Catching up with family, as I did this past weekend, always involves a lengthy explanation of what I do. Questions start off basic and extend to the philosophical. 1. Do you get to keep the clothes? No. 2. Do you have to watch what you eat all the time? I should, but I don’t (this is the short answer, usually given with a mouthful of cake. For the long answer, see my post on the weight debate). 3. Do you have to exercise all the time? See previous short answer. 4. Do you make friends? Do you relate to the other models? Sometimes. Rarely. But when I do, they become really wonderful friends, and our friendship is free from competition and jealousy. And then… 5. How are you treated in the industry? Most of the time, as a pretty thing whose value is based solely on the capacity to take a good photo. 6. How do you feel about being objectified, and about perpetuating the objectification of women, in the photos you take?
#5 I’ve discussed in a previous post. This daily objectification is difficult, but one that is not necessarily limited to modeling, as even the smartest and most tolerant people sometimes refuse to look past one’s appearance. As pretentious as this may sound, I like assuming the responsibility of challenging the stereotype of models, to make people realize that we’re human too.
#6 is a question I’ve thought about for years, through several Feminist Theory, Gender Theory, Media Ethics, and Sexual Ethics classes. I have watched Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly series too many times (not that that’s such a critical endeavor—but I mention it here because it is accessible and somewhat informative), and criticized the male gaze and the beauty myth in several magazines and ad campaigns.
So how can I possibly justify what I do? How can I be both a feminist and a model? In this post-second-wave-feminist world, am I the biggest hypocrite, betraying my gender’s cause by posing for a camera?
I’d like to separate my response into process and product. By process, I mean the act of modeling, of donning a persona separate from one’s self and creating a corresponding narrative. I’ve argued in previous posts that performing is cathartic. But it can also be empowering, and not in terms of being represented as beautiful. As soon as I am in front of a camera, I enter a realm, separate from my own reality, in which I explore a self-awareness that is ultimately empowering. I control my body and my environment; every movement, action, reaction, requires a meditation that is surprisingly grounding, and an exercise of will that is both assertive and liberating—even if I’m just being silly in front of a camera. The environment becomes a source of creativity. Whether it’s a white background or a specific setting, I become master of my space. This type of performance is somewhat analogous to dance or acting (although modeling requires much less practice), as they also require a deliberate self-awareness and control over one’s environment. Even the clothes I wear are costumes with which to create narrative.
If the process is empowering, what about the roles I play? Am I, by modeling, participating in the creation of a product (the photograph) that perpetuates the patriarchal objectification and/or subordination of women?
I’m addressing very broad questions, so let me narrow my argument to the fashion industry only. In my experience, I have played very few roles, if any, in which I’m more object than subject, more accessory than protagonist. Women’s fashion depends on selling garments that make women feel self-assured and confident. Criticisms about capitalist ideology aside, those garments are not going to sell if they’re associated with images of subordination or objectification. Typically, I portray a self-assured young woman, smartly dressed (indeed, the opposite of scantily clad), either by herself (independent!) or with her girlfriends. In fact, I have only worked with male models about five times, and most often they are my accessories. When it comes to high-fashion editorials, I play a subject beyond gender conventions. I look androgynous; I wear clothes that hide my body and makeup that seems otherworldly. And for the few overtly sexual jobs I’ve done, I was foremost a sexual subject, not object. This is where it gets tricky. Is the portrayal of women as sexual beings necessarily oppressive, or detrimental to young girls? No, I don’t think so. Obviously girls should not be conditioned to think that their self-worth or confidence comes from being sexy, but I don’t think that any of the aforementioned genres imply that. And in our sexually-liberated, media-saturated culture, which extends well beyond the fashion industry, one could also argue that the assertive female sexual subject is an important image for young girls to see, to prevent them from succumbing to sexual objectification.
The visual representation of women is no longer the necessary objectification it once was. Of course we’ve come a long way from the courtesan, passively sprawled out on a bed to be painted and penetrated. But we’ve also started to move away from the more recent images of infantilized, obedient women who are incapable of asserting themselves. The fashion industry—in terms of clothing and campaigns—does not categorically construct women as sexual objects for men; indeed, fashion trends often do the opposite (cue The Man Repeller). In terms of representing women and sexuality, most designer campaigns now convey a sexiness that isn’t reductive or without will, but is instead powerful in its ambiguity. Moreover, the images with obvious sexual overtones are exaggerated or farcical enough to maintain critical distance, and even in those photos, the women are not necessarily rendered subordinate to a male subject or audience.
For these reasons, I feel comfortable being the analytic participant. I maintain that fashion and feminism today are not mutually exclusive, and that Kilbourne’s lectures and Naomi Wolf’s claims on the beauty myth seem increasingly dated in a world where women are simultaneously empowered and stylish. Some of the smartest and most powerful women I’ve ever met have been in the fashion industry, and they buy designer wear not to impress men, but to mark their financial success. Do I feel like I am oppressing young girls everywhere, teaching them to stand by their man? No! I think my photos might even do the opposite. We should be more concerned about the unrealistic narratives on television, marketed to young girls, than the fashion editorials that they probably don’t even care about (yet). It is certainly a good idea to teach media savviness to all children at a young age, to make them understand that the narratives are contrived and that the photos have been retouched and thus do not reflect reality. That said, however, I still don’t think my fashion photos are the source for low self-esteem. There are infinite, more direct factors that are much more responsible.