Surviving Beauty and its Privileges

30.1T072.modelsc--300x300The supermodels weren’t just about physical beauty. They had character. They had personality. They had something on the inside that came through.

Or so Calvin Klein opined on HBO’s documentary, “About Face: Supermodels, Then and Now.”

Supermodel, Pat Cleveland, agreed:

I have seen so many girls come and go because they had nothing going on inside.

Maybe that’s why they were supermodels.

Or maybe that’s why they survived being supermodels.

The cover girls had plenty to contend with: the temptation of ego-inflation amid fawning and primping and everyone saying they’re so great because they’re so beautiful. Or, fearing they could never live up to the hype. Anorexia, bulimia… Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll…

The supermodel’s life was full of highs and lows.

0-whiteny[1]“We lived the greatest adventure of all in those days,” Marisa Berenson reminisced, “We were so free and we wanted to taste everything and do everything.”

Jerry Hall expounded, “Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol. We met all these amazing people. It was about making this whole world that you would enter into.”

Pat Cleveland relished the memory:

I was a liberated woman in those days. I had the pill, I had the clothes, I had the place to go. We didn’t know who we were with. The girls with the boys and the boys with the boys. Just get with the best-looking thing you can find! And there were a lot of good-looking people in the modeling business.

Some people got lost in that….

Drugs, anorexia… AIDS. “AIDS was like a fire that went straight through the heart of the business,” Paulina Porizkova recalled. “Is my friend so thin because she’s smoking too much or partying too much, or is it AIDS?”

In Pat Cleveland’s eyes, “Everyone was dressing in black and they started disappearing and I knew it was the end of a time.”

I’m not sure why the supermodels who show up in “About Face” came out alive and mostly well. But I was struck by how many had created space between “who they are” and “what they projected” in those super images.

Paulina_Porizkova[1]Isabella Rossellini remarked that, “I understood it was an image. It wasn’t me.” Paulina Porizkova, Pat Cleveland and China Machado echoed the theme. Kim Alexis came to see that beauty didn’t make her happy – family did. And Carol Alt remained grounded throughout:

At my first job the editor walked in and said, “Who cuts your hair? Your eyebrows look like shit. And you’re too big for our clothes.” But I knew who I was so it didn’t hurt me. After that it changed for me a little bit but I still knew who I was. I’m a fireman’s daughter from Long Island. And that’ll never change.

When Cheryl Tiegs finished college her agent told her that the key to beauty was “always educating yourself. Always learning something new, always doing something new, having something to talk about. And I think that’s how one ages beautifully.”

Pat Cleveland talked of making people appreciate what you’re wearing by being alive in it:

On the runway it’s as though I’m lifting off the ground. I want to hear drums playing and express all that rhythmy feeling in your soul. It’s almost orgasmic.

Dayle Haddon thought other models were more beautiful than she was, so she brought more than what she looked like.

Through a picture I felt like I could communicate. That’s where beauty lies. How do you translate your experiences – good or bad – into something that is meaningful to yourself and to others?

beverlyPeople who face abuse and prejudice often develop both character and empathy for others. Maybe that’s what happened to Pat Cleveland as the Ebony Fashion Fair traveled the states:

It was hard work, especially in the South. We were in this Greyhound bus and stopped to go to the bathroom and they said, “You black girls can’t go in there,” except for me because I was only 1/8 black so I didn’t look black, but everyone else did. And then these angry guys came toward the bus with sticks and the bus driver says, “We’ve got to get out of here!” but he couldn’t get the bus started to get away, and the men started banging on the bus and tried to turn it over, and it was very frightening.

Others developed an attitude to protect themselves. China Machado exhibited the unique walk she used to look empowered and intimidating: commanding, with arched back, wide gestures, and head held high – in an effort to avoid sexual harassment.

Most interestingly, some could see their beauty only after living, surviving, and gaining self-assurance. Despite Paulina Porizkova’s ravishing youthful looks she only came to see herself as beautiful a couple of years ago. She now says, “The most beautiful thing is confidence.”

Ah, lessons from supermodels. Who knew?

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 22, 2013, in body image, objectification, psychology, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Brenda Villar

    This is very nice to hear. Especially being in a time where beauty is considered to be strictly physical. In my age group, women are really occupied in looking their best and always trying to be the prettiest, compared to other women. To hear how these former supermodels had to have a sense of who they were and what they looked like in a photograph, shows me that a pretty picture doesn’t say or show who you are. Beauty is who the person is. If you are confident in yourself and you feel beautiful, then you’ll portray it and others will see it.

  2. It is interesting that when people talk about “beauty” as a philosophical concept, they intend to separate it into two parts: one is the beauty we can perceive directly through our eyes, the other is the beauty of inside characteristics. Based on this separation of the concept, some intend to believe that the beauty that can be seen takes priority in any discussions, though they may also intend to deny that’s what they believe, while others, stating that inside beauty, is more important.
    This long lasting discussion sometimes get hypocritical when people do not speaking their mind, or sometimes they did not even realize that they are doing so.
    Supermodels are no doubt images of outside beauty. They suggest what a man or for the most of the time, a woman, should look like if she’s to considered as “beauty”. With all due respect, they are like real adult version Barbie dolls. Those who want the others to find the power of characters in supermodels probably did not realize this profession is made to display outside beauty. Those supermodels who are successful do not become so because they have good characters. They are first to be good-looking and eye-pleasing. Just as the blog states, their characters only help them survive being a top model.
    Any profession may raise comments stemming from stereotype: good teachers are to be nice and kind, successful business people are to be sharp and capable…So why should stereotype about supermodels raise our special concern if it is simply a common line of work? Well, probably it’s because it brings us back to the discussion of how to classify beauty and whether this kind of classification is meaningful or not.

  3. From the forefront, it seems that models have it all. They seem to live in the lap of luxury, venturing out at the “coolest” hangouts, and fawned over by jealous onlookers. What seems to be the perspective we all seem to avoid is the backlash of it. I’m not saying a model should be just as appraised as a rocket scientist or a biomedical engineer, but it is keen to notice that a model adversities is still there but just on whole, different level. This article made me realize that while all of us regular joes are insecure about the everyday matters, these models appearance are magnified by a million. Compared to how much we criticizes ourselves, it must be hurtful to look good as a paid model then go through a cat call but still being denied. I remembered my dad used to tell me, “The more rich and good looking you are, the harder the maintenance.” This quote makes more sense on this level pertaining to the fact that a group of people who society seems to be jealous about have their own everyday battles to face as well.

  4. It truly is insightful to hear and read about how models felt about being objectified. To be looked at and criticized for every detail of your appearance, I can only imagine! From your hair, to your eyebrows, to skin tone, to those “extra” one or two pounds, everything was analyzed a picked apart. After watching this documentary and hearing the models, I think you have a greater understanding of why they may appear “vapid” or “snobby.” They have to have such incredibly thick skin to bear the comments and judgements from everyone, from makeup to hair to photographers and even their agents! Crazy!

  5. Eleanor Normile

    It’s interesting to read these supermodels’ perspectives on surviving in the fashion and beauty industry. Life as a supermodel was a tough competitive business that required more than outward beauty to survive. They needed to have strong sense of who they were and not fall into the trap of having their self-worth tied to their appearance.
    They understood that the images they were portraying were merely fantasy and that real happiness came from more meaningful things than external beauty.

    However, average women see these images of beautiful models on the pages of fashion magazines and on television and may not realize how completely unrealistic they are. They don’t see how much airbrushing and image manipulation has gone into producing the final image. They see themselves as inadequate and this undermines their self-esteem as they try to live up to these unrealistic ideals, constantly trying to “improve” themselves with beauty routines, dieting and even cosmetic surgery. Women need to learn to value themselves for other things than physical attractiveness and to focus on things which will help them to build self-confidence and character instead of wasting time and energy on striving for impossible ideals of external beauty.

  6. “Television is the most powerful and influential medium of communication in the world, cutting across national and class barriers” (Women’s Realities, Women’s choices, An Introduction to Women’s Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. 32). I certainly agree that televisions and advertisements are in truth very powerful and influential to the world as a type of nonverbal communication. When models are being put on a face of a magazine, they must be primped to perfection, although the models are not portraying their legitimate personalities, but in that type of industry, it is what often the young models tend to lose in time. The girls are constantly beat down about who to look like, who she should be, and in time they just end up losing themselves as a person, also not forgetting baggage that comes with fame and money (drugs, parties, anorexia, and etc.).

  7. Peter Pagrefor

    I should had quoted the entire phrase and not just a fragment.

    “…the two curves together suggest some strange possibilities for the female thought process, the most salient of which is that the average-looking woman has convinced herself that the vast majority of males aren’t good enough for her, but she then goes right out and messages them anyway.”

    • I read the entire study and my point still holds. Just because a woman thinks a man is less attractive than average, or less attractive than she is, doesn’t mean that she thinks he’s not good enough for her.

  8. Peter Pagrefor

    “It seems that the average looking women have convinced themselves that the vast majority of males aren’t good enough for them and not the other way around… Paradoxically, it seems it’s women, not men, who have unrealistic standards for the “average” member of the opposite sex.”

    • You are addressing a different point than the one that feminists make.

      Basically, women are hard on both men and themselves, when it comes to rating attractiveness. Whereas men are generous to both women and themselves.

      Men generally think that they, themselves, look fine. But about 78% of women have poor body image.

      Meanwhile, one study found that most men find most women at least somewhat sexually attractive, whereas most women didn’t find most men sexually attractive at all.

      I get why women are so hard on themselves. It’s likely because they’re constantly given an impossible image to live up to, and they can’t do it. So they think they’re fairly unattractive by comparison to an impossible ideal. Meanwhile, appearance is generally the most important component of a woman’s self-worth, so this harms their self-esteem.

      I’m not sure why women are also hard on men. Maybe since they are more sexually repressed it takes a lot more to find a guy sexually attractive.

      At the same time, it’s not right to say that women feel that men they rate as “less attractive” aren’t good enough for them. If you look at the bell curve, women were open to dating men from the lowest to the highest levels of attractiveness and while there was a gap between assessed attractiveness and desire to meet, women’s interest in the men tracked pretty closely to the curve — unlike men’s interest in women.

      This may sound vain but I’d assess myself as more attractive than my husband. But I wouldn’t say that he’s not good enough for me. Or I wouldn’t have married him.

  9. F. Naghiniarami

    nice! Beauty is a complicated subject to discuss. some people believe that beauty should be in heart and face doesn’t matter but some say that first impression is so important which means being beautiful in body and face. I believe that if you have inside beautiful your face going to glow. Being supermodel is not all about face, body and attire but your inside and behaviour. I think it is important for a supermodel to have enough knowledge to understand people, have sympathy and be generous to others. also, be willing to learn new things and constantly growing up. Being supermodel means being best in everything, being talented, being generous, caring about others, doing something different, to help or change something to better, and it’s all about being human. Then that supermodel will last forever because we all know that our outside beauty won’t last forever even if we are a supermodel! Even the supermodel’s face and body shrink and age, that is gravity’s property, and there is no expectation unless that supermodel has something to offer from her inside, then her beauty will last for ever.

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