The Anorexic Anatomy Of ‘America’s Next Top Model’
To celebrate last week’s series finale of ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ star, judge, and Executive Producer Tyra Banks, sat down with Entertainment Weekly to laud the show’s supposedly groundbreaking body positivity, and to paint herself as some sort of fairy godmother of self esteem for young girls of all shapes, sizes, and hues.
Tyra gushed, explaining ANTM was “way ahead of the curve” by choosing a plus-size winner in the tenth season. “What I’m really proud of is the show extending the definition of beauty,” the supermodel showrunner crowed, “because I really wanted to show girls that beauty is not cookie-cutter. So when I’m talking to that girl that’s standing in front of me . . . yes, I’m talking to her but I’m really talking to the millions of girls that look like her that are at home watching.”
I have no doubt that Tyra sincerely wants to expand beauty standards — it’s too bad, then, that her reality show’s imagery and narratives reinforced eating disorders and body dysmorphia in service to the ideology of corporate fashion and beauty advertisers. In actuality, ANTP did a dangerous disservice to those millions of girls watching at home. The following excerpt from Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, “Get Comfortable with My Flaw Finder: Women’s Bodies as Women’s Worth,” elaborates:
ANTM has long given the false impression that thin is synonymous with healthy, and fat with unhealthy. This obscures the reality that extreme thinness can carry serious consequences, even death, when that size is the result of an eating or exercise disorder (ED). Playing bait-and-switch with definitions of health and fat can confuse viewers as to what healthy women’s bodies actually look like. It can also contribute to body dysmorphic syndrome among girls and women who see their bodies as bigger than they really are (and therefore, they’ve been acculturated to believe, hideous).
Exacerbating this distorted definition of “normality,” three of ANTM’s first thirteen seasons didn’t feature any full-figured models. Viewers had to wait until the tenth season for a plus-size contestant to finally win. Tyra Banks boasted about how much good it would do young girls to see blond, curvy Whitney Thompson, “the first girl with some booty,” take the crown. Yet her bluster couldn’t erase the fact that for more than a decade, her show reinforced the same “narrow perceptions of beauty” she claims it is her “mission to expand,” regarding both size and race.
“Tyra and I understand the influence ‘Top Model’ has on a generation of young people, and we want to make sure we get the right message to our audience,” Co-executive Producer Ken Mok once said. Too bad ANTM’s content ran counter to Banks’s and Mok’s lofty aspirations. By including nonwhite, nonemaciated, and transgender women as Top Model competitors, Banks presented the possibility that they, too, can be symbols of beauty — yet by focusing unrelentingly on their difference, she “othered” them as abnormal, not truly beautiful after all.
When confronted with the dismal reality of ED, ANTM turned out story arcs heavy on drama and light on support. During cycle 3, a tall, slender teenager named Cassie Grisham admitted that she practiced self-induced vomiting after eating because she believed it was the only way she could have her dream career. “If I didn’t want to be a model, I would eat whatever I wanted to and not worry about it,” she said, but “I have this will to be skinny. And if people have a problem with it that’s their problem, not mine.” Cassie denied that she was bulimic, rejecting the word — but not the behavior. “An obsession with my weight” propels her to throw up “sometimes,” she acknowledged, noting that she worries about food “24–7.” “If it makes me happy to do this, then they shouldn’t have a problem,” she told the cameras, defiant. “I’ve grown up dreaming of being a model… And great, there’s plus-sized models; that’s not for me.”
After several episodes worth of hand-wringing about how the lovely young woman should take care of herself, did Tyra Banks make a palpable effort to get her help? After playing Cassie’s bulimia for melodrama, did Top Model take the opportunity to deglamorize the notion that EDs can transform a girl’s appearance from average to extraordinary?
Nope. Not unless “help” is defined as a brief guest appearance by plus-size model Kate Dillon, who lectured the group that if they need to starve themselves, “This might not be the right career for any of you,” and a brief visit from a nutritionist. Banks could have insisted that Cassie seek treatment as a condition of participating in the show, a move that might have set the nineteen-year-old on a path to breaking her “obsession” with weight and food. Could’ve, should’ve… didn’t. Instead, ANTM sent her on go-sees with fashion industry insiders, cherry-picked their most cutting criticisms, and reran those clips for maximum humiliation. As she walked for Nanette Lepore, producers let us listen in on the designer’s snide critiques, plastering, “She’s not exactly a size 2” on-screen in captions to shame Cassie — and viewers who identified with her. Worse still, designer Marc Bouwer scoffed that her hips were too big and her thighs too unsightly to wear his clothes, then whipped a measuring tape around her ass and pronounced her unacceptable, while she stood mortified before him. She said she felt “singled out,” an experience that almost definitely reinforced her eating disorder.
Hoping for a redemptive climax to this tale? Sorry, we didn’t get one. After the endless browbeating the (underweight) teen endured, it would have been cathartic to see Tyra unleash some whup-ass on Bouwer for demeaning her. And, sure, it would have been immensely powerful for millions of girls to hear the former Victoria’s Secret supermodel encourage the teen to love and accept her own body as beautiful the way it is, without starvation and without shame. But instead of giving us one of those Very Special Moments, the show simply showed Cassie the door. Because, Tyra decreed, she didn’t “want it” enough.
She didn’t want it enough? This is a young woman who said she was “happy” to stick her finger down her throat if that’s what it took. By banishing a bulimic for a lack of desire (especially after the show called negative attention to her hips, thighs, and butt), ANTM tacitly sent the message that Cassie hadn’t thrown up enough to get the job done. Rather than using her struggle as an opportunity to educate, producers used every trick in their toolbox — measuring tapes, title screens, verbal put-downs, selective editing — to reinforce the internal dialogue of those who suffer from ED. Cassie wasted no time regurgitating Bouwer’s appraisal: “I have very wide hips,” the dejected girl said later that episode. “Marc Bouwer told me I was too big.”
Cassie’s experience on the show was unique only in that the weight-baiting began after she copped to bulimic behavior. A long line of drop-dead-gorgeous girls were attacked on Top Model for “eating too much,” being “chunky,” or “letting themselves go.”
Nineteen-year-old Keenyah Hill’s legs went on for miles, her eyes seemed to pierce right through the photographer’s lens, and her striking pictures drew praise for resembling groundbreaking African American supermodel Iman. Unfortunately for her, ANTM hadn’t included any plus-size competitors that season, but they were still jonesing for someone to scorn as too fat for fashion. So when the lithe, 5’11” teen’s stomach became slightly less concave over the course of thirteen stressful episodes, Top Model turned her into an unflattering caricature. Logic dictates that every participant would have eaten several meals each day, yet Keenyah was often the only person shown consuming more than a bite or two of food, giving a misleading impression that she was an out-of-control binger. Judges ridiculed her appetite and ordered her to diet. She became the object of intense Top Model mockery.
In one photo shoot, she was made to pose as Gluttony incarnate, lying in a coffin full of bacon and donuts, covered in grease and sprinkles. In a later shoot for Lubriderm Ultra Moisturizing Lotion, she had to personify an elephant, while her competitors were costumed as graceful creatures (white models became long, lean giraffes and cute springbok deer, while a biracial model was a cheetah ready to pounce). Judge Mr. J made sure they knew this was no accident. “I’ve picked an animal that I think represents each and every one of you,” he announced. “Everybody else has these sexy little animals. I get to be the big, fat elephant! Ugh!… What is going on?” Keenyah asked, exasperated. This was hilarious to the gangly girl next to her, wearing a “Please Do Not Feed the Models” T-shirt. (And where were Keenyah & co. when ANTM transformed them — literally dehumanizing them — into “sexy little animals”? That would be Cape Town, South Africa. For more on the racial implications of that photo shoot, read Reality Bites Back chapter six.)
And when formerly anorexic and bulimic Lauren “London” Levi put on some weight during cycle 12, Mr. J scolded the eighteen-year-old for this “really shocking” development. “It’s just clear that you’re not taking care of your body,” he said. “As a model you’re expected to treat your body like a temple.” Then, the (still-svelte!) eighteen-year-old was eliminated.
In a postshow interview, London told E! News Online that she had suffered from eating disorders from the time she was in junior high, and it got “super severe” in her “senior year in high school, which was actually… right before I went on to the show.” Her EDs would have been common knowledge prior to casting due to intake interviews. Additionally, London says she told her castmates about her recovery in conversations that were filmed but never made it to air. As sinister as it sounds, Top Model’s editors, judges, and producers knew about her eating disorder — yet they ignored the implications for London’s (and their audience’s) health, preferring to run footage of a judge telling her she was “unprofessional” for failing to control her body and clips of London calling herself a “fat freak.”
As London struggled to break the cycle of starving and purging and finally began to eat normally, her body reacted as it was meant to; flesh began to pad bone. The minute she started looking less gaunt, she was yelled at for “not taking care” of herself. Coming into ANTM, London’s “self-confidence was already kind of shaky because of my experience with my [ED] beforehand,” she told E! After the life-lessons she learned on Top Model, it will likely be harder for her to respect her body’s nutritional needs while maintaining a healthy self- image. And what of the self-images of the millions of girls for whom becoming America’s Next Top Model often seemed a more compelling dream than passing the bar, curing cancer, or writing the Great American Novel? More than one-half of teenage girls skip meals, fast, smoke cigarettes, vomit, and/or take laxatives in an effort to lose weight; 46 percent of nine- to eleven-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 81 percent of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. By leveling such criticisms against even those few statuesque, fresh-faced teens who embody the conventional “ideal” of beauty, ANTM and other reality TV modeling shows send female viewers an insidious message: If even they fall short, the rest of you must be grotesque. How much more difficult must it be for ANTM’s viewers to be comfortable with their own bodies?
To be sure, throughout the 2000s, a large and loyal audience was paying close attention. America’s Next Top Model “is a young-female magnet,” a programmer from the former UPN network said in 2005, when the show’s fifth cycle was drawing nearly 5 million eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old female viewers and some of UPN’s highest ratings ever. By 2009, ANTM’s thirteenth cycle premiere made CW the number one network on Wednesday night among women eighteen to thirty-four in fourteen major media markets from liberal New York to conservative Houston; the show also scored first among all adults eighteen to thirty-four in six major markets.
With so many tweens, teens, and young adult women watching every week for more than a decade, it’s no wonder that every time I’ve conducted a media literacy workshop for high school or college students, young women have expressed strong feelings about the role ANTM has played in shaping their vision of beauty, and how satisfied or dissatisfied they are with their bodies. When I started discussing reality TV with students in 2003, shortly after The Bachelor and Top Model debuted, students would offer extremely critical responses to the narratives and the editing of these and other shows, calling them “ludicrous,” “vile,” and “completely unrealistic.”
Girls used to ask me about the social and economic forces that might compel a woman to volunteer to have her appearance savaged on TV, or to do free work in commercials for multimillion-dollar advertising companies like ANTM’s embedded sponsors CoverGirl or WalMart. Seven or eight years later, having grown up watching ANTM throughout their entire childhoods, high school and college-aged students stopped asking me critical questions about the series’ editing, framing, and gender and race-based stereotyping and, instead, would ask me how much weight I thought they needed to lose to successfully audition and be cast on Top Model.
Lead image credit: Candied Elise, Listal