Frankly, modelling was fascinating for many different reasons, not least of which is the extremely varied reaction that people have to all things associated with what one could loosely call ‘body image’.
I began modelling for a number of different reasons. These are, in no particular order:
- I’d had a number of irritating arguments with fellow students in which, usually some guy, would meander about how fabulous women in magazines looked before opining that no one they knew in real life looked like that. This would be followed by a stubbornly refusal to acknowledge – all reason to the contrary – that that might be because no one in real life was lounging around in flattering positions with a fan blowing their hair, professionally done make-up and carefully positioned lighting.
At the end of the day, I am in law, and like many of that profession, I sometimes feel a burning, nay irresistible, urge to prove my point. This was one of those times. It burned slowly, but it burned strong.
- My visa only allowed for casual work and my job as an undergraduate research assistant did not use up all my allowable hours. Modelling was a perfect way to make some extra income.
- I feel that dressing sharply is one of those things that makes life worth living and was quite into making sartorial experiments from a young age. I maintain a fairly lively interest in fashion, photos, interior decorating and all-around artsy stuff. So hanging out with a bunch of artists wasn’t much of a sacrifice.
- Around the time I was considering all of this someone asked me to pose for a photo for a small magazine and things went from there.
Modelling was a culmination of several different threads, as it were. When I first started, I thought I would mainly do ads, to wit, be the person sipping a mug of tea on their couch in a furniture ad. I’m not sure quite why I latched onto this, but I think it was because my interest in fashion up to this point was largely a self-generated thing. I was a National Geographic subscriber, only vaguely familiar with things like Vogue. I think this is why I thought of models as an advertisement thing.
However, it turned out I would never have a career in advertisement, first and foremost, because I am really, really short. This is not an issue when I am by myself, but definitely very noticeable when I am doing something like sitting on a couch, because most adults do not need to crouch at the front of a couch in order for their feet to be on the floor. They can sip mugs of tea while leaning back at the same time. Not so me. So advertisement was not meant to be. Ditto fashion. Designers cut their clothes to the same measurements, a size that would suffice to make about three pieces of clothing for me. Every garment would be a tent.
But while I was distractingly small for all things commercial, photographers and artists were – unexpectedly – pretty happy with my bod. I’d never thought about it until then, but I’ve got a ‘classic’ Greek statue kind of look and this is the kind of thing people in the art industry are into. So, this is how I ended up doing mainly art work, which includes nude work. Hundreds of hours in front of an easel, zero hours sipping tea on a couch.
That being said, however, in my experience, modelling in its entirety had a lot less to do with appearance than people tend to think, and when appearance is involved it is for different reasons. Somebody might say, “I like your look” or “I don’t like your look for this project”, but this is not the same as saying that you are beautiful or ugly. They just mean, “I don’t like your look for this project, because I’m looking for something more pre-Raphaelite” or “someone with a pointier chin” or “someone with fewer visible muscles”. It depends on what they are trying to achieve in their photo, and is not intended as a personal commentary on you. In fact, when it came to appearance, most people involved in producing images (and especially artwork) were significantly less judgemental about appearance than just about anyone else I’ve ever met. If anything they tended to an Epicurean attitude where they would try anything once as long as it was different.
And in that respect we were a lot alike.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and artists by their calling, tend to see beauty in a lot more places than the average person does. The better the artist, the more they are like this.
So, while no profession is completely jerk-exempt, I would rate my experience of modelling pretty highly, especially considering all the side perks like seeing yourself in an exhibition or magazine and getting to go to all kinds of interesting locations to shoot and then doing crazy things when you get there. Some people spent their weekends getting drunk – I spent mine getting bodypainted, prancing around deserted beaches with nothing on, and wearing cool costumes in whatever wilderness we happened to be in. It was fun.
However, I am still aware of some complex issues raised here. While I spent most of my time posing for students behind easels, I also took what I think are some fairly attractive photos at times, and I quite like how I look on them. Even if you never touch Photoshop, you can still look like an idealized version of yourself with the right lighting and pose. Sometimes, as with bodypainting, the images produced are totally beyond the bounds of reality.
I don’t feel that unrealistic images had much of a negative impact on me as I was growing up, for the simple reason that I had very limited access to media, everyone in our small town knew everyone else anyway, and our salt-of-the-earth mentality placed little emphasis on appearances. It was an article of faith that ‘appearances are deceiving’, and one should not ‘judge a book by its cover’. However, as I’d learned at university some people placed an enormous amount of importance on appearance and had very narrow (yet ever fluctuating) ideas of what that appearance should ideally be.
So, of course, I’ve been confronted with the idea that by modelling I may somehow be contributing to this negative body image. Especially since some people would say that because I am educated, I should pretend I don’t exist from the neck down as all else is objectification.
I think this is a backwards way of dealing with things.
A major difference between our society and past societies is that it is cheap to reproduce images now, which means you can see pictures of people while knowing nothing else about them at all. Communication is thus more about image than reality, because image is quick and easy to produce whereas dealing with reality requires you to read long articles like this, or even books, or just to spend a lot of time with someone.
When you see an image you tend to insert information around it, and sometimes others do this for you. A common assumption would be, for example, that someone who is smiling in a photo is happy. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. An image lasts a heartbeat and you’ve got no way of knowing what the truth is. Thus, we live surrounded by these fleeting, quite carefully prepared images, by and large of people who are selected because they don’t look out of place on the image, and the vast majority of which are created to delight rather than repulse one.
I don’t really see anything wrong with this. Where things get nasty is when people use these images essentially to control other people. This, I believe is at the root of people feeling they ‘should’ look a certain way and being put out by images of others. I highly doubt it is something too many people get up to all by themselves just from looking at images of anyone. Left to one’s own devices, one would likely only think that it is a nice photo or that you like the clothes, etc. However, people often use appearance as a battle ground for underlying power struggles, for one very simple reason: you can’t hide it. We don’t go around with our IQs tattooed to our foreheads, but it’s pretty hard to hide your body, and thus it provides the perfect attack angle for anyone who really wants to get to you. Unfavourable comparison is a great way to put someone down and I’ve noticed that jerks will use anything to hand to achieve this, including any image that they chance to happen across.
I know this, because they try it on me, too. The weirdest ones are those who opine on the attractions of blondeness, because, as I used to point out (back when I could be bothered) hair dye is quite cheap and I could easily be blonde if I wanted to be. Some people may very well genuinely prefer blond hair – if there is one thing I learned modelling, there is a wide spectrum in what people find attractive – but I’m not quite sure what kind of a jerk decides that preaching this to someone who has dark hair is a good use of time. Or rather I am sure – the kind who would like you to believe that you need their approval for your continued existence.
The issue is therefore not, ‘there are images of people about’, but rather the use some people choose to make of them, to wit, using them as a prop to make other people feel lousy about themselves. However, since we’ve decided that burkas aren’t compulsory in our society, we’re going to have to get used to looking at one another. Trying to get rid of images is to do battle against the forces of technology as well as industries that are powered by creativity, meaning there is always some blur between reality and imagination. This can be a great thing: books are also powered by a blur of fantasy and reality, for example. Depriving ourselves of that or forcing people not to enjoy their appearance as the price for being ‘intelligent’ or ‘serious’ is a drag and the moral equivalent of burning down a building because someone ‘could commit a crime’ in it.
It would be far better to think a little more about our reactions to people and images of people, and to reflect that if someone tries to make you miserable about your appearance that maybe the problem is neither you, nor any person they may compare you to, but them.