ANTM: Good or Bad for Female Self-Esteem?

The new season of America's Next Top Model kicked off tonight, and my friend Jordana and I couldn't have been more excited. We love watching the show for the catfights and the drama. The artistic direction of the photoshoots is interesting and often quite beautiful. I also love picking out favourites and tracking how they fare in the competition. Plus there's a certain escapist element to the show that probably appeals to many of its fans: A beautiful, good-hearted girl is plucked from obscurity to compete in a modeling competition and put into a posh living space with other girls, trained to be a model, made over, and sent to some exotic locale for a runway show, then wins a prestigious modeling contract and lives happily ever after.

I know not everyone loves the show. Some feminists and positive body image advocates argue that shows like ANTM breed poor self-esteem in girls and women and create unrealistic expectations in them about their own bodies. ANTM, according to this line of reasoning, propagate the idea that a woman has to be tall, thin, and statuesque to be attractive, and any average woman who watches a show like this will look at herself in a negative way. What's worse, for some women with extremely poor self-esteem, shows like these may indirectly cause eating disorders, depression, etc.

I actually disagree with this. If anything, ANTM has improved my self-esteem because it's shown me how artificial the fashion industry is. The girls who are picked and molded into models look like average girls to begin with--tall and unnaturally thin with phenomenal bone structure, but still very normal. They're not always dressed perfectly (too-short jeans with heels, for example) or they may have body flaws or blemished skin. Pre-makeover, some of them may be wearing their hair and makeup in an unflattering style. The fact that they have tons of experts and coaches working on them, as well as access to top hairstylists, cosmetic dentists, and dermatologists, reassures me that I probably look fine for someone without similar resources to draw from.

Part of the artifice comes with the help of Photoshop as well. So many of the photos shown have been airbrushed beyond recognition. For every photoshoot the contestants undergo, Tyra Banks takes a photo that follows a similar theme for that week. Tyra Banks's appearance in the photos is so different from her appearance on television that you can't help but wonder how many man-hours and graphic artists were devoted to making the photo, well, picture-perfect. What normal person can compare or compete?!?

Another reason why ANTM may possibly be good for female self-esteem is that the judges seem to embrace unconventional facial beauty. The girls who do really well on ANTM are usually quite thin, but the judges are intrigued by faces with unusual and memorable features. As long as the face is symmetrical and photogenic, it works. A good model face is not necessarily a conventionally pretty or attractive face, so types of beauty that may be marginalized in everyday life can be embraced by fashion industry veterans.

To paraphrase a common proverb, it takes a village, a team of experts, and many hours of hard work to raise a model and create the perfect image. When I think about that and think about how little time and how few resources that I, as a "normal" person, have to devote to looking perfect, I begin to think, hey, I don't look half bad.

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