No, Really, You Have to Eat: Body Image on America’s Next Top Model

November 12, 2007

Last Wednesday, it happened. The “plus-size” contestant got kicked off America’s Next Top Model. We’d all been waiting for it–the only real question was what excuse they would use this time. Actually, it was pretty harsh: Sarah was deemed too skinny for plus-size but too big for regular modeling, and unceremoniously booted from the show. She wept. It was sad.

As Sarah herself had pointed out, she’s a regular-sized girl. Who’s hot, and really awesome, but whatever. I guess we’re not supposed to expect a girl like Sarah to win Top Model–call me crazy, but I actually had thought the show might evolve.

It’s not just the judges’ decision that proved me wrong, but the rest of the episode as well. We’ve got a major front-runner this season, Heather (at right), and her almost unbeatable appeal comes from a pale, bony body and striking, sometimes disturbing, features. Besides making Asperger’s the hottest new neurological disorder, Heather takes great pictures and charms the audience and the judges with her awkward eagerness. She also plays up a kind of false modesty—her favorite story to tell goes something like, “Until I was eleven, I sincerely believed I was ugly.” (Sounds tragic, Heather. We’re glad to hear you’ve since recovered.)

Every cycle, there’s a medical emergency during a shoot; this time, it was, unsurprisingly, Heather who had a mild collapse. (Watch the clip here.) The way she phrased it, “I just pushed myself way past my limit.” What actually happened: she hadn’t eaten all day. The medic suggested food, for future reference.

It was just too much this episode. In the face of Sarah’s departure, Heather’s success felt offensive. Her demeanor is vulnerable and helpless, and her physical appearance is sickly (or, as one of the other contestants put it, “dead”); she is rewarded for these very qualities—chosen to star in a music video, for instance, because she has that under-nourished, ghostly vibe. It’s amazing to me how consistently frailty in women gets re-interpreted as sexy and beautiful.

Especially when Tyra means to do better. Sure her methods are often questionable (fat suits, anyone?), but I think her heart’s in the right place. She really wants us to “use our loveliness.” Which is why I was so disappointed a little earlier this season, when Tyra sat the girls down for a heart-to-heart about body image. (Now that she’s a daytime television life coach, she likes to explore people’s psyches, or at least their vulva puppets.) She brought on Cycle 6 winner Danielle to tell her weight-loss story from inside the industry. After her 2006 win, Dani found herself pressured to lose weight, so she called Tyra for advice. Tyra said, “Let’s figure out a plan, how you don’t sacrifice your spirit, you don’t sacrifice your health, and you can live your dream.”

So what brilliant plan did they settle on? Danielle reports: “I decided to start eating healthy, exercising—and I got the weight off.”


You can observe Danielle above. A skinny girl, no question. And losing weight in a “healthy” way (as opposed to starvation, I guess they mean) is still, actually, losing weight. It doesn’t matter how you got the weight off, once you cross a certain threshold in your body mass index, you are underweight and unhealthy. I guess people think they can throw the word “exercise” into a weight loss plan and thereby avoid the stigma of an eating disorder. Actually, compulsive exercising is a dangerous and incredibly common manifestation of disordered eating and weight problems.

Anyway, after that deeply disappointing conclusion, the conversation devolved into the rest of the girls complaining about how they had always struggled with body image in the opposite direction (“I was always too thin!” wails Heather), while Sarah expressed some of her frustrations at the criticism she’d been receiving. Here’s the clip: skip ahead 3 minutes for the pow-wow on body image.

I know that America’s Next Top Model supposedly functions according to industry standards. In theory, they choose winners who can succeed as models in the real world. Someone like Sarah probably wouldn’t get hired as a runway model; it’s possible that neither would thinner contestants like Keenyah and Anchal, who also came under fire for their weight in the judging room. But the thing is, ANTM winners don’t actually go on to become top models–at least not so far. It’s unclear to us laypeople at home if they can even get modeling work after this show. It’s about the process, not the prize.

Not only that, but the longer it’s on the air and the more ridiculous it gets, America’s Next Top Model takes on a status of its own, one that is separate from the actual workings of the fashion industry. Sure, most of the audience likes to laugh at Tyra and semi-ironically engage with the competition, but we’re also watching because we love to critique women’s bodies, and we’re just as susceptible to the show’s messages about beauty. The producers and judges surely understand that, or they wouldn’t even let plus-sized (or average-sized) women be contestants at all. They bring nontraditional women on the show in order to prove a point, to make progress, to begin some kind of cultural work. It’s just that every single time, they fail to follow through.


One Response to “No, Really, You Have to Eat: Body Image on America’s Next Top Model”

  1. charly1986 Says:

    I have to say I am shoked to see how you write about heather, and her asperger.
    As an asperger myself, I couldn’t imagine more ironie and arrogance about this subject, aspeccialy from someone writing for worldpress.
    There is no fals modesty about asperger, and if you had done some research about asperger befor you write this nonsense, you would know that most of the “asperger” have verry low self estime.
    Then, about this “popular disease”, well if you are right, then i’m happy because most of the people make fun of difference, and my family and I were quit isolatade because my biger brother has a much higher version of asperger than me, so if now it’ s help beeing popular, i’m not gonna complain.
    Jounalist are verry good at beeing sinycal and jugemental, now i would like to see if they are as good once it is about understanding and compation.
    Sorry about the grammatic mistakes, englich is not my languige.

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