Leave Supermodels Alone
In defense of beautiful skinny women
The other night, after I’d had a little too much of this world, I decided to bathe in cleansing waters and scour my soul by watching the new E! True Hollywood Story episode on Victoria’s Secret. (Yes, I know. Life is sad.)
Best I can tell, this investigative blockbuster was largely derived from a New York Times story from last year, subtly headlined, “Angels in Hell: The Culture of Misogyny Inside Victoria’s Secret.” The gory particulars of both the article and the E! documentary were enough to curl your hair, not unlike the bouncy locks of former VS model Jill Goodacre (a Victoria’s Secret OG). There were harrowing tales of handsy, lecherous executives, and of models getting ready for Objectification Fest (the once-hallowed Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show) by eating an apple a day with no sides. Ed Razek, the former chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret’s then parent company, L Brands, was so creepy, that he kept company with Jeffrey Epstein, the latter of whom posed as a Victoria’s Secret recruiter. It was all genuinely awful.
But perhaps most unsettling of all, according to the ominous narration, VS didn’t show a commitment to diversity of body types (women, you may have heard, come in all shapes and sizes!), and they continued to “market a standard of beauty that customers found male, stale, and hopelessly out of touch.” (Just imagine a woman so deluded, that she’d try to make herself attractive to a man while performing the sacred fourth-wave feminist rite of buying lingerie.) After hearing this last bit, I sat there in stone silence for what felt like hours, but was probably just a few minutes or so, until E! aired another rerun of The Bradshaw Bunch, in which former NFL great Terry Bradshaw “still stinging from their embarrassing loss last year…..coaches the family for a repeat appearance on Celebrity Family Feud.”
I hurt for my supermodel sisters. I asked a lot of unanswerable questions like, “Why, God, why?” Then I asked one last question, which you’re not supposed to utter in public: “Whatever happened to skinny, beautiful models, and will they be coming back any time soon?”
It’s not that there aren’t any. But they are definitely in demographic free fall. As with the rest of corn-fed America, you could see the obesity-creep coming for several years now. I first noticed it with the Athleta catalog, the athleisure brand that helped kick off the wine-mom yoga-pants craze. For maybe a decade or more, we had a little household ritual. The catalog would arrive, then my wife would browse it and throw it on the coffee table. I would pick it up, glance it, and my heart would swell. (I can feel her elbow in my ribs now – she would submit it might not have been my heart that was swelling.)
Then we’d be done. No muss, no fuss, no harm. She felt better about herself for not buying $200 yoga pants. And I just felt better, period, looking at those pages of sun-kissed California girls, taut and fit as they paddle-boarded or surfed or rock-climbed. It was like watching a beautiful sunset – you don’t want to possess it, but you don’t mind looking while it’s there.
But as the Body Positivity wokearati manned their battle stations in the never-ending Culture War (“body positivity” being a byword for making us all sing “fat is beautiful” out of the same hymn book), you could see the models changing. In order to avert the dreaded Male Gaze, more and more started showing up with tattoos, thick as stevedores or offensive lineman, some of them extremely bountiful in the BMI department, looking like they were smuggling boxes of Krispy Kremes under their Powervita pocket-tights.
Even Victoria’s Secret, the last redoubt of the unapologetic traditional supermodel, belatedly acquiesced when other body-positive brands like ThirdLove (tag line: “Bras and underwear for Every Body”) started clipping their Angels’ wings. Next thing you know, the fashion show was cancelled. So were the Angels (their A-list, murderer’s row of glamazon models). In their place, VS appointed an all-female “What Women Want” collective, featuring empowerment czars like Paloma Elsesser, a size-14 biracial model and “inclusivity advocate,” and gender equity campaigner/soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Apparently, what women now want in the boudoir is a surly, purple-haired Ziggy Stardust lookalike in cleats.
They even hired model Valentina Sampaio who had the biggest Victoria’s Secret of all – she used to be a dude. In case you’re keeping track of the inconsistencies at home: Men defining women by looking at women? Very bad. Men redefining women by becoming women? Very good!
From a pure fiscal standpoint, it completely made sense for VS to trade their overpaid Angels for plenty of plus-size models who look like they came off the bench for Lane Bryant. Why pay Alessandra Ambrosio or Gisele Bündchen or other expensive Brazilian imports five million a year, when you can get a nice girl from flyover country with oak-tree cankles and a hearty appetite, willing to work for a couple C-notes and all-you-can-eat craft services?
Mind you, I realize I could easily get sent to Gitmo for making such observations. And I should stipulate that I’m not “fat-shaming,” as the internet citation-writers call it. I am merely not fat-celebrating at gunpoint, as we are now required to do. It’s not like I’m some perfect physical specimen, myself. If I lost ten or fifteen pounds, nobody would call the Anorexia Hotline in alarm.
But then, I’m not an underwear model, either. Just switch gender roles for a second – something we are now religiously encouraged to do these days. If you’re a woman, imagine your chubby hubby, with his billowing jelly-belly spilling out over his husky-size Wranglers, a tall boy in one hand and a pit-beef sandwich in the other. Would anyone think that’s sexy, or just comic relief?
Yet we are now continuously bludgeoned into calling obese models “beautiful.” Beauty is subjective, of course. But pretending that obesity is a healthy lifestyle choice is just that – pretending. It’s understandable why the revisionists are working overtime. America - all of America, not just its underwear models – has gotten fatter. According to the CDC, obesity prevalence went from 30.5 percent in 1999-2000, to 42.4 percent in 2017-18. During this same period, the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7 percent of the population to 9.2 percent. God only knows how much worse those rates are now, with all the pandemic stress-snacking.
And according to the same CDC, the obese are at increased risk, compared to those at a healthy weight, for many serious diseases and health conditions. A short list: general all-around mortality, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, many types of cancers, and mental illnesses such as clinical depression.
While beauty ideals are certainly in the eye of the beholder – everyone from the ancient Greeks to Renaissance-era Italians to the Victorian-era English preferred their women pleasantly plump - I’m not necessarily convinced that our modern beauty standards have changed, so much as our politics have. For all the infractions former VS head honcho, Les Wexner, was rightly credited with, the one he took the biggest beatdown for might have been saying out loud: “Nobody goes to a plastic surgeon and says, ‘Make me fat.’” Yet just because it’s impolitic, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Somewhere along the way, it seems, the Body Positivity Industrial Complex got it in mind that supermodels are supposed to be representative of the rest of us. But why? When I was a kid, I thought I was going to play in the NBA. Until I finally realized, belatedly, that as a 5’10” white guy with a nine-inch vertical leap who can’t drive to his left, there was no demand for my services. This isn’t a hate crime perpetrated against me. It’s just life.
Similarly, supermodels aren’t necessarily supposed to resemble “regular women.” That’s why they’re called “super” – the tell is right there in their job title. And even their lesser ranks, who don’t boast the “super” prefix, are called “models.” (Again, more truth in advertising.) Why hate them because they’re the top-tier athletes of their sector? When I see a Brad Pitt film, I don’t look at the guy and say, “I hate him for being ten times better-looking and having 3 percent body fat, when I don’t.” (Except for my elbows, which are lean and mean.)
Instead, I say, “I’m glad I’m not that poor, handsome bastard, who has 27 kids and a nut-cake like Angelina Jolie for an ex-wife, and who not only had to sit through By the Sea, but actually had to co-star in it.” Even for those of us who are most obviously blessed, the universe has a way of clawing back some of the bounty rendered.
There are so many things to rightfully hate in this world: child poverty, gas prices, people who think it’s okay to use mic-drop emojis. Why add “beautiful women” to that list? Besides, as the philosopher Zsa Zsa Gabor said, “Being jealous of a beautiful woman is not going to make you more beautiful.” In fact, it might make you ugly - on the inside – where beauty most counts.
The overt, showy beauty we might not outwardly possess, and possibly aren’t capable of attaining, shouldn’t make us feel like less, but more. We are all God’s children, of course, forever equal in his eyes. Like the song says: red and yellow, black and white, thin, or thick with cellulite. (I paraphrase.) But a “perfect” physical specimen (by whatever standard such things can be judged), standing in front of us, shows that the world has more expansive possibilities that what might exist in our direct orbit.
When I hear Sam Cooke sing, making sounds I couldn’t even fathom coming out of my mouth, I don’t begrudge one of the greatest soul singers of all-time from owning a tune that I’m incapable of carrying. If you go to the Grand Canyon, and take in its majestic vistas, you don’t get angry at the Grand Canyon for not resembling the view from your condo. Similarly, if the supermodel who is showcasing your future yoga pants is a mega-millionaire and a Size 2 to your Size 28, who cares? She’s not a threat. She’s just another exemplar of the variegated richness of God’s glorious creation.
This notion might have been summed up best by a character Michael Rapaport played in the 1996 film, Beautiful Girls. It wasn’t a great film, but he had a good moment, explaining to another character, played by Timothy Hutton, why his creepy room was plastered with supermodel photos:
Supermodels are beautiful girls, Will. A beautiful girl can make you dizzy, like you've been drinking Jack and Coke all morning. She can make you feel high, full of the single greatest commodity known to man: promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow. This particular aura can be found in the gait of a beautiful girl. In her smile, in her soul, the way she makes every rotten little thing about life seem like it's going to be okay. The supermodels, Willy? That's all they are. Bottled promise. Scenes from a brand new day. Hope dancing in stiletto heels.
I will now let Lyle Lovett play us out. A singer with skinny legs, who still wrote a whole song about wanting skinny legs anyway - perhaps the best song ever written about envy. We always want what we can’t have, even when we sometimes already possess it.