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Supermodel Cameron Russell and the gene pool lottery

“Young girls shouldn’t aspire to be models.” Most people wouldn’t expect these words of advice to come from one of the most successful models of the year, but last week, Cameron Russell, a Columbia University grad and successful supermodel, appeared on CNN to discuss her TedX Talk that recently went viral, “Image is Powerful.”

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Claiming that modeling is 98% one’s genetics and 2% hard work — in other words, primarily luck — Russell expressed concern over how many young girls aspire to be models, publicly critiquing the prevalence of beauty privilege in American culture.

In the TedX Talk, Russell made it clear that she actively enjoys her career as a model; she has been “wildly successful” and has received ample compensation for her work.

However, Russell primarily cites her success as a product of beauty privilege. She reflected, “You have to win a genetic lottery to become a model… You have no control over that.”

Russell’s candid honesty is refreshing. Because she is one of the “beauty-privileged,” her comments add an air of legitimacy to the debate around the benefits of attractiveness that so few individuals are willing to discuss.

Russell’s talk also drew attention to the severity of the digital alterations made upon her own photos.

She juxtaposed photos of herself on the soccer team and at a sleepover — real life photos in which she looks “dorky and normal” — with the Photoshopped images that appeared in Victoria’s Secret, French Vogue, and V Magazine. The stark differences between the two were shocking.

Even though Russell seems to perfectly fit America’s “ideal beauty standard” — white, slim, longhaired, and straight-toothed – the magazines still felt it necessary to photoshop the images. “These pictures are not pictures of me,” says Russell. “They are constructions… I wanted little girls to see that in real life, nobody looks like that.

This is a message young girls do not hear often enough, especially from models themselves. Russell’s appearance on CNN, making public the prevalence of digitally altered images, is a very positive force against a media that relentlessly shames girls and women for their bodily “imperfections.”

Russell’s talk is monumental for a slew of reasons. First of all, she puts the debate about beauty privilege front and center, and in doing so, opens the door for future models and non-models alike to do the same.

She says, “For the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we’re biologically programmed to admire, but also tall, slender figures, and femininity, and white skin.”

She acknowledges that talking about one’s beauty may be awkward, but is necessary if we want to deconstruct the privileges — and lack of privileges — that a beauty-obsessed culture can create.

Second of all, Russell is not afraid or ashamed to show her audience real, unaltered photographs of herself.

In fact, she enjoys doing so; she is happy to have the opportunity to show young girls that images in magazines and advertisements are “constructions,” and, as such, are not aspiration-worthy.

Russell acknowledges the elephant in the room: she says, without hesitation, “nobody looks like that.” If more models and celebrities gracing the pages of advertisements and pop culture magazines had the guts to do what Russell did, imagine the possibilities!

Drastically Photoshopped images, like those Russell presented, would look ridiculous because audiences would have “real” photos for comparison.

Audiences would humanize models, applauding them for their honesty and recognizing their natural beauty, “flaws” and all. And, most importantly, girls and young women would not degrade themselves for failing to live up to an unrealistic, unattainable standard of “beauty.”

Russell’s not just a model — she’s a role model. And hopefully her viral talk will prompt more women to be the same.

Hailey Magee is a Women’s and Gender Studies and Politics double major at Brandeis University. Her foremost interests include media literacy and empowerment of young girls. Hailey hopes to one day pursue a career in the political arena and become an advocate for gender equality.

6 thoughts on “Supermodel Cameron Russell and the gene pool lottery

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  1. That’s all very well, however I doubt models are really winners if “a genetic lottery” . It’s arrogant of her to say that. Most models are really pretty average white girls who starve themselves which accentuates their cheekbones etc. She said herself they don’t look like they do in magazines and most of it it’s photoshop. And while she does look beautiful and there are some fantastically gorgeous models out there I wouldn’t put it down to “98% genetic lottery, 2% hard work.”

  2. Why are people not acknowledging what is right in front their face, that it is height. If she had that face and was only 5’2 as I am, she would not be in this priviledged occupation or have anywhere near the astronomical pay for her time and work as she gets now.
    There are many pretty females around who are only average height or shorter and they do not live a priviledged existence because they are prettier than the average person. In other words, it is height that decides whether you have won the genetic lottery. Even a 3″ difference between 5’7 and 5’10 can matter.

    People don’t acknowledge that very TALL and pretty women have it made. Often getting better job opportunities beyond just the modeling profession and are also more apt to be promoted to supervisory positions within a shorter space of time. To reiterate HEIGHT is the key to winning this unacknowledged by society yet mysterious ‘genetic lottery’ as Ms Russell aptly labeled it.

  3. A lot of it is height, but that’s mostly for high fashion models. I’m 5’2 and have gotten promo and commercial modeling work.

    But I disagree with Kat that “most models are average who starve themselves.” Many women are in fact born with those cheek bones and other features that can never be acquired other than genetically, unless you get some serious surgery done.

  4. I thought it was very sad that even someone as conventionally pretty as Cameron Rusell would feel insecure. It makes you want to yell, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS WORLD?!” We have children starving themselves near to death, and being fat is our country’s main concern?

    I found the photo comparisons to be very striking, and understand why some men don’t understand why women would want to aspire to look that way. It’s partly portraying a fantasy, but it also just makes a model look alien. It’s so rare we see images of women normally, that now when we do see one we’re struck by the novelty of it and how beautiful women look in reality.

    Also it would be hard for most people to differentiate some of those photos from something pornographic. Yes sex sells, but if you’re going to sell sex at least have the woman look close to natural, instead of all this eyeliner and lipstick. It’s become so ridiculous now with photoshop, that it’s looking like we’re never going to see a natural realistic woman portrayed in ads again. The uncanny valley never has and never will be sexy.

    In regards to inherited cheek bones, David Bowie has been blessed with amazing cheek bones, it’s genetics not weight.

  5. Insecurity is part of the human condition, the reasons for our insecurities may vary, but no one is completely immune.

  6. Kat it is genetic lottery. If it wasn’t, why don’t they let short ugly girls model?Or even short pretty girls? There are plenty of gorgeous females much better looking than her even, that will never be on the cover of vogue because they are too short.

    That is genetics, not every person has Dna that allows them to be gorgeous or tall. Not every female has small bone structure either.

    She is telling the truth and if we weren’t obsessed with looks, she wouldn’t be famous and we wouldn’t be talking about it.

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