A new documentary called Girl Model, which follows the path of 13-year-old Nadya, a self-proclaimed Siberian “gray mouse” and “ordinary girl” who gets plucked from a sea of other lithe hopefuls by an American mercenary model scout and sent to Japan to try to make it big, is making the rounds and winning accolades at prestigious festivals worldwide—and totally bumming me out.
Oh, I don’t take issue with the fact that the documentary film exists. Nope. My beef is that it verifies just how much our culture still promulgates the notion that for girls, being a model (or in many cases at least looking like one) is the be-all-and-end-all. The top. The best form of existence a woman could hope for. Of course, it’s an age-old myth, but ever since the heyday of the original supermodels of the ’80s and ’90s (Claudia! Christy! Cindy! Naomi! Linda!), it’s been increasingly intense.
It doesn’t matter how many exposés come out, or how many times Tyra cautions her America’s Next Top Model wannabes that modeling is hard work (they have to do bikini shoots in the winter, memorize lines to Cover Girl commercials and “smize” all the damn time, after all).
At this point two generations of women (Gen Xers and Millennials) have been brought up in a world where models are among the most celebrated and most financially well-off women in the world. So is it any wonder that many of them (cue Russian cattle call of skinny, fair teens) want it for themselves?
The first time I came across this passionate desire to model was with, well, myself actually. Growing up in New York City, just blocks from the Ford Models headquarters (which was home to Christie Brinkley, Carol Alt, Kim Alexis, and Cheryl Tiegs, to name a few), I noticed early that if a girl was able to say she was a model—to advertise that she had earned that cultural stamp of approval that meant she was certifiably beautiful—that she seemed more valuable.
Other girls wanted to be like her (even though they might have hated her) and most guys, of course, wanted to date her. So I set out on that path, too (Luckily, I learned early on in my modeling career that I didn’t like “playing a part,” which is, er, pretty much what models do… so I cut bait).
But when I landed as an editor at YM magazine in the late 1990s, I was shocked to learn (via e-mail and letters sent in that included photos of teen readers in their bathing suits, or even school portraits shot in bad lighting) how many other girls nationwide were dreaming the same dream.
One example still sticks with me today: it came from a reader who wrote in that she was quitting volleyball (her passion!) because she was worried that a ball could hit her face and ruin her chances of being discovered at the mall. She knew, she wrote, that Kate Moss had first been scouted at an airport and was hoping for similar good fortune.
The same sentiment came up time and again when I was talking to teens about modeling while researching my book All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty. In fact, it was in the voice of nearly every teen girl I spoke with. And is it really any surprise when their media diet has included shows like Paper Dolls (a 1984 nighttime soap that introduced Nicolette Sheridan) and Models Inc., the 1994 Melrose Place spin-off where Linda Gray–better known as Sue Ellen from Dallas–played an Eileen Ford-like model matriarch). Or reading books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Becoming a Model or The Modeling Life.
And let’s not forget to mention newer iterations like America’s Next Top Model (now in Cycle 18, people, if you can believe it) and its copycat spawn, like Bravo’s Make Me a Supermodel, TLC’s A Model Life, Oxygen’s The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, and VH1’s The Agency. Because the thing about all of these examples is that while they may purport to lay bare the ugliness that can exist in the industry, they still make us want it for ourselves, and want it bad.
It’s not rocket science to conclude that as long as the Gold Ring of being catapulted out of obscurity onto the global stage to enjoy all the money and affirmation one world can throw at you still exists, girls like Nadya (and their decision-making parents) will be willing to roll the dice in the hope of winning big. And should they actually make it, it’s probably a wild ride that most of us can’t fathom.
But what about the girls who don’t? Those who leave school at thirteen to try to make it big in Japan, or who quit volleyball and the other activities they love. What about all of us who live in a culture still brimming with messages about how valuable it is to look like, be like, or be a model? Sure, most of us end up escaping that desire, pursuing other goals and considering other women role models. But apparently a significant number still don’t—which is why there are enough girls to make a documentary about, and why Girl Model is garnering so much buzz.
Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty.