Thursday, November 05, 2009

Holistic models

Our ambivalence towards judgment leads to the so-called holistic assessments in college admissions - we find it too cruel that a few crude factors could determine who's in and who's out, and so we tell ourselves that a fair decision comes from looking at every facet of a person's being.

It occurred to me earlier, listening to a predictably predictable podcast discussion of plus-size models aren't they amazing, that this is the very same thing that goes on in, if not the actual fashion/beauty industry, the way the industry presents itself. No one is willing to admit that certain identifiable characteristics, few of which are terribly PC, define what models look like, and that even if those change, even if we make courageous strides like allowing size-six buxom blondes ('plus-size models') and fine-featured, emaciated, pale-skinned black teens with straight hair ('diversity') into the fold, something like 99.99% of women and girls will still be excluded from whatever new ideal might arise.

Callers to the program kept asking these two fashion editors about different types of women - the short, the athletic-but-not-overweight, the old, the disabled - and why they weren't being included on the runways and such. Interestingly, only the 5'2" woman got the response that, let's face it, all might as well get: it is what it is. So long as certain women are being singled out for their looks, there will be exclusion that feels unfair. And you know what? I would find it all the more unflattering to not make the (theoretical) cut if I thought 5'2" Jewish-looking 26-year-olds were just as likely to get modeling contracts as were 5'10" Slavo-Nordic adolescents. (Do I repeat myself?)

Point being, sometimes it's better to get rejected - in reality, as with college, or by assumption, which is the only way a modeling agency will ever get to reject most of us - according to generally agreed-upon criteria, than to learn you lack that undefinable quality that divides the beautiful or brilliant from mere mortals.


Anonymous said...

I have no idea what "it is what it is" means in this context. And if I try to be charitable and make such a statement coherent, the interpretion I come up with smacks of the naturalistic fallacy. The mere fact that we socialize beauty in certain ways does not imply those ways are the correct ones to socialize.

To return to the incoherence of the assertion, the obvious and undeniable fact that beauty, like virtually any socialized aesthetics, is necessarily vague and ambiguous does not license the conclusion that we have no chance of being able to describe the subjects we attach to the extension "is beautiful."

Thus, I'm not entirely sure what point it is you are driving at. (I'm not even sure I disagree, actually). Obviously, I am no woman, so take it FWIW, but I can certainly see many reasons for disagreeing with your conclusion that it is better to get rejected as beautiful on the basis of socialized criteria -- even if those criteria are, to put it mildly, seriously fucked up -- then to learn that one will be rejected for indeterminate reasons decided upon by the aesthetic ubermenschen, whomsoever those persons or institutions might be.

I'm not sure which is worse, but both situations seem SFU to me.

Phoebe said...

OK. "It is what it is" was my inarticulate way of expressing that conventional beauty ideals ala what's sought in fashion models by their very nature exclude most. This is not terribly important in the day-to-day life of adult and even teen females, because not fitting those criteria hardly prevents a woman from being found physically attractive by people she finds physically attractive as well. Knowing the standards are what they are, whatever they are, allows us to tell ourselves - justifiably! - that Beauty is not that-which-resembles-a-model, but something far more subjective. As in, the fact that a given woman could never in a million years be a model does not prevent her from being seen as physically attractive in other situations. But once we start declaring that nothing restricts who could be a model, that is, once we eliminate all known 'isms' from the selection process, we've decided that the only quality specific to models is Beauty... such that those who could not be models under the new standards are, simply, not beautiful, end of story. Similarly, when colleges decide to go not with GPA, SATs, and whichever other known criteria, but with 'whole-person' analysis, the rejected applicant can no longer reassure himself that he has good qualities, but that these qualities did not come into the college's assessment. The college is telling him they've examined him in full, and he was found lacking.

Anyway, as with colleges, I think it's well and good to expand criteria, particularly when it comes to race. (Although there's something tempting about just letting designers fill runways with identical blondes, rendering their industry as it currently exists irrelevant.) However, I'm against the denial of criteria, as though there's some magical quality only model scouts/admissions committees are privileged to assess.

Slight side note: many on this podcast reiterated how the ideal for models should be an appearance of 'health' - presumably a way of saying 90-pound, 6-foot-tall physiques scream anorexia even if the Estonian teen in question just hasn't hit puberty yet, but that at the same time virtually no one wants the morbidly obese on the runways. As in, to use your language, it would be better to "socialize" a beauty ideal based on health. Which to me seems to be still quite problematic. First off, what does 'health' look like in our collective imagination, other than, well, youth? Take two 17-year-olds - one might live off Cheetos and cigarettes, the other sensible meals and the occasional cupcake, and both could well photograph equally fresh-faced in an ad for the Wholesome Lifestyle. But more to the point, isn't it discriminating against the unhealthy - or those of us who, by virtue of our natural pallor, have no shot at any kind of 'glow' - to define beauty as health?

Anonymous said...

Okay, I understand much better the point you were getting at now. I'm not sure I agree (inasmuch as I'm still mulling over your holism posts), but I see where you are going with the argument.

I can't articulate at this point exactly how, but your argument seems to me to be soritical in essential respects, such that n may be reasonable in and of itself, but if we iteratively proceed via n-1, we get a reductio. My response is that even if this is true, that does not ground the normative worth of the criteria of beauty we are socializing. I.e., I could agree that it might better to have admittedly arbitrary criteria of beauty than an entirely indeterminate sense and still maintain that the criteria we operate under are SFU and it would be better to resist or replace them wherever and however possible.

(Although, seeing as how I tend to like ambiguity, vagueness, and the like, I tend to think the existence of even powerfully socialized and specified criteria does not imply, metaphysically, the concept of beauty is determinate)

Bear in mind I do some work in fat studies in context of disability and health, and, unlike Rita (comments) think there is a great deal of worth in the subject itself (even granting the inevitable excesses that attend any branch of anything resembling "cultural studies" in American universities). But I happen to think it would be fabulous to have morbidly obese people on the runway. In fact, I would pay to see it. Most wouldn't, of course, but I think that says a lot about our cultural views on fatness and stigma. I mean, fer god's sake, we pay gobs of money to see anorexics on the runway, as you point out . . . why exactly should we be so horrified to see morbidly obese persons, other than the unbelievably FU attitudes we have towards fatness in the U.S.

As for socializing a beauty ideal based on health, this concept is much more in my wheelhouse, so to speak, than aesthetics, where I am a rank amateur, but there's absolutely no way to disentangle the deep history of stigma from the ways in which we think about health, normalcy, and pathology. One does not have to be a raving pomo-head -- I am not -- to see how the latter two concepts in particular have had a devastating impact on the lives and communities of disabled persons in this country.

But of course, the cat is way out of the bag on this one. Health and beauty have been inextricably linked in Western culture since antiquity; the Romans in particular were obsessed with the connection. We absolutely link health and beauty, even as we deal with the inevitable inconsistency by which standards of beauty seem to be, by almost any assessment, unhealthy.

Matt said...

Two thoughts: 1) There are lots of types of models, but many of them do not fit well into most people's (perhaps especially most men's) idea of beauty. I'm thinking especially of the runway model. Why not? Because they look like they might die soon, are too skinny, too tall, etc. for most people's taste. They are good walking clothes hangers, but I'm fairly confident that most people, if confronted with the runway model in another setting, would not find them beautiful but slightly horrific. (People may claim they find such models beautiful, but I think this is a mistaken report on their parts, and that if you varied the tests a bit the claim wouldn't be robust.)

2. Do you think you "look Jewish" in any strong sense? I've only seen the photos you put on your blog, but nothing about you seems characteristically "Jewish" in any of the many ways one might "look Jewish". Not that your looks are such that if I'd just seen a picture of you and then was told you were Jewish I'd be surprised, but there doesn't seem to be anything especially or obviously Jewish about your looks, as far as I can tell.

Phoebe said...


1) Agreed that high-fashion models would not typically be seen as beautiful in other contexts. Often this is voiced as a complaint - 'why don't models fit what straight men would find hot?' Their flat-chestedness alone tends to take them out of the running. But isn't it almost better that there are at least two standards of socially-approved beauty (setting aside of course subjective beauty), that of runway models and that of conventional attractiveness in the real world? Is it so tragic that the obese don't walk the runways, when we consider that neither could the vast majority of conventionally attractive women? In a sense, having an absurd standard for fashion models, unattainable to most women and undesirable to most men, takes the pressure off.

2) I promise that standing next to someone blond, blue-eyed, not quite so pale, and a foot taller than myself, I scream Ashkenazi. But my nose is nothing remarkable, so those without much of a sense of what Jews look like aside from 'aren't they the ones with the noses?' would be unimpressed.

PG said...

I don't understand why people get so het up about the bodies of runway models, except to the extent those people are concerned for the physical and psychological health of the models themselves (particularly in light of how many are under 18). The runway model's job is to make the clothes look good rather than stupid. If she is traffic-stoppingly beautiful herself, that threatens the amount of attention that will be paid to the clothing. I would be concerned about racism in modeling because anyone of any race is in theory capable of having the proper body structure for being a human clothes hanger.

I'm much less interested in who gets picked to model than I am in what's picked to go onto models. If a designer is brilliant only at making clothes that look good on 6 ft flat-chested Slavic teenagers, then his work is essentially irrelevant to my life except inasmuch as the combination of clothes and teenager are aesthetically interesting. (And as the visual arts go, couture is the second least-interesting to me. First place goes to dance.)

Phoebe said...


"I would be concerned about racism in modeling because anyone of any race is in theory capable of having the proper body structure for being a human clothes hanger."

In theory, yes, and things sometimes seem to be moving in that direction. But the relative absence of models of color is not necessarily a deisgner's statement about not finding women of all races 'beautiful.' If the idea is for models to be basically invisible, racial diversity poses a problem both because it means the models are no longer uniformly pale, blonde 'canvases', and, more importantly, because it suggests the models are, you know, human beings, individuals, etc., which we're not supposed to acknowledge. We shouldn't be surprised to see models of color, but the fact that we are (and this 'we' is neither you nor me but an implied ignorant viewer of fashion images) means that we will start thinking about larger questions of justice, both regarding race off the runways and other types of diversity amongst the models, and will lose interest in the clothes. Then again, even this not-so-progressive 'we' is by now long since accustomed to seeing racial diversity in other forms of media, such that an all-white runway is almost more startling than one that is not.

"I'm much less interested in who gets picked to model than I am in what's picked to go onto models."

This is why I prefer street- or personal-fashion blogs to either high-fashion blogs or the fashion mags. It helps to see an outfit in combination with a body that doesn't give every outfit the benefit of the doubt.

PG said...

"If the idea is for models to be basically invisible, racial diversity poses a problem both because it means the models are no longer uniformly pale, blonde 'canvases', and, more importantly, because it suggests the models are, you know, human beings, individuals, etc., which we're not supposed to acknowledge."

But traditionally not all runway models have been blond, or even the same kind of blond. There always have been some variations of coloring among models, just as among ballerinas; the notion that the racially-tied variation of skin color is the particular difference that will throw it all off is implausible.

Phoebe said...

There isn't much of a "traditionally" when it comes to runway models - the Supermodel Era of the 1990s encouraged models to be both bigger than they are today (but still, of course, thin) and more distinctive-looking, thus the greater diversity, both in the race-sense of diversity and in the brunettes/blondes/redheads sense. Today, however, the sandy-to-pale-blonde Slavic/Nordic range, along with not only white models but white models, as in, no tan, is fairly if not 100% standard.