Lately my boyfriend and I have been watching "America’s Next Top Model" on VH1. Now, I love "America’s Next Top Model," colloquially known as ANTM. I like watching teens and twenty-somethings from all walks of life trying to coexist in a palatial house in either New York City or Los Angeles. I enjoy watching girls freak out during makeover week when someone wants to dye or, god forbid, cut their hair. I live for the judges’ commentary on each photo, and for the cringe-worthy moments where contestants decide to talk back to Tyra freaking Banks. For 45 minutes each night, I devolve into glorious escapism.
But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to how much the world of ANTM sucks.
To give credit where credit is due, Tyra Banks is trying. Trying by consistently aiming for diversity on the show, and by cracking down on contestants who express bigoted views and beliefs. But ANTM still relies on a flawed system — a system that demands physical perfection, and further demands that if you don’t naturally meet their standard, you’d better break your back trying. Girls on ANTM have flaws, sure. On this season, there’s a contestant with alopecia, and on previous seasons, girls with vitiligo, crooked smiles, and gaps between their two front teeth have been allowed to vie for the title. But as for people with real, existing physical imperfections? There’s no place for them in the modeling industry.
One of my favorite contestants on ANTM from before the series switched to VH1 was Tahlia, an 18-year-old burn survivor with visible heavy scarring on her stomach. The show was happy to have her for diversity points, but when it came to actively acknowledging her scars, the show dodged it, consistently putting Tahlia in clothes that covered her injuries and deriding her when she spoke up. Tyra Banks and the other showrunners played lip service to diversity and unconventional beauty but backed off at actually having to display imperfection and true unconventionality on television.
Similarly, the contestants on the newest season are encouraged to embrace their uniqueness — but they can only be unique with perfect skin, perfect contour, perfect eye makeup, and perfect clothes. Uniqueness, on "America’s Next Top Model," is only acceptable in small doses, and only acceptable if every other thing about you is up to an impossible beauty standard.
I don’t think the message that all women are beautiful is the message we should be sending. Women aren’t stupid. We’re raised to be image-conscious at every moment, and any woman you ask can tell you all the ways in which she’s not measuring up. The message shouldn’t be “we’re all beautiful.” It should be “we don’t have to be beautiful to have value.” We can’t control the features we’re born with. I’d much prefer it if I — and everyone else — were judged on our actions rather than something we aren’t responsible for.
I’m not expecting "America’s Next Top Model" to buy into this viewpoint. It is, after all, a show based on convincing people to buy clothes, makeup, and hair products. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional binge on trash TV. Enjoy the catfights and makeover meltdowns and all the other fun features of ANTM. But think about it while you’re doing it. Beauty, as conceived by the show, is fleeting and almost unattainable.
What would you rather be judged on — your features, or your actions?