thoughtwisps One commit at a time

tell me the secret, victoria, to thy lovely (angel) bones

CW: This post is mostly ranting about our obsession with thinness, diet culture and the fashion model community on YouTube - read with caution and some grains of salt.

The world of supermodel YouTube vlogs is a wild place to visit. I’m not even sure why I venture there, but after consuming a seemingly endless playlist of “What I ate in a Day” accompanied by pictures of bodies that I could never hope to attain in this lifetime, I can certainly say it is addicting.

Fashion models, in particular women, occupy some sort of “success in life” pinnacle in the public imagination, in particular in the public imagination of what it means to be a successful “independent” woman in today’s (Western) world.

Although I was a teenager in the pre-Instagram era, images of models were dissiminated through women’s magazines and early reality TV shows like “America’s Next Top Model”. I was never interested in being one back then, although the social cues around me suggested that I should. Unfortunately my “love of a good meal” as some perceptive, but surely well-meaning, people observed would have precluded me from any catwalk or casting. These comments were always followed by the helpful encouragement “If you lost a bit of weight, you could be a model.” If I just applied myself a little, I could also win at life. Or at least, I would be protected from a future as an overweight person in a highly fatphobic society.

The well meaning adults that gently tried to guide me into the warm, smothering embrace of the diet industry did not know that the cruel pettiness of school social life had already hammered home the point they were trying to get across. Being overweight at school was a paradoxical balance between being invisible and being hypervisible.

Some events in particular were memorable. Take the “junior prom” (or the Old’s Dance as it was called in the nativer vernacular of the place I attended high school). I didn’t get a dance partner (granted, I didn’t apply myself much so perhaps I have only myself to blame), a detail that did not escape the attention of a senior in the same language class. I wonder why, he said out loud during a particular quiet spell and look at me. Though I quickly shut him up, the words made a papercut that stung.

So to feel at least sligthly involved, slightly visible, I decided that the least I could do, the least, because I was incapable of being thin, beautiful and desireable enough to dance, was to make myself useful in another way. I threw myself into work with the prom’s organizing committee and was in charge of the decorations.

On the night of the dance, the dance hall was draped in golden and white organza and large bows that I and a fellow dance-abstaining friend meticulously attached to the walls. I stayed behind to watch the dance, too. To observe the kinds of girls that got to spend a night as a princess at a ball. It was a kind of cruel spectacle and pathetically, I made mental notes about how protruding their collarbones were in their gorgeous satin, lace and tulle gowns. I made a silent vow to make my own collarbone stand out like that.

As life continued, small, papercut-reminders like the one above became more and more frequent, but at least by now, I was making an effort, I was doing something, I was participating in a culture that claimed one could not be worthy until one’s collarbones had reached a certain prominence.

In university, I signed up for rigorous early morning conditioning classes, danced and swam several times a week, but oblivious to my efforts, my body stubbornly stayed put in the unacceptable zone. I won’t bore you with the details. These kinds of accounts of slowly descending into diet hell are plentiful. You probably have someone close to you who has gone through this.

patrick wilson would never fuck you

A few years later, I was in a small student apartment, procrastinating by watching Girls and eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. Seeing Hanna on screen, naked, was revolutionary yet unnerving. Here was a woman in a body that didn’t come from the same razor thin mold and here she was, walking around in a bikini, in a bath, having sex with a good-looking man who owned a brownstone in New York City.

I related to Hanna, but desperately wanted to be Marnie.

In post-show Twitter discussions, the audience applauded Hanna, but also set clear boundaries for what a woman navigating the world in a body like hers should be like. When the show depicted Hanna in an intimate relationship with Handsome Man (TM) Patrick Wilson, Twitter went into a meltdown. It simply wasn’t believable, they said, but what they really meant was that a man who looked like Patrick Wilson would want to fuck a woman with a body like Hanna’s. Perhaps what all of these people having tweetstorm meltdowns wanted to say was that it wasn’t relatable, there were no scenes in Real Life where a man who looked like Patrick Wilson would desire them, who more closely resembled Hanna. At least that is how I felt. It was great to see such a leap on screen, but I held no breaths for it happening in real life.

the people on the pages of vogue, they’re just like us

Back to the topic at hand - fashion model YouTube, where young, beautiful and successful women jetset around the world - one night in Paris for fashion week, the next in New York for a party - in beautiful lithe bodies. Their videos have approachable titles like What I Ate in a Day (green smoothies, lots of kale, various vitamin shots and bespoke meals prepared by professional nutritionists), What’s in my bag and Spend a Weekend with Me.

Look, models, are ordinary people, just like us.

Look here they are, eating a slice of pizza in New York.

Look here they are catching a red-eye to Paris to walk a haute couture show.

Look here they are doing crunches with a personal trainer who accompanies them on every trip abroad and here is a 15 minute video of their ab-burner workout, so that you, just like them, can obtain chiseled abs and perhaps your life too, can be sprinkled with a bit of glamour.

The end result of these videos is diametrically opposed to their intention.

If only you religiously commit to drinking green juice, going 15 minute ab burners and a 32-step beauty routine, you too can be like them and glide down a runway in a haute couture gown. In reality, few of us earn a living with our appearance (though most of us are certainly judged on our appearance whether we want it or not) and can afford to have its maintenance as a second job.

Because the actual reality of these people remains so elusive and unattainable, we settle for proxies of the glamour they project. Buying the juices they drink, the moisturisers they apply in steps 10 and 11 of their beauty routines and sign-up for ab-burner classes. You can’t buy heaven, but maybe at least a piece of it?

they are selling the dream, you’re buying the bra

Ed Razek, the curator of women’s bodies for the Victoria’s Secret brand, stepped into a steaming pile by airing his antiquated views in a recent interview with the New York Times.
When asked why the (in)famous Victoria’s Secret Fashion show doesn’t cast plussize or transwomen, he replied that the brand’s job was to sell a dream, a fantasy and what that phrasing left unsaid, but implied, was that neither plus-sized nor transwomen could ever be anyone’s lingerie-draped fantasy.

Perhaps one can’t achieve the body of Sara Sampaio or Karlie Kloss, but at least one can wear the same bra and panties!

But, according to Razek, no one would ever attach such body-fantasies to plus-size women or transwomen. Their bodies could never be used to sell an unattainable fantasy, because their bodies weren’t unattainable, hidden behind paywalls of professional nutritionists, dermatologists and personal trainers. Their bodies were the real lived realities of thousands of women.

No one would buy sexy panties modeled by an overweight woman, Razek was saying, because no one was just buying the panties. They were buying a piece of the fantasy of being a size 0 body, the pinnacle of achievement for a woman.

Razek quickly found out he had been speaking to the wrong decade. People like me, who had grown up with heroine chic and rexy, had discovered that this was mostly bullshit. Victoria’s Secret, embroiled in one PR scandal after another, eventually cancelled its opulent feather-laden bonanza of a fashion show and we all discovered Victoria’s ugly secret.

the fantasy lives on

Although the fashion show may have gone underground, the image and the fantasy these models represent lives on in another medium, YouTube.

Over the past decade or so, YouTube has gradually drifted from a platform for homegrown productions that would not necessarily get airtime in traditional media to carefully produced “candid blogs” behind whom is often a celebrity known from traditional media and a team of professionals.

Many of the Victoria’s Secret Angels have moved on to become YouTubers. Their beautiful, carefully filmed videos try to reveal the process by which one achieves the physique necessary to participate in fashion, to be branded by society as desireable.

We see one Angel cooking a-so-healthy-I-just-can’t-even meal with the help of her professional nutritionist against a picturesque setting in the Hamptons. We see another model running off to an exercise class, then to a facial, then straight to a fitting at New York Fashion Week.

We can all relate.

We’ve all been there.

Why am I so addicted to consuming content that will never even closely resemble my mundane life?

Is it so I can fantasize a bit in between running a load of laundry and cooking dinner?

Is it an act of self-flagellation that I perform when confronted with the billowing outlines of my own frumpy, undesireable body?

Is it so that I, too, can be inspired to take a $40 an hour workout class and buy a $20 kale juice in a vain attempt to optimise the market value of my appearance?

The progressive #bodyposi part of my brain would be horrified to admit this, but I used to be and still am very envious of the women (it’s usually women dominating the modelling industry) who are paid for their appearance and set the standard for the rest of us, for whom keeping up with the demands of beauty is an unpaid fourth shift of exercise classes and meal planning.

In their attempt to lift the veil behind their perfect appearances, they’ve managed to further distance themselves. Who of us can manage to dedicate hours per day for exercise and meal prep and skin care unless we are paid to do so? It’s possible to acknowledge the impossibility of their lifestyle and yet, be haunted, by the Helena Rubinstein maxim: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

If only I commit myself to repeating these routines and buying these products, I too will be acceptable and desirable and perfect. I will have optimised my market value, as Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror.

And yet, somewhere deep down, I also know that this is a game I could never win, no matter how hard I commit to memorising the rules and practicing the moves.

Some of my generation have started rebelling against the confines of a narrow definition of female beauty, but even the rebellion has become co-opted by a hastagified product that can be packaged as a commodity and used to sell.

In the #bodypositivity Instagram community, Instagram influencers are performing this rebellion by staging photos of themselves eating greasy slices of pizza, while small, nominal stomach rolls are visible on their otherwise perfectly toned stomachs.

Simultaneously, an invisible algorithms running on a server, hoovers up these pictures and tags, builds a mathematical model of how likely we are to buy exercise clothing and kale shakes after engaging with this influencer’s content, and submits a report to some eager growth hacker or advertising executive.

A few months later, we will be shown an ad for a vitamin infused kale shake just as we are lazily browsing our Insta feed. And we, remembering that image of the influencer, will probably buy one the next time we visit our local supermarket. The circle of life in surveillance capitalism is now complete.

All of this happens behind the scenes, but we remain alone together with the photo.

It’s almost perfect. We can relate to this person, the influencer, their stomach rolls, their desire for pizza, the fundamental conflict between the desire to obliterate the former and to consume the latter. Perhaps we are also alone, at home, on the sofa, contemplating the comfort of a greasy pizza and agonizing over our own stomach rolls. And the life we see mirrored in this tiny digital square made up of pixels is almost perfect, save for one crack, one glitch in the matrix. Our rolls are much larger, more visible. We’d have to work to reduce them, so that those rolls too would be worthy of inclusion in a bodypositivity hashtag.

We might never even get there, but we can buy the dream, neatly packaged in the form of a shake, a sports top or an exercise class.

Or something close enough to it, at least.