A Moment of Jen
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Wednesday, January 21, 2004
posted by Jen at 1/21/2004 02:05:00 PM

A confused reader writes: how can you decry Olivia Goldsmith's death as a result of cosmetic surgery and love America's Next Top Model?

Herewith, a half-dozen answers.

1. I'm confused!

2. And maybe not a very good person.

3. But I can still adore a show about a bunch of bitchy, ditzy, conniving, sass-talking, backstabbing women who range from skinny to....really skinny give themselves fits as they strive to please a panel of judges who keep changing their minds about what they want.

Far from enforcing the soul-crushing "all women must look like this to be deemed attractive and loveable" notions, the show actually -- and maybe accidentally -- works to undermine and expose the shifting and ultimately arbitrary notion of what constitutes beauty. Is it a busty blond? Nope. At least not last week. A waifish pixie? Mmmmaybe, although my beloved Elyse lost last season. Is it a couture body? A sportswear runway walk? Is it wafer-thin, bespectacled, beady-eyed Shandi, who looks like Big Bird with better hair? Could be.

Of course, the show does hew to the damaging, dangerous scripture that thin equals pretty. The the notion of what constitutes plus size in the world of America's Next Top Model is a joke. Anna, who got the boot in Week One, and Robin, the alleged big girl from last season, are actually on the thin side of average when compared to the rest of the world. Ditto poor short Jenascia, a mere five foot seven! A stump!

But if you can set that aside (a big if, I know) and watch the ANTM critically, what the show ultimately says is that there are no absolutes to good looks; that beauty is a social construct, a line in the sand that gets drawn, erased, and redrawn each week, according to the whims of Tyra, Janice, et al..

Female viewers -- big, short, black, white, and places in between -- ought to derive a certain measure of comfort from that.

4. Another way the show inadvertantly deconstructs contemporary notions of beauty is by showing the gap between image and reality. To wit: we see the contestants without makeup, shlumping around the loft in their sweatpants. And then we see the end result of photo shoots where they have the benefit of makeup, stylists, professional lighting, expert photographers, and editors who crop and retouch the finished product. It's something worth remembering -- not even Cindy Crawford in real life looks like Cindy Crawford on a magazine cover, after she's been made up, styled, lit, cropped, edited, and had a few inches airbrushed off her thighs.

5. Reality TV shows are hardly ever about what they say they are. The point of The Apprentice, from the audience's point of view, isn't who gets the job. The point of Survivor isn't who could actually make it on a desert island. It's the friction, the cat-fights, the meltdowns along the way as the contestants muddle along in the televised version of the real world. It's the personalities, and ANTM serves 'em up steamy.

6. I don't object to the idea that models have to look a certain way to succeed as models. What I strenuously object to is the notion that writers have to look like models in order to succeed as writers. If the show were called America's Next Top Writer, and it included a segment where the wannabes all got weighed, measured and waxed in their quest for a two-book deal and a spread in Jane, you can bet I'd object. Unless, of course, one of the contestants was Jonathan Franzen. And the waxing really, really hurt.

All that being said, I'm not sure I'd let a twelve-year-old girl watch America's Next Top Model unless she'd read The Beauty Myth first.

We don't have to worry about Lucy quite yet. Although I'm a little worried that she'll refuse to learn how to walk unless we get J. Alexander down here to teach her how.
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