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Tyra's Tyranny of Beauty

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Tyra Banks is making her move from super model to televangelist. This week we learned her talk show and her America's Next Top Model reality TV juggernaut are part of God's plan. She says she was "put on this earth to instill self-esteem in young girls." How? You don't need to look far during Sex and the City's blockbuster opening week to see that the church of beauty has a bit of a hold on our culture and one or two associated costs. And Tyra's new gospel is as seductive and uplifting as stilettos -- it offers curve absolution and beauty redemption.

Her secret is to reject the powerful but unpopular Church of Thinness and Diets. And look no further than the tabs to find out the recent sinners and saints. The cover of Us magazine announces that Christina Aguilera lost 40 pounds in the four months since giving birth. Her breasts are so large! Her waist is so small! Her husband is so "amazed"! She'll be sainted for sure, if she does as the article commenters suggest and abstains from trashy clothing sins.

Another top story in Us this week is about how Gwyneth Paltrow works out for three hours a day to achieve her figure. She showed off her thin, "enviably long" and muscular legs in a series of miniskirts and heels in her promo tour for the movie Iron Man. She was on the verge of losing her canonization (earned for her past microscopic -- oops, I mean macrobiotic diet) due to several years spent as a "contented earth mother," but her recent physical display has again enshrined her spot.

"I don't care if my daughter knows about celebs," said one friend of mine of her five-year-old, "just not the skinny ones." She says tanorexic celebs are destructive because they seem popular and happy to kids who don't understand what the real costs are. Malnourished bodies, fragile psyches and guilt abound when Heaven is closed to all over size two.

Enter Tyra, whose most famous exhortation is "kiss my fat ass," which she famously declared a couple of years ago. While shooting America's Next Top Model in Australia, she was photographed in her bathing suit, in an unflattering way, and the tabloids went crazy.

In this weekend's article, Tyra proudly shared another personal parable. When she was a model, her agent told her mother, who was her manager, that Tyra wasn't booking jobs because she was gaining weight. "They say you're too curvy. Let's go order pizza," said her mom.

It's a message that understandably draws many disciples, including Whitney Thompson, the winner of the most recent America's Next Top Model contest, hosted by Banks. Thompson has publicly said she's a size 14 and proud of it, because "this is what people look like!", so it's what models should look like and what people in general should celebrate.

This sounds liberating -- the doors to this beauty church are open to everyone! And women in chat rooms and comments sections are celebrating. But what most people don't talk about is that though Tyra seems to offer a pass on weight, the tradeoff is a long and growing list of commandments that cost both time and dollars. Banks' religion -- her path to self esteem -- is a little thing known as the Beauty Industrial Complex.

America's Next Top Model is, after all, a contest where young women's only weapons are makeup, hair, clothing, shoes, facial expressions and poses. After their initial mega style metamorphosis, on most episodes, the women are again "plucked and dyed and manicured into shiny new beings." Unlike traditional pageants, the interviews don't even count.

No winner has actually gone on to be successful in the modelling industry, but the number of faithful watchers grows as do the take-away lessons. It's the most successful show on the CW network, shown in over 100 countries, and will be starting it's 11th 13-episode season soon.

In this church of Tyra, consumption has no costs and many benefits. If you learn the catechism and make the proper offerings to the gods every morning as you stand before your mirror, then self-esteem and personal power can be your reward. If you don't buy enough clothes or do your hair and makeup right, life punishes your for your failings.

I prefer to count myself among the beauty agnostics.

I think it's pretty well established that under-eating has serious mental and physical health consequences. And that over-consumption of various kinds -- food, clothing, fossil fuels -- has pretty serious human and planetary health consequences, too. So although I feel the pull of both of them, I'm looking for a beauty religion with fewer barbs.

How about Michael Pollan's diet instead: "Eat [local, fresh] food. Not too much. Mostly plants." And, I dunno, how about biking to work or a jog after instead of three-hour workouts with personal trainers?

And while I like clothes and shoes far more than I should, I'd really rather not spend several hours a day on grooming and dressing, then several more hours shopping for the next day in order to measure up. That kind of beauty can be fun and all, but I have a few other things to do.

I'm hoping to find beauty nirvana with an (organic, local) carrot, not a big (lip)stick. Tyra can kiss my agnostic behind.

This post was originally published on The Tyee.

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