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Supermodel Cameron Russell and the gene pool lottery

By January 21, 2013 6 Comments

“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.

Still shot of Cameron Russell during TED talk.

Cameron Russell unpacks beauty privilege in her recent TedX Talk “Image is Powerful,” which recently went viral on the internet.

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.

Modeling shot of Cameron Russell in bathing suit, on beach.

Russell acknowledges that her success as a model is largely due to her “winning a genetic lottery” and fitting the American beauty ideal.

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.