Confession / by Michelle Cowan

Okay, I confess. I have seen every season of America’s Next Top Model. I have also seen several seasons of Top Model shows from other countries. Yes, yes, it’s true. The positive body image princess secretly consumes hours of not-so-trend-bucking beauty stereotypes. I swore I would say no to this season. But boredom intervened.

I have maligned myself for this interest too long. Time to replace shame, fear, and confusion with curiosity. Curiosity always seems like a good way to go. Why am I interested in this show? Why do I watch it? After thinking about this question, I highly encourage all of you to do the same.

What do we think is beautiful, and why do we think it’s beautiful? First, let me describe a little about how I feel about the beauty of people who I meet in person, as opposed to images in the media.

When I meet women who are very thin, thinner than me, I am a little let down and a little repulsed, actually. Women whose veins stick out of their heads, with jaws as sharp as blades, bother me. A woman can be thin and still be soft; a slender softness belongs to people who are naturally slim. However, on other skinny women, I see bones clearly aching for some skin.

Now, I realize that this feeling I have is clearly judging based on appearance alone. How a person looks, whether thin or fat, is no indication of what lies within. But can I just say that SOMETIMES, sometimes a body can indicate something deeper about the owner. Honestly, I meet women who are so frenetic—they can’t sit down, they’re worried about what others think, and they take such meticulous care of their bodies—that I can practically feel their own restriction.

I know that they are holding themselves in. They are tightly controlling and managing their lives, the same way I do. Seeing someone else wearing my tendencies is difficult. I want to tell them to let loose, that the women I most respect move with a deliberation, have a spaciousness to them, and a softness. I respect the beauty of those who fully inhabit their bodies rather than simply ensuring that their bodies are physically acceptable. Women who use their bodies in a holistic way are usually more adept and feeding it properly, giving it adequate rest, while also moving it enough to keep themselves energized. I want to inhabit my body that way.

In person, I expect people to come in all sizes, and beauty truly does flow from within. People who are comfortable in their bodies, no matter how big or small, glow. Their energy isn’t focused primarily on concerns related to physical appearance, so they have more to offer the world. That is the kind of beauty I want.

Then, I turn on Top Model. The joy of judging clicks on even higher, and all my standards of beauty morph into their opposites. I forget that he jaggedness of thin models is smoothed away by airbrushing, and that models who aren’t thin enough get slimmed down. My idea of big and small completely changes, and I wonder why girls who look like me are even in the competition.

My paradoxical approach to beauty in different formats shocks me and guides me toward this investigation of why we think certain things are beautiful and in what context.

Beauty trends started decades ago in person or in media have now continued and evolved, placing us where we are: in a time when media images no longer reflect reality in the least. Even the most perfect among us aren’t perfect enough. What is ugly in person is desirable in a magazine. Women who look like my friends have no place in leading roles on the big or small screen. We will never measure up.

Despite all my feelings about bodies and beauty in person, my standards for a “model” or for what I should see in a fashion editorial are completely non-human. This is the very reason why alien-esque girls rise over and over again to the top model ranks. We have been trained to think that bodies that look completely unlike any person we’ve ever met belong in the pages of Vogue, not people who look like me or my friends.

And as long as we keep looking at those images, a piece of us will think people are supposed to look that way. We are too diverse a species for that. I want people to stop paying attention to media images (fat chance, I know!) and realize that soft can be beautiful. Not every muscle must be toned. Hair can be matted. Teeth can be less than white. Hourglass or twig are not the only shapes.

Back to my obsession with model-making shows. Why do we pick THESE girls as being beautiful? What gets them kicked off the show? What is not good enough? How is each contestant different? Why do we like different things about each? Why is one thing okay for one person and not for another? What is perfect? Why do we have these ideas? And who is feeding us these ideas? Why do we really like or dislike these shows and the characters in them?

I applaud organizations like Dove and all the many, more localized efforts to place people who look a little more human in their ads. I have nothing against models in general. But by the time pictures of them have gone through dozens of rounds of production, the model herself doesn’t even measure up to her own perfect picture. And even though I have no hatred of the actors on television, I do have a problem with the fact that body types that match only a tiny percentage of our world’s population make up the vast majority of what is projected on television. The world the media has constructed only vaguely resembles our own.

My project is to fill my mind with images of real people. This requires getting out and meeting them, of course, but my own sanity is worth the annoyances of human interaction. By noticing natural beauty more often, I can remember what is real and what I truly admire. And those traits have nothing to do with how a person looks. Perhaps by feeding myself with more and more of the real, I could even lessen my in-person skinny prejudice. The world is much less one-sided than our media depicts.