Model Cameron Russell gave an interesting TED talk on beauty, power, and privilege. The talk grabs you because of the candor and thoughtfulness with which she approaches the subject, which of course she can speak on from a unique vantage point. “For the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry, (things) that we are biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall slender figures and femininity and white skin. This is a legacy that has been built for me and it is a legacy that I have been cashing out on. “
And she is open enough to point out that her privilege is built on other people’s oppression. Although she did not go into as much detail as I would have liked (I know the point of TED talks is that they are brief) she did provide a few examples. Like New York’s shameful stop and frisk policy, which makes humiliation a daily routine for many Black and Latino residents of the city. She explains that the whole point of stop and frisk is that it is based on image. If someone “looks” like a criminal they will be stopped. (Tell that to grandmothers and kids are being frisked. These stories and more can be found in a striking, well researched report done by the Center for Constitutional Rights.) Russell contrasts this with a story of being pulled over with a friend who had run through a red light. “All it took was a sorry officer to get off.”
But if you think that the life of a model is all peaches and cream (excuse me, non-fat whipped topping) think again. “Models are the most physically insecure women probably on the planet.” says Russell. How sad that even having skinny thighs and shiny hair does not insulate someone from our toxic, body hating* culture. Russell notes that while “It was difficult to unpack the legacy of gender and racial oppression when I am one of the biggest beneficiaries.” It also felt uncomfortable to share with the audience that “winning the genetic lottery” has not made her happy. I am grateful that she took this risk. Just like other kinds of privilege, we need people who are benefitting from beauty privilege to acknowledge this system before it can be dismantled. What does Russell want to be the take away from her talk? “I hope we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes, and our perceived failures.
*A widely reported study found that 53% of American girls are “unhappy with their bodies.” This grows to 78% by the time girls reach seventeen.