Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
"I'm not on this stage because I'm a model. I'm on this stage because I'm a pretty white woman."
This is what Cameron Russell shared with the audience in her TEDTalk, "Looks Aren't Everything. Believe Me, I'm a Model."
"I'm a pretty white woman," is a strong statement. Issues of race, self-esteem, body image, judgment, comparison and self-actualization are all packed into this tiny little sentence. I believe the real power of this statement comes from Russell's self-labeling.
As a model, Russell talked about the pervasiveness of labels; she mentioned white models, black models, sexy girls and models of color. The label of being "pretty" might be more powerful than beauty itself.
Researchers at Stanford University had participants hand copy an image of a man placed in front of them. The image was of a man whose race was ambiguous. For 50 percent of the participants the man was labeled "white" and for 50 percent the man was labeled "black." The participants tried to copy the drawing as accurately as they could, but for the researchers found that students who saw the label "black" exaggerated "typically black" features in their drawing. The drawers who had the image labeled "white" did the opposite and emphasized "typically white" features.
This shows the power of labels. When we label someone as white or black, our brain looks to fit the pattern. What's more scary is that the damaging effect of labels crop up everywhere. Researchers, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson wanted to know how labels could affect children's academic success. At the beginning of a school year Rosenthal and Jacobson randomly chose a number of students and told their teachers that they were "academic bloomers" and had high promise for success. Again, these were randomly chosen students and not chosen based on actual aptitude. The so-called academic bloomers performed no differently from their fellow students. The students were also not told of this distinction.
At the end of the year Rosenthal and Jacobson compared the test scores of the students with the previous year's results. The students that were labeled "academic bloomers" scored 10-15 IQ points higher than their peers.
Simply telling a teacher that a student was an academic bloomer caused the teacher to pay them more attention and this actually increased the student's aptitude. The researchers saw that the teachers praised the bloomers more for successes, ignored mistakes and subconsciously devoted more of their time and energy to their achieving students -- even though there was no benefit to this. It was a subconscious reaction to these students being arbitrarily named "academic bloomers" at the beginning of the year.
If a woman labels herself or is labeled by others as "pretty" she can't avoid the stereotype that 'pretty' girls are also dumb. Many of the commenters on Russell's talk are 'amazed' that Russell could potentially be smart and pretty. -- Vanessa Van Edwards
The researchers also found that labeling actually primed the teacher's behavior to see academic progress in the student. When an academic bloomer got something right it 'fit the pattern' and when they got something wrong, 'it was an irregularity.
Russell's talk highlighted the pervasiveness of the labels within the modeling industry -- both the labels models give to themselves and the names the industry gives to girls. However, as the studies above show, labels limit us mentally. While 'white, pretty' models like Russell may benefit from their labels, other models of color, plus-size models or athletic models may suffer.
Most importantly, the "pretty" label is dangerous for women. If a woman labels herself or is labeled by others as "pretty" she can't avoid the stereotype that 'pretty' girls are also dumb. Many of the commenters on Russell's talk are 'amazed' that Russell could potentially be smart and pretty. Just her labeling herself as pretty by saying "I'm a pretty white woman" forces audience members, viewers and commenters to examine what else that label means and how it affects their perception of her.
Russell's point that beauty isn't everything is well taken, but maybe that's not the only idea that's limiting us. The act of segregating people into labels based on looks could be a far more dangerous issue.
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