / it is possible to stave off the ageing process for longer.
Obviously I’m not pointing out anything ground breaking here, but I do wonder how aware young women are of this dynamic. I’m grateful to my parents for praising me for my achievements, or for thoughtful, kind behavior rather than for how pretty I looked in a new dress. I was brought up to believe I could do anything I wanted to do if I worked hard and believed in myself. Conversely, one of my funny, clever, talented, beautiful friends was raised being told she looked like a gorilla by her father, and I’m sure I don’t have to spell out the effect this repeated negative message has had on her entire life.
Many girls are being raised by their parents and by society as a whole to equate self-esteem with beauty or worse, sexual appeal. One only has to watch in horror, shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding as groups of 6 yr old girls practice highly sexualized dance routines copied from MTV, caked in make up, clad in skin tight dresses as their parents look benignly on. How about encouraging your daughter’s self-esteem to be based upon her ability to problem solve, communicate, and fend for herself in the world? If only there was some fool-proof way of teaching girls that true satisfaction comes from within, from developing a rich and robust inner world.
That said, despite my parent’s efforts to help me feel valued for my mind rather than my looks, I am clearly not impervious to the message that is perpetually drip fed through the media, even as I work within it, helping to create the images that undermine women’s confidence every day. I pull and peer at my face, wincing narcissistically at the ever-increasing appearance of lines around my eyes, sprouting grey hairs and gravitational droop. As a result, like most women, I have spent exorbitant sums on creams, serums, hair dye and cosmetics in an attempt to stave off this ‘horrible decline’, when I should be expressing gratitude for the life lessons that can only come with the passing of years, for the wisdom, peace of mind and self-assuredness that was noticeably absent in my youth.
I am painfully aware of the irony here. I love many aspects of what I do, but I became a make up artist to exercise my creative drive and talents, not to artfully conceal the cocaine pallor of a malnourished teenager, who is then styled, lit and digitally altered – sometimes beyond recognition, to appear perfect, flawless. My skills are used to collude with this most wily of lies that the advertising industry pedals to women; that they will never be ‘enough’. Not lithe enough, not young enough, nor pretty enough and that they should fear the ageing process more than death. It is becoming ever harder to stomach.
We are enough, we are imperfectly perfect just the way we are. Complex and flawed, with an almost limitless capacity for compassion, love and nurturing if we so choose. Not to mention our gift of giving life. There is much to celebrate about being a woman so let’s do that eh?
I’m sure there will be some repercussions to me writing so disparagingly about my industry, effectively ‘biting the hand that feeds’, but its something that I feel strongly enough about to risk it’s wrath. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.