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Vivian Diller, Ph.D.

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Yes Sasha, Models Aren't Smiling for a Reason

Posted: 02/15/2011 3:07 pm

While watching one of the runway shows during Fashion Week, the inquisitive 3-year-old son of Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber apparently asked his dad this question; "Why do models look so unhappy?

Simple answer. Because most of them are. Modeling is generally not a very satisfying profession for most men and women, at least those who care about being authentically happy people. I say that from experience, having been a professional model -- with Wilhelmina in the late 70s, early 80s -- and now working with models who come to me for psychotherapy. I modeled while searching for what I wanted to do with the rest of my life -- a sentiment often heard among male and female models -- having ended my career as a professional ballet dancer. (Sasha, you can find a lot of unhappy Black Swans in that beautiful group too.) Although the modeling world has changed in certain ways since the glory days of the super model -- Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Lauren Hutton -- it's still largely about striving for unreal beauty, smiling for the camera and acting happy. I became a psychologist after leaving modeling, in part, because I was seeking a career, unlike ballet or modeling, that didn't end as you reached a certain age. Psychology was a profession I could get better at as I got older. It was all about the striving for authenticity and smiling only if you feel happy. Sometimes, it is even about making someone else happy. How refreshing.

One would think that the opportunities to make a ton of money and wear beautiful clothes would be a lot of fun. Okay, Sasha, I'll admit, those are the fun parts and I wouldn't trade some of my experiences for anything. And modeling paid for my education -- yes, after quitting ballet, I had to go back to get a college degree, a doctorate and a post doctorate degree to become a psychologist. Modeling paid for all of that and then some. And I got to meet interesting people, visit exotic places and participate in a bit of the glamorous life. But, all in all, the day-to-day work for most models is truly tedious, even demeaning.

You start your week with a list of go-sees (go and see a photographer, a magazine editor, a casting agent, an advertiser). You run around the city (N.Y., L.A., Milan, wherever) presenting yourself in person so people can have a 'look' at you. Sometimes you only need to send over your pictures -- your head shot or portfolio -- but basically you are there to be judged by others to see if you fit what they are looking for. Tall -- they have exact measurements in mind. Thin -- they are looking for an exact size to fit into, usually a zero, maybe a one. Sometimes they want cute and sweet. Sometimes they need sensual and voluptuous. Other times they are looking for a match with another model, so perhaps they need blond and blue, or brown and brown -- that's hair and eye color. Sometimes it's the ethnicity they specify; White, black, Hispanic -- each job has its own parameters. What you think or feel or who you are is irrelevant. And if you are fortunate to actually book jobs from these go-sees, bottom line, you are hired to be a mannequin, to be used by the clients for their need to sell a product.

How do the models you see on those glossy pages manage to look happy? They pretend. They may have been photographed on a beach in 30 degree weather wearing a bikini, but they smile. Or on that same beach wearing ski pants, fur hat and gloves in the middle of the summer and they smile. Clothespins and tape keep the clothes tightly fitted to their bodies. They have fans blowing in their faces for that windswept effect, then they are told to 'look' happy. Yes, for hours, they smile.

So, Sasha, you got it right. What you saw were models as they authentically are, behind the make up, the hair styles and the glamorous outfits designers chose to have them wear. And you got to see them live, walking the runway, where they get to be more themselves than the photoshopped models who grace our magazine covers. Runway models actually are told not to smile, to look serious, severe and aggressive. Strut strong, they are told. Wear these clothes with the confidence that people will buy what you are wearing no matter how expensive, or strange or well, downright unattractive they are. It's just the traditional runway look. Although a grueling experience -- any runway model will attest to the intensity behind the quick changes that have to go just right -- in some ways it's easier since it requires a bit less pretense. Models can be sad looking mannequins on the runway. As Sasha so intuitively noticed, they are free to look authentically unhappy while people applaud their performance.

Out of the mouth of babes. It's a wonder Sasha and others don't run away.

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com


 
 
 

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