Not the model I’m after

Australia’s Next Top Model rates well. Really well. In fact, last year the premiere of series 5 entered the record books and became the most watched show on pay TV. Many of the viewers are teen girls and many of the contestants are teen girls. This year, of the 16 contestants, only two are out of their teens and the average age is just 17.

What type of messages will girls be exposed to if they tune in this year? Past offerings give us something to go on…

In 2007, the American version set the tone with one of the most alarming and tasteless episodes I have ever seen. The models were asked to pose as victims of violent crimes for a fashion shoot. They were depicted shot, bashed, pushed down stairs—the images were graphic and deeply disturbing. But apparently, this graphic glorification of violence against women is so hot right now. The judges made remarks like: “What’s great about this is that you can also look beautiful in death” and “Death becomes you, young lady.” Even more disturbingly, the “victims” were all meant to have been killed by other models, so vicious was the contestants’ desire to win that they would kill the others to secure the coveted prize. The scenario of one of the pictures was so over the top that it would have been laughable if it wasn’t so creepy: “Diana poses—organs stolen by a model”. What was the other model meant to have done with the stolen kidneys? Sold them for Prada?

"Diana poses - organs stolen by a model."
"Diana poses—organs stolen by a model."
'Dionne poses- shot by a model."
"Dionne poses—shot by a model."

In 2008, the Australian series was rocked by (read: the show grabbed free publicity and maximised its audience with) awful bullying. Contestant Alamela Rowan, the victim of verbal taunts and physical  attacks, was left quite distraught. So bad did the systematic intimidation become that the show’s judges at the time—Jodhi Meares, Charlotte Dawson and Alex Perry—reprimanded the other contestants, but no further action was taken and the bullies weren’t punished. This sparked a media debate on teen girl bullying, though the show’s culture of “compare and despair” and practice of ranking girls on their looks was not called into question. The main bully, Demelza Reveley, ended up winning the series and going on to receive the lucrative modelling contracts—there, that showed her, didn’t it?

Throughout the seasons, the judges themselves have sometimes been less than ideal role models. Alex Perry has a reputation for doling out harsh criticism, calling contestants things like “wild pig”. Charlotte Dawson sends mixed body image messages. She now says she regrets some of the cosmetic surgery she has had, and that “anyone thinking plastic surgery will make them happier is wrong.” However, though she says she’s given up on invasive surgery, she does still use some cosmetic procedures. And she has a damning, dismissive and totally out-of-touch attitude toward plus-size models.

Last year saw a revolution of sorts, when a “plus-sized” model, Tahnee Atkinson, won. She was a size 10. I say this was a “revolution of sorts” as the average Australian woman is a size 16. It was hardly an earth-shattering move, was it? Yet many commentators asked if she was really top model material:

In an ideal world, yes. The girl is unquestionably gorgeous—she’s got an exceptional figure and a smile that stops traffic. She’s professional, well-behaved and determined. Her ‘normal’ beauty is something that a lot of women would love to see more of in fashion magazines. But in the fickle and unfair world of modelling it probably won’t equal a long-term fashion career. As casting agents politely explained in the show, she just doesn’t have the matchstick-thin figure required by most top designers. — Georgia Waters, Brisbane Times

What about this season then, post Tahnee, post the government’s Body Image Advisory Group? Don’t hold your breath that this season the show will suddenly adopt the new voluntary code of conduct for the fashion industry and begin to promote a diversity of sizes. In the first episode of the new season, airing next week, viewers will see a 16-year-old contestant get excluded from a catwalk parade because she is “too big“. She’s a size 8. She says the experience left her feeling embarrassed and shamed into changing her eating habits. I spoke about this recently with Kerri-Anne Kennerley:

The new season has a ridiculous promo ad featuring models competing like racehorses—or are they greyhounds?—on a race track, trying to outrun one another to snatch the lure, i.e., the modelling contract. Women as thoroughbreds. And there is Sarah Murdoch with the starter’s gun. Sarah, I think your heart was in the right place when you joined the government-appointed body image advisory group. You were no doubt already a busy woman, successful and influential in your own right, so why would you join it other than because you believe action is needed to improve young people’s body image? However, perhaps you failed to realise that it was not a one-off gig but an ongoing commitment to showing how things could be done differently in the fashion industry. Whether it is your intention or not, you are a role model. Sorry, but we expected more. I believe the rest of the advisory group did, too, and I hope they make a statement on the fact that messages in Australia’s Next Top Model contravene many of the group’s recommendations.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Australia’s Next Top Model isn’t my favourite show. But before anyone is tempted to outright ridicule it in front of teen girls who avidly watch it—or try to ban them from watching it—I want to say that I see a danger in demonising something that teen girls are interested in. From working with girls all around the country, I know that huge numbers of them dream of becoming a model, which is why in previous posts I’ve tried to take an objective look at modelling. Coming down too hard on girls for being interested in modelling or wanting to watch Australia’s Next Top Model is probably one of the least effective ways to minimise the potential damage. It makes us look out of touch, and that can put us on the back foot. It makes us look dismissive, and nothing is more frustrating to a teen girl than when adults act as if she doesn’t have a brain. And the best way to get a teen girl to watch something is to say we hate it and she isn’t allowed to watch it.

Goodness knows, as a teen girl I was obsessed with some shows I can look back at now and recognise as being rubbish- Prisoner anyone?  And I remember that my friends and I were not just passive absorbers of those shows. Actually, we’d sit in front of Prisoner, loving every minute of it, but relentlessly poking fun at it, deconstructing the ridiculous things the characters did and said. To me, TV has always been an interactive medium, and I think it should be for all girls! The best thing we can do is encourage girls to deconstruct media messages, and that means getting a conversation going about Australia’s Next Top Model. Avoid the temptation to lecture, but instead ask questions about what the show tells us about the fashion industry and the media.

  • Is it fair that we are all meant to aspire to a narrow beauty ideal?
  • How achievable is that ideal?
  • Does anyone truly win when girls compete against one another based solely on appearance?
  • These are real teen girls on the screen, not made-up characters. Is it okay that they face this type of criticism and judgment for others’ entertainment?

What other questions do you think would be worth raising with girls in order to encourage them to see past the fashionista hype?

10 thoughts on “Not the model I’m after

  1. Juliet Potter says:

    Great article Dannielle. I agree with it all esp the open dialogue. I encourage young women to realise this is not ‘real life’ and to watch these kinds of shows if not with a sense of humour, then a sense of reality that most girls are not size 6 and that what we look like does not maketh the person. The violence depicted in the USA version is just beyond me. I am speechless. Keep up the great work.

  2. Lisa Betker says:

    I’m disappointed that Sarah Murdoch fails/chooses not to see the conflict between her two roles here. And appalled that size 10 is now considered to be “plus size”. WHAT??!!

  3. Melinda Tankard Reist says:

    Thanks for further unpacking this show Dannielle.
    I think it is time for Sarah Murdoch to make a decision. In my opinion, you can’t host a show based on body judgement, surveillance, harmful body-based competitiveness and disparaging criticism and sit on the National Body Image Advisory Committee. It is a living contradiction. Any good she might try to do in the latter role gets cancelled out by the negative message of ANTM. There are so many positive things she could connect her good name with, which would make a difference in the lives of girls. Thanks again Danni. Melinda

  4. Nikki D says:

    Great post Danni! Looking at this show brings up so many issues doesn’t it?
    I truly hate the “Girl vs Girl” thing… girls should stick together! And it seems shows like this either have the girls “pashing” or fighting with one another. Hideous.
    And thanks for reminding us of the positive ways to start conversations about subjects like these shows without alienating the girls who are fans… I love the idea of encouraging girls to “talk back” and ask questions about TV shows and magazines etc.
    I always encourage that with the girl I work with 🙂

  5. Kelly Valder says:

    Great post Dan. NZ’s Next Top Model is about to start here again. Last year the show encountered criticism over the “mono-culturalism” of the final contestants – which reminded me of our funky ‘Real Girl Power’ sticker quote ‘If the definition of beautiful gets any thinner no-one will fit!’
    This year there will be more controversy I’m sure. And more girls facing harsh criticism and judgement – I hope they all have lovely mums to go home to for a big hug, debrief and a hot chocolate!

  6. Francesca says:

    Great blog Danni. There is no doubt that many of our teen girls watch shows such as this one and aspire to be rake thin. The fact is the majority of girls are not born with a metabolism that allows them to be very thin just by nature or genetics. I work with many girls who tell me about crash diets and how they wish to be super skinny. I love the idea of encouraging girls to engage in positive discussions about body image, shape etc. The best body is a healthy one no matter what shape. When I have these body image chats with girls they just love learning that it is okay to love the skin they’re in. I’ll be looking forward to hearing what messages regarding body image Australia’s Next Top model sends forth into Girlworld.

  7. helena says:

    As a teenage girl, i actually agree with this article! I used to be a fan of australias nxt top model, but constantly felt low and ugly when watching the models in their photoshoots, as they were so skinny and beautiful. However, fortunately, i realised that its all fake, the camera, lighting and everything, giving girls out there false hope of true beauty. These models are not realistic and therefore young girls, including me!, should not be led to believe that they are the ideal example of the perfect human

Comments are closed.