When I was growing up, people would sometimes tell me I should be a model. Later, when I began watching America’s Next Top Model, I realized those people had no idea what they were talking about. And I kind of hated them for ever wishing something like that on me.
Okay, okay. So a reality show about modeling probably isn’t the best insight into the industry, but while it turned me off, utterly and completely, to the idea of ever modeling (first because I don’t want to live like that but second because I look nothing like that), it’s undoubtedly doing just the opposite for countless young women around the country.
For those that haven’t seen ANTM (oh god, I’m an acronym-fan) each season is pretty much the same. A group of women, somewhere between the ages of 18 and 24 compete in modeling challenges and photo shoots. Some weeks the challenges result in prizes for the winner, and every week, someone gets sent home. When only six girls remain, the show moves to a foreign country, where the remaining photo shoots and challenges are mostly culture-themed. A winner is ultimately chosen after the two finalists appear in an actual fashion show. The winner is rarely heard from again, and is always much more recognized as America’s Next Top Reality Winner rather than America’s Next Top Model. In reality, the show is much more about Tyra Banks than any of the girls.
That the show has yet to produce a top model has never annoyed me nearly so much as the silliness and, sometimes, offensiveness of it, yet for some reason, I watched 17 of the 19 seasons (I’m sorry—cycles). In undergrad, I remember skipping a day of classes to stay home with my roommate and watch an all-day marathon. A few years later, I tweaked my work and social schedule so that I could be home with my mom and sister to watch each new episode. I stopped watching after the all-start cycle (cycle 17), after my least favorite contestant ever won, and I’m more than a little embarrassed and ashamed that it took me that long.
The show is the epitome of stupid and absurd. When cycle 17 went to Greece, they had the girls pose in a life-sized Greek salad (and handed them a bottle of olive oil to pour on themselves). Seriously. Out of everything Greek-related they could have chosen, they went for a mix of pseudo-porn, awkwardly sized vegetables, and humiliation. The girls have also posed in meat underwear, in life-sized birds nests, and as crime scene victims, which actually transitions us to offensive photo shoots. Not once—but twice!—Tyra had the girls pose as different races. On some cycles they’re told to be sexy, but on others looking sexy will get them sent home. If there’s a topless or nude shoot and that makes a girl uncomfortable, if it goes against her values or religious beliefs, she had better be prepared to just suck it up and be an object, or she’ll be sent home. Early on in each cycle the girls receive makeovers, and any attempt to voice their own opinions on how they would like to look can get them sent home. On this show, you do what you’re told. All in the name of fashion!
I can only imagine what this show is doing to self-perception among its viewers. As a feminist, I’m aware of the type of issues sparked by the show—how it glamorizes a certain body type; its approaches to living and eating healthy (hint: there’s never an excuse for an Oreo, and if you’re not taking the bun off your burger, you’ve got a problem); how it glamorizes violence, hyper-sexuality, eating disorders; the way it shows that losing your agency is just something you have to do to succeed as a woman; etc.—I see all of these problems, and yet I still feel myself falling into their traps. Each time I watch the show and I feel fat and ugly. I know I’m not, but I still can’t shake the feeling. If this is happening to me, what is happening to ten-year-old girls who are watching (studies show that 80% of girls that age have already tried dieting)?
The show is preparing to start its 20th season in a few months. This new cycle will feature both female and male models, and viewers will be allowed to vote on who they think should stay and who they think should go. I won’t be voting; I won’t be watching.