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Faith, Fashion and Feminism

September 29, 2009

Modeling is certainly an issue of contention within feminist discourse. On one hand, modeling (and the fashion industry, in general) is largely responsible for the unrealistic physical beauty standards that cause young girls and women to have skewed relationships with body image and develop dangerous eating disorders. On the other hand, fashion has opened up professional opportunities for women; it’s one industry in which women really are in charge. So where can we find common ground on the issue?

What about an international modeling agency with a philosophy about the importance of inner beauty? An organization less focused on mainstream standards of beauty and more focused on “beauty achieved from the perfect balance and unity of spirit, mind, and physical body”?

Enter Models of Life, a UK-based modeling agency founded on Christian values. With affiliate organizations in throughout Asia and North America, the group is currently recruiting prospective talent in London.

From the Observer:

According to its impressive website, dominated by pictures of smiling young women, MOL “has its beginnings in the 1990s when the founder sought to challenge and to renew modeling culture. Its philosophy, based on Christian values, is to make people aware that modeling is about leading an exemplary life and exuding inner beauty.”…

…It might sound like the sort of platitude spouted by Derek Zoolander – the male supermodel portrayed by Ben Stiller in his parody of the fashion industry – but a model who claims to have benefited from MOL’s classes, 20-year-old Ruth Kadereit, says the approach works. “I think it really helped me to use my time better and accept myself,” she says on the website. “[It helped me] understand and remind myself of the value of life and live with joy each day.”

On the surface, this sounds like an organization capable of doing great things. Taking an industry that traditionally forces women to fit a specific “ideal” body type and subverting it to be about being true to oneself and being a good person is an intriguing concept. By allowing these girls to feel beautiful everywhere — on the inside as well as the outside — Models of Life might be able to instill a level of confidence and self-worth in young women that traditional, mainstream modeling agencies simply can’t.

But it’s not that simple. The organization’s practice of recruiting models sounds awfully similar to the proselytizing techniques of fundamentalist religious groups. And, aside from articles about the group’s current activities in London, there’s actually very little information about the group online; a prospective client would have a hard time effectively researching the organization before deciding whether or not to join.  According to the Observer, Models of Life has no permanent headquarters in the UK, and no one from the organization would agree to an interview. Combined with the fact that Models of Life doesn’t appear to have an official website (I looked for it, and all I could find was this message board), the whole operation sounds a bit shady.

It makes me wonder — can modeling really be about inner beauty? Should it be? The entire industry has been built on the supposed importance of physical appearance. Even Models of Life, which purports to have a higher spiritual focus, is still, to a degree, interested in the physical appearance of the models in question. And perhaps it’s better for modeling agencies to be up-front about their intents. If a young woman decided to work with Models of Life because she believed the group would provide her with a strong sense of self-worth, and then was encouraged to alter or enhance her appearance in some way, she could feel more pressured and driven to destructive beliefs about body image than if she had joined a modeling agency that was up-front about its focus on physical beauty. For all of Models of Life’s lofty intentions, the group may be doing more harm than good for the young women who join.

Moreover, is modeling an appropriate venue for theology? Are the tenets of Christianity compatible with the fashion industry? George Pitcher of the Daily Telegraph raises an interesting point:

First of all, there’s the assumption that Jesus Christ is likely to be found in the fashionable shopping options for groceries and haute couture that sustained us for the quarter-century of the consumer boom years. A cursory glance at the gospels reveals that he would more likely be found among the reviled outcasts of those years: asylum seekers, trafficked sex-workers, wheel-clampers and the Cabinet of Gordon Brown.

But what’s really off-beam is the idea, now that the bubble has so spectacularly burst on the proposition that happiness is to be found in a little black dress by Chanel or a special offer on New Zealand sauvignon, that all we need to do is bolt on the Christian faith to the catwalk and the trolley park and all will be well again. Here’s news: faith isn’t a fashion accessory. It’s an alternative.

Despite mainstream attempts to make religion trendy — and the Observer points out that there is actually nothing new about Christian modeling and talent agencies — the point of religion isn’t to be flashy and marketable. In fact, treating religion as such is disrespectful to one’s faith. Being a Christian — or a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, or anything else — is about far more than commercialism. It’s about more than religious-themed pop music, or religious-themed films. It’s about actual belief systems and practices. If Models of Life thinks that preaching to young, impressionable women that salvation is just around the corner if they become models, that’s not only misleading to the girls in question, but it’s also demeaning to the Christian religion. Faith isn’t that simple, and it shouldn’t be.

And finally — if Models of Life really is the perfect combination of faith and fashion, how does feminism fit in? Neither modeling nor fundamentalist Christianity has much room for feminist ideology. And while the idea of inner beauty and being true to yourself sounds quite in line with feminism, in the case of Models of Life, it comes at the cost of participating in not one, but two institutions known for victimizing women. I do like the idea behind Models of Life, and the philosophy behind the organization does not inherently bother me. But purpose is not always the same as practice, and I have to wonder how likely it is that women who are participating in both modeling and fundamentalist religion are learning positive ways to view themselves and their identities. Perhaps it helps some women, but I doubt it’s the cure to the Beauty Industrial Complex that women need.

What are your thoughts? Can modeling and religion co-exist? And does their combination mean good things for women?

  1. Sheeley permalink
    September 29, 2009 10:13 am

    You and Anne Friedman may think “women run the show” in the fashion industry but they assuredly do not. Fashion is certainly an industry in which there are a number of powerful women, but if you look at who owns the magazines, who profits from the modeling agencies, and who the successful designers are (and who their investors are) you will find men, men, men. “Running the show” is a gross overstatement that may serve your rhetorical purposes, but is not accurate.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      September 29, 2009 10:40 am

      I never said that I personally think “women run the show” in fashion. I simply wanted to offer it as a counter-argument to show that not all feminists are opposed to fashion and modeling. You are definitely right that it’s a very flawed industry, and perhaps I overstated the argument. I just wanted to point out that not all feminists are opposed to that industry, at least in part because it’s opened doors for women in the past.

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