August 13, 2009

I'm Not a Model Feminist

A few weeks ago, I got stopped on the street by a modeling scout. The scout said to me, "Excuse me, you look so French. Are you French?" I said, "No, not at all." I am not even French Canadian. The woman said, "Oh, well, you have a good look. Are you interested in being an extra in movies or modeling work?" I did not know what to say, but I love movies, and while I only had a few weeks left in London, I automatically gave the woman my phone number upon receiving her card and hearing a few of her credentials. The modeling agency checked out. Turns out they specialize in "normal looking models." You know, not too skinny, not necessarily that tall and not necessarily that gorgeous, though, I have checked out their website, and some of their models definitely live up to all the common Western beauty ideals - they are not THAT subversive.

I basically forgot about that whole encounter until a woman phone me last week and said, "We'd like you to be in a Marks and Spencer's catalogue photo shoot. Would you be interested? If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you could be an extra for an MTV special or model some fall hair styles for a chain of salons?" As I know only have a matter of days left in London, I turned this work down despite the fact that they were offering good money - I wouldn't have been in London for most of the gigs, anyway. I was, however, in shock. I wasn't flattered per se, because all they told me was, "We really like your look. We all agree you have a great look" That doesn't mean, "We think you're gorgeous and if you were taller you would have been scouted a long time ago and doing runway in Milan!" No, it could mean any number of things, like, "We think you're cute in a normal, average, totally unremarkable girl-on-the-street sort of way, and that's the look M and S is going for this year to avoid intimidating their clients with stunning models." This last one is what I suspect was the case, but it got me thinking, even if they scouted me because of my ordinary normal-looking status, would I feel comfortable modeling? If I'd had the time, I would have been an extra in movie for sure, but modeling. No, I was sure that was not for me! Bear in mind, these people were offering me hundreds of pounds to be made up to look my best and pose for a few hours, and yet, I still didn't want to do it. Why, I asked myself?

I'm not against the modeling industry from a feminist perspective. Yes, it promotes a beauty ideal. Yes, I would prefer if there were more genuine diversity in our definition of beauty in the Western media (The Dove Real Beauty Campaign doesn't count; I have written about this before), but really, our society also has elitist and limited definitions of what it is to be smart (Ie. the university educated person with a successful professional career). Still, I don't want to be a model. It's not just that this isn't my dream job - I recoil at the thought of doing it. I hate having my picture taken, I rarely wear make-up and my looks are the last thing I think of when I think of what I value about myself. This isn't to say I think I'm completely unattractive. I am not insecure about my looks. There are parts of my body and facial features I love (For example, I think I have lovely eyes, nice full lips and good legs), but really, at the end of the day, this matters to me far less than the fact that I think I'm pretty intelligent. I don't know why, though, as both both looks and intelligence are a mix of the hereditary and hard work. No one is born always looking stereotypically beautiful any more than anyone is born knowing how to read - We must cultivate our looks AND our intelligence. For some people, it's harder to cultivate their intelligence than for others, and some people may cultivate their looks all they want, but will never perfectly satisfy Western beauty ideals. Western beauty is an accomplishment we create for ourselves using the material were born with, just as Western intelligence is, so why would I rather be valued for being smart? Why do I recoil at the very thought of making money off of physical appearance?

Grooming and beauty have long been associated with women in Western culture. We're called "the fairer sex," and our fashions change more frequently than men's, requiring us to do way more up-keep than stereotypical men when performing our gender. In turn, women who are just trying to be seen as passable, normal women by curling our hair or going on diets, are deemed superficial. It's a catch-22 if ever I saw one. intellect, conversely, has long been identified with masculine gender. For years, women were excluded from universities and professions. We we (and are) thought inferior scientists, writers, artists and teachers by many. We were the decorative sex. We were there for show, and models, to this day, are there for show (even the male ones, which I believe is why they are the butt of so many jokes - because society views them as feminized). Still, does buying into the idea that modeling is not legitimate work and is beneath me (which I seem to believe) mean that I've internalized sexism? Do, on some level, recoil from modeling because it is associated with the devalued feminine of western society? Yes, I do. I think it's obvious. I don't want to cultivate my looks or make money off them because that seems girlie to me. Of course, at the time I had the opportunity to do modeling, I was not thinking in these terms. I just thought, that, for whatever reason, modeling seemed yucky to me. Never mind that these people were fine with the fact that I am a size six and have no intention of losing any weight. Never mind about the fact that they were cool with me being only 5'3, having a shoulder-length bob instead of long lustrous hair like Giselle and owning disproportionately huge breasts in comparison with my body. Never mind that all these people wanted me to do was get a good night's sleep, get my hair blown out, let a profession put some make-up on me and work hard at posing nicely. Never mind that they weren't asking me to do anything unpleasant at all besides making lots of money for looking my personal best without having to alter my body drastically. No, it was just that it was still modeling, no matter how palatable they had made it. It was still getting paid to try to look pretty - it was still women's work. At the end of the day, I have to admit, I'm a feminist, but I don't seem to be above being sexist....

I tell myself, at least I'm being self-reflexive. At least I know that I still have to decolonize my mind. At least I know that I'm not immune to the discourses used to devalue femininity in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Acknowledging my own limitations is a starting point for changing them. What do you think? Do you ever catch yourself accidentally being sexist?

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