Sunday, August 17, 2008

A non-standard model

Since I am secretly fascinated by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy I read with interest the cover story in the new Vanity Fair magazine. Online, Vanity Fair also has a slide show of Bruni in her fashion-model days. This is intended for the titillation of seeing a First Lady in various states of undress... but looking at it and comparing it to today's models made me a little sad, because it just shows how much more unrealistic body-image standards have gotten over the last 15 years.

Sure, Bruni is very slender, but from these photos, you can see that she still has hips and a butt and firm-looking shoulders. You can't count her ribs or cut yourself on her clavicle. She has a healthy Mediterranean complexion and glossy brown hair. Most importantly, she looks like she's having fun--even when strutting down the runway wearing only pasties on top. Here is an ad that Bruni did in 1992 for Prada: again you can see that she has leg muscles, a curve to her hips, a suntan. She was 24 years old at the time.

What's ironic is that these days, Miuccia Prada is known for favoring a very different style of model: much more pale, Nordic/Slavic, and skinny. She's been credited with starting the unstoppable trend of young Eastern European fashion models, who all look alike to me: empty hazel-colored eyes, lank hazel-colored hair, deathly pale complexions, arms that you could snap in two and kneecaps so pointy they're almost faceted. Here is one of Prada's new favorite models, Siri Tollerød (19 years old at time of photo, Norwegian); to her right is another model, 16-year-old Laura Blokhina of Russia.

These girls (especially Tollerød) have no breasts, bony torsos, disproportionately big heads, colorless skin and hair. And their faces are, weirdly, too young-looking and too old-looking at once.

So, what lessons can we take from this? One big difference between today's models and Carla Bruni is that Bruni started modeling at the age of 19 and was a success through her mid-twenties. But nowadays, models have gotten younger. For instance, the Russian-Kazakh model, Ruslana, who killed herself earlier this summer had been modeling since the age of 15. (Hearing of her suicide freaked me out a bit because she, like me, was just a few days from turning 21.)

Furthermore, modeling was a personal choice for Bruni. She comes from a wealthy Italian-industrialist family, grew up in Paris, and thus, I assume, knew something about the world of fashion before she decided to enter it. Because she obviously didn't need the money she was earning, that makes it a lot less likely that she felt exploited by the fashion industry. She could have quit at any time, after all. Bruni has acknowledged this herself: in Vanity Fair she says "If you expose yourself [to the press], it means there is something about you that wants to be there. It is not obligatory. I was not obliged to be a model. I was not obliged to be a singer. I could have been a doctor."

But, by contrast, it's easy to worry that today's underage fashion models, many from small towns in Eastern Europe, are getting exploited. They're whisked into a whirlwind life of walking the runways of the world's major cities and posing for photos in exotic locations before their personalities have had a chance to develop.

Bruni was old enough when she started modeling that she had personality and poise. Throughout the Vanity Fair article and elsewhere, people always comment on how intelligent, polite, and genuinely "well-bred" Bruni is. These qualities didn't just benefit her mental health and her reputation--I think they also improved her appearance in photographs. I mean, who would you prefer to be: a willowy 25-year-old heiress, or a skin-and-bones 16-year-old plucked from obscurity by a modeling scout?

I know I sound like I'm advocating that only independently wealthy young women--those who don't need the money--should become fashion models, and I feel uncomfortable saying that, because it goes against my ideals of egalitarianism. I wouldn't want to promote the notion that "rich people are always better and prettier," after all. But in a profession where it's so easy to get exploited, something needs to be done. Minimum age requirements? Minimum weight standards? Psychological tests ensuring that only girls with a strong sense of self-esteem can go into the profession?

I don't know. But let's just say, I doubt that any of the current crop of models will be marrying a head of state in fifteen years' time.

Photos from

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sasha said...
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