When I gave a talk at [TEDxMidAtlantic] in November, I thought that if I did a good job, the video might go viral. But I was still astonished when not only did it go viral, but also today it has 140,000 views while Colin Powell’s (who spoke at the same event) has only 2,700. He is an incredibly experienced and intelligent man. And yet our society’s obsession with celebrity and models means more people were interested in listening to my talk.
Afterwards I was invited to speak on CNN and written up in Jezebel and [The] Huffington Post, among others. I didn’t say anything groundbreaking. I haven’t done the profoundly impactful work many TED speakers have. And yet, people watch.
Why? I don’t know the answer to this entirely. From personal experience, nearly everyone I meet, be it young teenagers, flight attendants, academics, CEOs, actors, you name it, they all want to talk about modelling. And actually, here’s where I think the real power of modelling lies. Not in an ability to get wealthy people to buy expensive clothes, or news anchors to invite you onto their shows (these things can be powerful too). Modelling is a powerful platform because it engages people…
[Modelling] gave me the opportunity to talk about privilege and race on national television – topics most [Americans] are usually very uncomfortable discussing. Yet, they are easy topics to discuss when we talk about modelling. And since the CNN piece was posted yesterday, hundreds of people have engaged with what I said on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and elsewhere, and the clip has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
I hope that in the coming months and years I can figure out how to use my lottery ticket to make mass media that is more informed, more participatory and more responsible.
[As a model], these pictures are not pictures of me — they’re constructions. And they are constructions by a group of professionals — a hairstylist, a makeup artist, and photographers and stylists, and all of their assistants, and pre-production and post-production — and they build this. It’s not me.
Image is powerful…but also, image is superficial. Barring surgery (or the fake tan I got for work) there’s very little we can do to transform how we look. And how we look — although it is superficial and immutable — has a huge impact on our lives.
Today for me, being fearless means being honest. And I am on this stage because I’m a model — I’m on this stage because I am a pretty, white woman. In my industry we call that a ‘sexy girl.’
And I am going to answer the questions that people always ask me — but with an honest twist. The first question is, ‘How do you become a model?’ And I always just say, ‘Oh, I was scouted,’ but that means nothing. The real way that I became a model is I won a genetic lottery and I am the recipient of a legacy. And maybe you’re wondering. ‘What is a legacy?’ Well, 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 as tall, slender figures, and femininity, and white skin. And this a legacy that was built for me, and this is a legacy I’ve been cashing out on.
…People ask me, ‘What is it like to be a model?’ And I think the answer that they are looking for is that if you are a little bit skinnier and you have shinier hair, you will be so happy and fabulous. And when we’re backstage, we give an answer that maybe makes it seem like that: We say, ‘It’s really amazing to travel,’ and, ‘It’s amazing to get to work with creative, inspired, passionate people’—and those things are true, but they’re only one half of the story because the thing that we never say on camera, that I have never said on camera, is… I’m insecure.
And I’m insecure because I have to think about what I look like every day. And if you ever are wondering, ‘if I have thinner thighs and shinier hair, will I be happier?’ you just need to meet a group of models, because they have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair and the coolest clothes and they are the most physically-insecure women probably on the planet.
So when I was writing this talk, I found it very difficult to strike an honest balance because — on one hand — I felt very uncomfortable to come out here and say, ‘Look, I’ve received all these benefits from a deck stacked in my favor,’ and I also felt really uncomfortable to follow that up with, ‘And — it doesn’t always make me happy.’
But, mostly, it was difficult to unpack a legacy of gender and racial oppression, when I’m one of the biggest beneficiaries.