Beauty, Self-Esteem and Aging
What’s the power of beauty? What does it do to your ego? What happens when it fades?
That’s what filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders wanted to explore in his HBO documentary, “About Face: Supermodels, Then and Now.”
Sheila Nevins, the film’s producer sees the models as, “their own instruments. What do you do when you’re a Stradivarius and you’re losing your strings?”
And what can ordinary women learn from aging models whose worth seems so dependent on their beauty?
For models, the trouble starts sooner than expected.
Surviving Beauty and its Privileges
The 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.
“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.
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?
People 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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Beauty and Self-Esteem
For women, beauty and self-worth can seem like the same thing. So do women at the top of the hierarchy have the highest self-esteem in the world? That’s one question that “About Face” explored in an HBO documentary on supermodels that aired over the summer.
Some supermodels did think their beauty made them better than others. Kim Alexis admitted she felt that way for while – but got over it. And Beverly Johnson explained:
You do live in a bubble where everyone is telling you you’re beautiful all the time, and get you coffee or whatever you want.
But I was also struck by how many of the world’s most beautiful women had thought they were unattractive in some way or at some point in their lives. Usually because someone had told them so.
While looking at a lovely shot of Carmen Dell’Orefice skipping in the street I was surprised that she didn’t like the photo because of her feet.
I don’t like my feet. I don’t have sexy feet. My mom used to tell me I had feet like coffins and ears like sedan doors. Then I internalized that.
First of all, her feet are perfectly fine. But you have to wonder about the self-criticism that fills women’s heads to make them find phantom flaws were they don’t exist.
Marisa Berenson had not thought she was beautiful, either:
People called me Olive Oil because I was long and lanky. I used to cut out pictures of actresses of the time, Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth, and wish I looked like that.
Jerry Hall – Mick Jagger’s ex — felt she was unattractive, too, because society said so:
I used to be really upset about not having a boyfriend. I’d say, “I feel like a failure. What am I going to do?” And my mom would say, “Well, look at Twiggy. She’s a model and she is even skinnier and flatter than you.”
She got over it and went to St. Tropez to be discovered. A story in itself:
I wore a crocheted metallic bikini and platform shoes that made me 6’4. And I was expecting to be discovered. And I was, within about an hour this guy came up to me and asked if I’d like to be a model.
Most people see themselves through a positive bias according to psychological research. I assume that includes our assessment of our looks. If so, it seems strange that models so often go the opposite way. Maybe it’s a matter of age, going through the self-doubt of adolescence. Maybe it’s feeling unworthy of being at “the top.” Lisa Taylor got into cocaine because:
I was so insecure that I needed to do it. It made me feel like I had something to say, that I was worthy of being photographed, that I was somebody.
But the modeling industry, with its exacting standards — and lack of Photoshop in the early days — could be hard on self-esteem, too.
Paulina Porizkova got the double-whammy. As an immigrant child she was relentlessly teased, only to land as a supermodel and be torn apart once more:
My parents escaped to Sweden from the Czech Republic, and I was called a dirty communist bastard for years. And so when I had the chance to escape and be called beautiful – I don’t think there is any 15-year-old girl who would give up the chance to be called beautiful.
You don’t realize at that point that you will also be called ugly.
They would open my portfolio and start discussing me, start cutting me apart. “Good mouth, but what are we going to do about those teeth? Don’t let her open her mouth. And I don’t like the color of her hair. That can be fixed, but what about those thighs!”
Paulina goes on to explain that looks are not a very good platform on which to base self-esteem:
Beauty is about being self-confident and modeling has nothing to do with self-confidence. Working off your looks makes you the opposite of self-confident. So maybe I became beautiful once I stopped modeling.
Advice we should all heed.
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