Maybe I’m a jerk, but I had some trouble working up any sympathy for the model profiled in this front-page WSJ story today. The story details an aspiring American model’s trip to Milan, where the competition is fiercer than in America, where visa restrictions moderate it: “After four days and no bookings, Ms. Gomez was devastated. She sat outside the Milan office of her agency’s partner firm, and cried. ‘I hate it here,’ she said. ‘They don’t treat models as humans.’ ” It’s sad to see her disillusioned, but what business did she think she was trying to break into? Of course they don’t treat you like a human: The whole point of modeling is to objectify yourself so that clothes can be promoted and sold. Treating one another like humans isn’t going to sell fashion products, which thrive on insecurity, class contempt, status hierarchy and egotism — in other words, on our capacity for inhumanity. This is probably what happens though when someone realizes the sales potential of your looks; you are encouraged to exploit yourself, and self-exploitation seems like such an oxymoronic conundrum that you probably don’t believe it’s happening until you find yourself crying in some foreign city and wondering why no one respects you. It seems that girls noticed as beautiful can become stunted by the recognition, which sends a powerful message that the inner you will have little to do with what you can accomplish. The temptation to disappear into one’s body must be strong. (Anyway, this is why it always freaks me out when I see adults praise little girls for how pretty they look; it’s a compliment to how compliant they were when they were dressed like a mannequin.) By the end of the article, Gomez has learned her lesson — blame yourself for the inhumanity and do a better job of objectifying yourself more completely: ” ‘I need to try my hardest and not let anything get in my way,’ says Ms. Gomez. ‘Even if you are having a bad day, put a big smile on your face and act like nothing fazes you.’ “
Apparently globalization has made the modeling business much tougher: “Supply has soared, as aspirants from developing countries stampede into the field. At last season’s New York’s fashion week, the quintessentially American design house of Calvin Klein didn’t send a single American down its catwalk. Twelve of the 22 chosen were from Russia and Eastern Europe.” And as one humanitarian in the fashion industry notes, “The Brazilians and Eastern Europeans are hungrier.” (That comment works on many levels, when you think about it — these Brazilian and Russian models are more eager to be objectified because they come from developing economies and literally can’t afford as much food as Americans? Or does it mean they are simply starving themselves more effectively?)
Also, models no longer garner the covers of fashion magazines, so far fewer of them are becoming celebrities in their own right — they are back to being anonymous pieces of attractive flesh that don’t distract us from the expensive clothes hanging on them, which makes them much more disposable to the industry. According to the article, the average modeling career lasts two years, which puts them somewhere close to their male counterparts, pro football players, who likewise sacrifice their bodies for a diverting but ultimately pointless spectator sport.