I came across a TED Talk a few days ago given by a model, Cameron Russell. This was the first time I had ever heard of her but she has quickly jumped to the top of my list of favourite models (although it was not an extensive list to begin with). In her talk she unpacks the power of image saying “Image is powerful. Image is superficial. How we look, though it is superficial and immutable, has a huge impact on our lives.” I am aware that this blog is dedicated to notions of sport, health, and physical activity and not the fashion industry but I believe that Russell’s talk offers an important entry point for discussing reflexivity and honesty as they pertain to privilege, which is definitely relevant to sport. In her ground-breaking talk she highlights power relations, oppression, and white privilege, which are topics that post-colonial feminist scholars of every field have been writing and teaching about for decades. Thus, what is phenomenal about her talk is not the information in it but who is delivering the message. Russell uses the TED stage to speak out about the very industry that she is implicit in reproducing. Problematic? Yes, but also significant.
In her refreshing honesty, Russell explains:
Being fearless means being honest. I won a genetic lottery and I am the recipient of a legacy…For the past the past few centuries, we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we are biologically programmed to admire but also as tall slender figurers, and femininity, and white skin. This is a legacy that was built for me and it’s a legacy that I have been cashing out on.
Saying that you want to be a model when you grow up is akin to saying that you want to win the Powerball when you grow up. It’s out of your control and it’s awesome – and it’s not a career path.”
The free stuff that I get is the free stuff that I get in real life and those are the things we don’t like to talk about.
The thing we never say on camera is that I am insecure…If you ever are wondering “if I have thinner thighs and shinier hair will I be happier” you just need to meet a group of models because they have the thinnest thighs, and the shiniest hair, and the coolest clothes and they are the most physically insecure women probably on the planet.
Again, not necessarily new information but the messenger is new. A model telling the world that she benefits from a “deck that was stacked in her favour” is HUGE! That’s like Wayne Gretzky saying that a large part of why he became the Great One is because he was born a white, middle-class, male. That’s like Mitt Romney admitting that working hard isn’t always enough to achieve the “American Dream”. It’s like big Pharma saying that “sick” people make them happy. These are all things that most of us already know but RARELY (and for obvious reasons) does anyone still working in the industry go against the grain.
After watching the video I thought to myself, “If she has identified everything wrong with her industry why on earth would she still want to model?” Then two seconds later I realized it might be for the same reason that I have written 85 posts on this site pretty much always tearing down the world of sports, health and fitness – because I love it. She never says it in the talk but I would assume that part of her enjoys modeling and, if nothing else, the benefits received from modeling. Similarly, I have received friends, pay cheques, and free stuff from my involvement with sport and physical activity. Albeit, certainly not to the same degree that Russell has benefitted but, since we’re being honest, I have definitely been on the receiving end of some really good things from an industry that categorizes, demeans, and throws away as many people as the fashion industry does. Am I comparing fashion and sport? Not necessarily, but we must remember that neither sport nor fashion are inherently good or bad, rather it is what we do with it that matters.
Will Russell’s talk do much to change the norms produced by the fashion industry? Probably not, but who knows it may be the first of many important chinks in the armour. However, what I would love to see come from this is courage from other visible people in their respective industries to stand up and say “Hey! Here’s the fiction and here’s what we have edited.” I would love to see someone like Kobe Bryant stand up and say “I was F@#*ing lucky kids. By all means try, but don’t ever count on becoming a professional basketball player because there are more black doctors and lawyers in the U.S. than black basketball players.” If a model can do it certainly an athlete can do it.
Russell occupies an important position that Debra Meyerson has termed a “tempered radical”. Meyerson (2001) explains
“Tempered radicals” are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations. Tempered radicals want to fit in and they want to retain what makes them different. They want to rock the boat, and they want to stay in it. (p.xi)
Examples of such tempered radicals would be those who seek social justice or environmental sustainability but work for profit driven companies, feminists in the military, OR working models aware of their social and physical privileges. “These people want to fit in and succeed. But they also want to speak their own truths and many want to effect change” writes Meyerson. I believe that tempered radicals are significant agents of change and that for any large scale changes to take place in cultural institutions such as fashion and sport we need CURRENT people on the inside to speak out. Doesn’t it get tiring selling the lie all the time? I know I get tired of listening to it.
Meyerson, D. (2001). Tempered Radicals: How people use difference to inspire change at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.