I Like 'Em All Shapes and Sizes: "Transgressive" Beauty in America's Next Top Model

Curator's Note

It’s no secret that America’s Next Top Model is, in large part, about Tyra Banks:  from her desire to serve as council to young girls experiencing a form of heightened reality to the frequent intrusion of personal projects (e.g., Tyra as photographer, Tyra as singer, Tyra’s epiphany about homelessness, etc.), Tyra’s presence is felt throughout the show. In the most recent cycle, Tyra asked a crop of competing all-stars to shoot a video for her latest project, Modelland.

Ostensibly aimed at a generation of girls plagued by doubts about themselves and their bodies, Modelland fits firmly within Tyra Banks’ stated intention of challenging the dominant notions of beauty.

Although the book’s main character Tookie, like the contestants on America’s Next Top Model, is undoubtedly altered for the better by her brush with “real” models, transformative agency—the power to change—continues to be located in an outside institution. We do a disservice to our populations of interest by focusing solely on the gains made and foregoing the process by which this makeover occurs; we nobly envision the “what” but entirely forget about the “how.” Moreover, despite the potential feeling of empowerment experienced by the young women under Tyra’s eye on America’s Next Top Model, the fact remains that actual power is controlled and conferred by a system that is far beyond their current demonstrated scope. Those who appear on America’s Next Top Model may hold a fleeting interest for fashion and introducing alternative body shapes to the mass audience is certainly part of the process, but we must also ask ourselves the extent to which these efforts challenge viewers, industry, and culture to meaningfully redefine the conceptualization of beautiful. What Tyra hopes for is a consideration of aesthetics, economic forces, and values regarding women’s bodies but her efforts demonstrate a clear inability to actually engage us in such an endeavor.



I think you bring up some very interesting points, and I agree that Tyra continually enforces her presense in ANTM (it is her show after all, so perhaps that's why we let her). However, in regards to your point about how Tyra's efforts to have us reconsider aesthetics etc., I wonder if Tyra's own background/career and look in modeling might automatically discount her in some minds. Because Tyra is a beautiful model, this fact, although I'd hate to say it, might rule out any efforts she might make about having us reconsider women's bodies and aesthetics. 

You bring up a really interesting point. Often Tyra states she focuses on all kinds of beauty, yet she often puts some of these models in difficult and unrealistic settings. Is it really fair to pit plus size models against "traditional" sized models. These models may interact in certain venues, but often not in the way the are portrayed on her show.

In addition, she has also selected models with medical conditions which may actually prevent them from having a "Top Model" career. For instance, one contestant was going blind, another contestant had issues with fainting, and some have eating disorders. While it is great to feature these models, are there any success stories from them.

In almost every cycle of the show, we see the models who are different than the modeling norm slowly get picked off one by one in favor of the traditional model. We also see models get eliminated for gaining or losing weight. Ultimately what message does this send to young women viewers.

If Tyra truly wants to meaningfully redefine the conceptualization of beautiful, she needs to make vast changes to her show. Have even more diverse casting or focus cycles on plus size girls, actually send them on go sees to designers who design for their body type, and provide healthy lifestyle settings and guidelines for them.

What Tyra says she stands for and what Top Model demonstrates are two separate things.

Julie mentions the potentially damaging message to young women from non-normative models being quickly eliminated. I wonder the same things about what is sometimes an alternate strategy of compartmentalizing non-normative beauty in different shows or publications (such as Black Vogue or the Curvy Girls reality show). It seems like we can do better. I suspect that defenders of the show will point toward the "plus-sized" winner of cycle 10. Setting aside the question of her being "plus-sized," it seems like a very small gain that is overshadowed by so many other examples.

I am curious about Chris' thoughts on process vs. product and would like to know more about that distinction. Do you see the "how" as more problematic than the "what"?




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