Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
"Oh gawd," I groaned to a friend who was also a die-hard liberal "Masshole." "Did you see the pictures of Scott Brown nude in Cosmo?" She had not. "He's all smooth chesty and naked!" I said using a tone unnervingly close to the judgey, incredulous one my mother perfected in my adolescence: "That's what you're wearing?" "You really think bangs are a good idea?" Clearly, I did not consider this foray into modeling a selling point for the young, hotshot Republican vying for Ted Kennedy's senate seat.
Brown was a 22-year-old, dewy-eyed Boston University law school student when he won Cosmo magazine's "America's Sexiest Man" contest in 1982. Brown was photographed naked for the magazine's centerfold, but the spread also included shots of him blue-jeaned and shirtless as well as one depicting the future senator casually strolling along the beach in his briefs. There was something smarmy and decidedly un-senatorial about the photographs, I thought; there was a Ryan Gosling-esque layer of kitsch to them, "Hey girl, I like cuddling by a campfire and fiscal responsibility," that demeaned the image of a person sent to Washington to argue for lower taxes and better job creation. I should have been stuck on his political positions, but instead I was stuck on his abs, which had no place on the campaign trail. At the time, I did not know why I felt so antagonistic toward a job Brown accepted when he was a twenty-something student struggling to make ends meet like everyone else. At the time, I did not have Cameron Russell's TEDTalk, "Looks Aren't Everything. Believe Me, I'm a Model" to put my prejudice in a new perspective.
Unhealthy lifestyles abound. The privilege that comes from her racial and physical make-up underlies a sense of personal shame and discomfort. It takes a village to raise a model -- from make-up artists and fashion designers to computer editors and lighting technicians -- there is no room for organics in this business. -- Sheila Moeschen
Russell worked as a fashion model for high-end magazines and beauty brands such as Victoria Secret and Chanel for more than twenty years. In her talk, she candidly discusses the unseemly aspects of working in the beauty industry. Unhealthy lifestyles abound. The privilege that comes from her racial and physical make-up underlies a sense of personal shame and discomfort. It takes a village to raise a model -- from make-up artists and fashion designers to computer editors and lighting technicians -- there is no room for organics in this business. These are not revelations. But then Russell makes the following comment: "After you've done a few jobs and have a resume, you can't say anything anymore. You can say 'I want to be president of the United States,' but if your resume reads 'underwear model, ten years,' people give you a funny look." I found that statement more illuminating that Russell's demonstration of a "walking shot," which actually has nothing to do with walking at all. There is a tension Russell alludes to inherent in the lives of people commodified by their bodies and looks. Models, certain celebrities, and even athletes to a certain extent become disposable bodies in the way they provide visual pleasure, prop up goods and services, or reinforce unrealistic standards of beauty that drive qualities such as success and happiness. As a society, we elevate the people who service the image industry while also releasing them from the obligation to utilize (or even possess) a full range of skill sets. After all, they're not real people. They get paid to look beautiful, not to do actual work like teaching our kids or growing our food.
Thus, the law of the beauty empire dictates that Scott Brown cannot be model and political material. Scott Brown served a not-entirely-disastrous term (Sorry! Liberal Masshole, remember?) for the people of Massachusetts and will likely remain engaged in politics. I bought into the restrictive "either/or" identity construction that Russell points out when I felt Brown's photo shoot undermined his legitimacy as a political candidate. And part of that had to do with perceiving him as a disposable body, as lacking professional substance simply because of his association with the modeling world. This upholds a harmful precedent, one that is especially detrimental to women who must consistently prove their value and push against narrow definitions of that value in any industry.
By continuing to obscure this line of thinking, we become part of a different facet of the body image and beauty culture problem. Criticism over the practice of Photoshopping images, dangerous dieting, or undergoing extreme physical transformations are all, in some sense, more easily addressed than the stickier task of changing our collective perception as we flip through the pages of a magazine to see more than just an underwear model, but maybe, a surgeon, a teacher, a graphic designer, or even a future president.
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