You oughta be in pictures, you oughta be a star

Look at it this way. Suppose you have a young daughter, or niece, or friend’s daughter whom you’re close to. Suppose you’re at a gathering with her and a bunch of people. Suppose she just won a math prize, or a scholarship, or a literary prize. Suppose she’s bubbling over with excitement about her future educational plans, and one of the guests tells her, “You’re so pretty – you should go into modeling!”

Would you find that insulting? I certainly would. Why? Well first of all it’s a diversion from what she’s talking about and planning – but it’s more than that. Why?

But maybe you wouldn’t find it insulting. Maybe you would suggest it yourself. If so, why?


  1. chigau (違う) says

    On the few occasions I’ve witnessed similar, the remark came from people who don’t know how to talk to young people.
    Not always sexist, just clueless.
    Still, it’s insulting and rude.
    Also, modelling is a brutal and dehumanizing profession. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    I can speak to this. I have a beautiful daughter who, at age 11, won a national Miss Photogenic contest (part of a national dance competition – she used to be in competitive dance).

    Now, she’s just entered high school. As a freshman, she’s doing speech, debate, and golf. She was able to get 9th grade Algebra out of the way in 8th grade; this summer, she’s planning on knocking out Algebra 2 (Geometry comes in between – that’s this year) and Chemistry.

    She’s planning to either go into law or biology.

    She has already won a couple of speech awards – there are numerous competitions, typically sponsored by some sort of club like Rotary. She’s targeting these competitions as a way of accumulating $$ for college (every little bit helps). Some of these have top prizes of, oh, $27,000! It’s not small potatoes!

    Another way of accumulating college money is by participating in (and hopefully winning) beauty pageants. But my daughter didn’t want to go that direction.

    The reason it’s wrong to tell someone who has just attained an academic victory that she should “be a model” is because being a model is solely based on one’s appearance, and it is typically a very short-term position. Girls very quickly age out of modeling, and once a woman reaches a certain age, she’ll only be able to find work in older-lady fashions catalogues – if that.

    So what a step down that would be, trading an academic powerhouse for a coupla years as a picture that will likely be tacked to the wall next to some gross guy’s bed?

    Also, let’s not overlook the seriously unhealthy lifestyle problems associated with professional modeling – weight, diet, drugs, etc.

  3. Chris J says

    To me, it’s sufficient that “you should go into modeling” reinforces the cultural message that women are valuable only for their looks. That’s enough to make it insulting. It’s the same reason why questions about family, children, or a spouse should probably just not be asked when interviewing a female politician or business leader. Hey, maybe you have only the best intentions, maybe it’s a serious question or a serious suggestion. Maybe your particular interviewing group routinely asks these questions of everybody. However good your intentions are, though, you can’t change the fact that you’re reinforcing an extremely problematic cultural narrative.

    Even just an offhand “you have such a pretty daughter” to the parents would be insulting and for the same reasons. Too much cultural baggage.

  4. jagwired says

    Let’s be honest — modeling is just more of the same old bullshit objectification of women. For fuck sake, 30% of girls are being brainwashed into thinking their only value in life is how pretty they look. That’s a huge fucking problem.

  5. quixote says

    Aside from all the cultural baggage and the none-of-your-business baggage and the general rudeness baggage, it has too many shades of that old Peanuts cartoon. Charlie Brown is telling Lucy about his weltschmerz over the state of the world, and she responds with “We had spaghetti at our house three times last month.”

    Modelling is 100% off topic in the context of academic or artistic achievement. Mentioning it says you’re not listening to anything the girl has said, which is insulting all by itself.

  6. Menyambal says

    It certainly is a distraction from the moment, and from the long-term career, and from what would do the most good to the world.

    It is also an insult as to the achievement, and to women.

    There is another risk to going into modeling, other than becoming one. There are a great many scam agencies around, that will charge a great deal of money to prepare and introduce aspiring models, without any real results or actual potential. They build up hopes, and drain bank accounts, and, at best, leave disappointment.

  7. says

    Blanche – the short-term aspect is tricky, because the same applies to athletic competitions, and I think that’s less clear-cut. Suppose a student torn between training for the Olympics and taking up a scholarship. I would think the scholarship better myself, but I’m not sure I would press that on the student (assuming she had a real shot at the Olympics). I’m elitist and nerdy and most of the other names Marcus called me enough to think academic subjects are “better” than athletics, but I’ve been learning to correct myself on that.

    Marcus thinks I should correct myself the same way on modeling, but I don’t buy it. It’s not the same kind of thing. It is passive and obedient in nature. It doesn’t require 10 thousand hours of training.

  8. says

    I WOULD find this insulting, and would support any parent or guest that was also insulted (supporting the child most importantly). This is because of the general theme of the gathering.

    If the gathering was about a girl that was succeeding in modeling that might be appropriate. But if the child was advantaged in other areas, the guest is displaying a gross inability to be socially sensitive to the child. They literally have little ability to deviate from traditional ideas about what girls should do so I can criticize them on laziness grounds if nothing else. Social versatility is a thing everyone should have. If they can not, that is their problem.

  9. cuervocuero says

    People who say that have no concept of how cut throat modelling is and how many levels of low paying piece work there is compared to the runway superstar/crossover actors they see on tv. They’ve internalized “pretty girls only need their looks to succeed”.

    Explaining that internalization to them so they don’t defensively curl up and hiss…that’s another thorn patch altogether.

    On another level, at least it was phrased positively without direct linkage to the smarts achievement. ie: “it’s nice that you’ve won this but you’re so pretty…”

    The opposite ‘advice’ can be even worse. “you should have worked to look better up there in front of all those people” or “good thing you’re smart because you’ll never get anywhere on looks” or the classic all-arounder “you’d be pretty if you just applied yourself (instead of reading/occupying yourself with nerd things/ etc)”

    Sometimes the best you can do is have a good relationship with the junior in question and talk ‘advice’ out so they know you’ve got their back whatever they decide to tackle as a profession/interest. Girls catch on fast that they’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t and enough solid ground to stand on can be vital.

  10. jenBPhillips says

    Suppose she’s bubbling over with excitement about her future educational plans, and one of the guests tells her, “You’re so pretty – you should go into modeling!”

    Something very close to that scenario happened to me more than once. It’s vexing.

    I thought the main point of Ophelia’s original post was that gendered limitations (through marketing) on toy choices fail to present girls with the full range of career possibilities that is more readily available to boys. I think this is dead on.

    I have tried to get caught up on this in the other comment threads, but I’m probably still missing a lot. I think it’s safe to say that most of the 30% of girls who aspire to become models when they grow up are basing that opinion on how fun it is to play dress-up, and are not fully informed about the life of a professional model. I think it’s also true that for *some* girls or women with this particular career goal, it is a way to gain validation through the marketability of conventional beauty and thinness.

    I had some minuscule amount of success as a model as a young woman, on the runway here and there and in regional department store flyers, greeting cards, etc. I earned enough to pay rent and buy my (used) textbooks for a few years of college. It was occasionally fun, but rarely something I found rewarding–that is, I don’t recall thinking ‘hey, that was a good day’s work, standing on that fake boat deck for 4 hours’ or ‘Boy, I’m really proud of the way I wore that Anne Klein outfit!’. Rather than being affirming or validating, having agents, stylists, photographers and clothing vendors fussing over my face, body, or posture and treating me like a living wax work was quite dehumanizing. The agency representing me indicated that I needed a lot of ‘work’ (boobs, nose, lips) if I wanted to take it to the next level. I didn’t.

    It’s really not a great job. The parameters defining its existence are pretty crappy ones, and the reasons for wanting to get into and stay in it can be unhealthy. I don’t think it maligns the integrity or intelligence of models to point that out.

  11. says

    no, this doesn’t work for me as evidence that modeling is bad. When I started working as an artist, I very regularly got comments along the lines of “you’re so smart, you should go to college”. Insulting as fuck, since it was ignoring my actual desires. Harmful, since it was part of a larger slice of pressure to get a “real” job like all my cousins, and that doing it differently meant I failed at adulthood.
    The problem with “you’re pretty, you should be a model” is that it’s part of a prescriptive pattern of how people should live their lives, and specifically that it is a sexist one; it’s the equivalent of telling all the tall black guys they should play basketball (which is racist). But that makes neither basketball nor modeling some sort of atrocity of a job.

  12. cressida says

    “you should go into modeling” reinforces the cultural message that women are valuable only for their looks.

    Yes, that’s precisely the problem. That shit has to end.

  13. mudpuddles says

    I have asked my cousin to read this post and the comments so far, and to respond. Her name is Laura, and she has another perspective. Here she is:

    “Hi. My name is Laura. I am 30 years of age. I have an honours BA in business studies and economics. I am currently studying to be an audiologist. My dream is to open my own private practice, specialising in treating the profoundly deaf and people who have lost hearing through trauma. My GPA is around 3.9, and I consider myself to be fairly smart. I am also a model. I have been modelling for 15 years.

    The first time I was told “you could be a model”, I was fifteen. At that time, I knew I wanted to study to open my own business. I liked the idea of working in medicine too. I wasn’t sure if I could combine the two. My parents said I could do whatever I wanted. And when someone told me I was pretty and could be a model, I thought great, that will pay for college, and I can study both if I want.

    Today when anyone tells me I should be a model – and people sometimes do – I tell them that in fact I already am a model. I tell them it helps pay for my college today, and helped put me through my previous degree course. They always ask what I am studying, and I tell them. From there, the conversation tends to move on to health care or other related topics… unless they are just a skeevy guy looking for a pick-up, in which case I might not bother to respond to the comment anyway 😉

    When someone tells me I could model, I appreciate it and it makes me feel good. I do not need such comments to raise my self-esteem; rather, just like someone telling me they like my car, or my shoes, or my singing voice, I find compliments on my appearance to be flattering.

    Do I think it reinforces a message that I am only good for my looks? No, never. It is just a compliment. Anyone who tries to make me believe otherwise is talking through their ass. One could argue that no-one should tell an aspiring musician, artist, actor, dancer, author or athlete that they should go to college because they seem smart, because to do so would belittle their talents or career choices, or make them feel that they would be less valuable to society if they don’t pursue higher studies. But I believe that most people would be flattered to be told they are intelligent.

    As for the assertion that modelling can be risky because there are some scam agencies… that’s a bad argument. Does anyone really think that every company or institution in the STEM world or any other sector is clean-cut, without any ethical ambiguities? I don’t claim that the modelling business does not have specific problems, of course it does. So does every business, and yes aspiring models need to be careful, as does anyone embarking on a new career. In my 15 years modelling, I have seen no evidence at all that modelling is generally more risky for mental, physical, social or economic well-being than any other career choice one could make. And I have no doubt that running my future business will be far more stressful and draining than my modelling has been. I have had no big problems being a model, but I am terrified of opening my own business!

    I do not feel objectified. I do not have any eating disorders, and I do not take drugs. I know several people who do, and none are models. I am hardly unique. Every agency I have worked for has looked after me extremely well, and my parents have always been fully supportive and mindful of my well-being.

    By choice, I will not be a model for much longer; I will be finished my current studies in 2 years, after which I will need to focus on hospital placements as part of my training, and eventually on opening my own business. I have a modelling contract that takes me up to my 35th birthday, and 20 years just seems like a good time to stop.”

  14. cressida says

    @mudpuddles and @Laura: I don’t think anyone’s claiming that there’s no upside to a modeling career. The problem is this: No one would ever say to a man, “You should be a model.” This is always a clue that the behavior should be at least questioned. The fact that someone said it to you one time and it didn’t bother you doesn’t change that.

  15. Blanche Quizno says

    @ 8: “(Modeling) is passive and obedient in nature. It doesn’t require 10 thousand hours of training.”

    AND is heavily skewed toward the young and fresh, and let’s face it, there’s ALWAYS someone younger and fresher. Just as there is ALWAYS someone better in [fill in profession or interest here]. I’m not being rude or sexist – it’s just that modeling IS a sexist business, that exploits young, pretty girls and then discards them when they age a bit or get too much exposure and then no one wants them any more.

    Ugh – it’s such an allegory to the general status of women in society.

    I, too, would take the academic route. I have known a couple of young women who used pageants to earn money for college – one was IN college at the time, and the other was working as a secretary for a dance studio, so it’s really difficult to draw any conclusions on the value of this moneymaking option from this sample of TWO.

  16. Blanche Quizno says

    “There are a great many scam agencies around, that will charge a great deal of money to prepare and introduce aspiring models, without any real results or actual potential. They build up hopes, and drain bank accounts, and, at best, leave disappointment.”

    When I was 18, I decided to pay a visit to the Barbizon School of Modeling in a nearby town. I’m 5’11, and at the time I was both slender and pretty. I sat down with the rep, and she praised my “American look”, said I had beautiful almond-shaped eyes, and that I would definitely benefit from taking their course. Back then, in 1978, the cost was $799. For comparison purposes, the cost of a semester’s tuition (full time student) was $435 at that point.

    I said “No thanks.” And I subsequently read several articles in women’s magazines that said you NEVER have to pay a PENNY to model – THEY PAY YOU!

    I knew a girl in high school – my good friend’s best friend – who did it, and I think she got ONE job out of that investment – lounging across the hood of a car at a car show. Wearing a bikini and high heels. Nice. Another girl, whom I only knew in passing (my graduating class was 600) had gone through the Barbizon program as well – we all called her “Cake Face” because she wore as much makeup as one would wear for a photo shoot all the time. To classes. Under fluorescent lighting.

    My sister-in-law went through a model training course in a different state – to my knowledge, she never modeled even once, though she’s a very pretty girl and well put together (lithe, well proportioned).

    In short, the only reason these “modeling schools” can exist is because 30% of young girls want to be models (for whatever reasons) and swallow the line that these “schools”‘ “curriculum” will help them attain that goal.

    They don’t. In all senses.

  17. sacharissa says

    In context telling the girl to be a model does seem insulting. If I was the girl I would be very uncomfortable because the compliment with unfortunate implications is awkward to handle. I do find however, that people make career suggestions based on all sorts of things. I have been told more than once that I should be a midwife because I have small hands. To women who have had babies this seems to matter but it’s hardly a reason to choose a career.

    The same comment said to a boy would seem humourously inappropriate. That is because boys are not judged by their looks to the same extent so saying it would sound more like a bad chat-up line.

  18. Celegans says

    Blanche – the short-term aspect is tricky, because the same applies to athletic competitions, and I think that’s less clear-cut. Suppose a student torn between training for the Olympics and taking up a scholarship.

    I think the ballet is the harder test case. That really is gruelling and exploitative, especially of women, and is likely to do permanent damage too, for (usually) very little financial reward. My heart would sink if my daughter showed a serious inclination and talent in that direction. But … it is also a great art and a thing of great beauty and there is such a thing as a vocation etc etc. Hopefully it won’t come to it and she will inherit both of my left feet.

  19. Amy Clare says

    Yeah, I would be insulted. And it pisses me off that 30% of girls aspire to this. I can’t really articulate properly the rage I feel about how much emphasis our society puts on women’s looks, and how the beauty ideals are defined so arbitrarily. Most models are picked because they represent some ideal that’s very far from what the average person is like, and their image is further ‘enhanced’ post production so that it becomes something completely unachievable for anyone (and yet, pressure is on us all to achieve it anyway, or hate ourselves). Thinness for example – if you’re a size 12 (UK, which is a US 8) you’re considered ‘plus size’ in the modelling world even though the average size for a woman is a UK 16 (US 12). Etc.

    If you’re female your looks affect your chance of success in a lot of professions, and women are pressured to look ‘great’ while doing all manner of things, but modelling is the obvious pinnacle of that phenomenon which is I’m sure why it’s been singled out. I’m sure plenty of women have a great time being models and still being smart etc, but it doesn’t change the fact that ‘modelling’ in its current form, relying as it does on impossible beauty ideals and elitism, is part of a sickness in our society that constantly tries to ignore what women, as human beings, can DO.

    Strong words, because it makes me angry.

  20. latsot says

    I’m not sure why anyone feels entitled to tell others what careers they should pursue. Isn’t it better to just ask what they want to do?

  21. shari says

    I have had several people ask me if I’ve considered having my daughter model – since she was a baby. She’s still extraordinarily attractive. I looked into it, because hey, having an income I could shove directly into a college fund was worth thinking about for her, in my mind.

    Well, what I found was this. #1 – you pretty much have to commit to sitting around with your cute baby and a whole mess of other cute babies and maybe your kid won’t cry or be cranky, or maybe they will. Bottom line, you are dedicating a LOT of time, hoping your kid might get used that day, and she will get $ for it. I thought that was a pretty unfair scenario for our family and I passed. Also, it felt icky (if utilitarian) to take her stunning looks and…..sell them. Hello, child predators!

    Now that she is older, there is no way I would get her into child modelling. She has the looks and personality to easily do print work or catalog work and there is a lot. of. money there. It is not what I want for her.

    My niece – a dead ringer for Natalie Portman – including her petite height – has done some great work for local photographers. It’s been fun – she enjoys the people she’s worked with, and she’s gotten some $ for it, which helps with college. The fun is fading – a lot of people ask ‘why she doesn’t work making appearances as Ms. Portman’s double’….she feels a bit insulted by that one. Happily, she’s rocking her journalism start in college and gaining tons of experience – and is ambitious for it. Her looks are not going to hurt – she is approachable looking and is easy to talk to. Modelling has done one thing i appreciate, she can pull herself together now in a way we never saw as a teenager, she is far more confident in asserting herself. If she didn’t have super supportive friends, family, and S.O., i would truly question if that would be the same outcome.

    I am not insulted when someone asks if I am going to get my daughter into modelling, but i do educate them politely on why I think it’s a foul choice for my family to exploit children before they are of an age to reasonably choose for themselves.


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