Ugly Betty, Vogue & the art of modeling: what is the price to be the Next Top Model?

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While I love fashion and Ugly Betty (the two seem forever linked in my mind now…), there are many aspects of both which bother me.

First of all, the easy topic. Ugly Betty is a fantastic show about Betty, a young lady from Queens who gets a job as assistant to the editor-in-chief of Mode (fashion) Magazine. While Betty is pretty, her braces, lack of hairstyle and quirky fashion sense make her stand out like a sore thumb in the world of Mode, placing her in situations she would never have dreamed of and pitting her principles against the requirements of her job. What bothers me about the show is that they don’t give Justin, her nephew, enough importance. They made him have some small success and Mode and then, nothing. Then, he had a small rebellion and then… Yes, you guessed it. Nothing! Make him more prominent, I say!

And now, onto the second (harder topic). Art comes in many forms, and modeling is one of them. Contrary to popular belief, it is much more than posing in front of the camera (America’s Next Top Model has definitely shed a lot of light on that). From the clothes to the makeup, from the choice of backdrop to the lighting used, and finally from the model to the photographer, all these ingredients come together to produce a breathtaking picture that cannot be described as anything but art.

For years, arts have provided us with various ways of expressing ourselves. Many emotions that cannot be shared in other ways have been spread across the world through arts. We have been awed, shocked, inspired, moved and fascinated by art. It’s about emotions and feelings that leave us at a level that is a little higher than the one we were at before. Through art, we are called upon to express a higher manifestation of ourselves.

Try as we might, we cannot separate art from the society in which it is created. Considering the intense focus of today’s society on physical perfection, competition and materialism, can modeling truly be artistic and have no negative effects? Can we be detached from the model’s artificial perfection in a society obsessed with perfection?

The number of people (women and men alike) who suffer from eating disorders provides part of the answer; the low levels of self-esteem and the constant need for attention provides another, while the profits recorded by cosmetic companies provide yet another. There are individuals who are comfortable enough with themselves to not be unduly affected by artificial perfection portrayed through modeling. But as a whole, today’s society doesn’t seem to be able to deal with it.

Does the solution reside in banning modeling? Some critics have been very harsh, condemning the entire world of modeling, portraying it only as a money-making machine intent on destroying the spirit of youth by insisting that they are not at par with the standards of beauty as defined by models.

This position is unjust. The modeling world isn’t heartless; quite the contrary. Many efforts have been made recently to address various social issues, including this one. The most striking has been the various stands being taken on too thin models (here, here, here, here and here). While in itself, this isn’t enough, it’s definitely a good beginning – as long as magazines and fashion show producers don’t cheat (Ugly Betty fans will remember the episode in season 2 when Alexis, the editor-in-chief of Mode Magazine, invites the media to a weigh-in of the models that the magazine will use; Betty soon finds out that the scale has been rigged to add 20 pounds, making disturbingly think models make the cut).

It’s clear that the fashion world needs to do more or risk sinking under its own impossible-to-reach standards (has it already started?). Unfortunately, efforts made up to now are countered by those who play the part of the victim. They claim that concerns about the mental and physical health of youth under the pressure to achieve the artificial perfection portrayed through pictures of seemingly flawless models are for naught, that they are being harassed and their creativity is being limited. While it’s true that some methods of curbing the effect of modeling on youth have been unfair (such as last minute sanctions on fashion shows), it’s galling to hear these uncaring voices.

Attitudes like these make us forget what modeling is really about; rather than being inspiring, it has transformed into something we don’t even understand the original definition anymore. Part of the solution would be to somehow integrate the art of modeling (that has the potential to inspire) into the rehabilitation of a society obsessed with physical perfection. The real artists in the world of modeling will be the ones to rise up to this challenge, and take their art from just inspiring, sometimes for the wrong reasons, to becoming a tool to advance today’s society to a higher level.

And while the modeling world has its role to play, the solution doesn’t reside only within their hands. We each need to do our part, too. Maybe next year’s Blog Action Day could be a huge reflection on the topic of modeling… Then again, maybe not ;).

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