Two weeks ago, I was standing in a hot warehouse watching some of my favorite people leap in the air, strikes poses, and play in front of a camera. I was loving everything I saw because – unlike in most traditional fashion spreads – everyone was smiling.
Welcome to the Model Community project. Those smiles are the crux of why I started this initiative. Being a person should be enjoyable. Having a body should be empowering. Wearing clothes you like should be uplifting. Right now, the impact the media has on body image makes all these things harder than they should be, because we see a narrow range of what’s considered beautiful and we question the validity of our own bodies. We can’t find fashionable clothing to fit us and we drift between “regular” and “plus size” stores, wondering where we belong. We hope our sense of self and our knowledge that we are more than our appearance will protect us from insecurity, but we all feel doubt.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Here is my cry to the fashion and advertising worlds to help people be more happy and confident simply by representing greater diversity in their campaigns. Together with my community, I’ve created a look book to serve as a tangible example of the form this might take. If you want to see more information about the background of the project and where I hope it will go, please look below the photos. But for now, I’m going to let the models do the talking:
Click a photo to enter the slide show and read the models’ thoughts on beauty and the meaning of this project.
“I’m doing this because I’ve been self-conscious about my body for the last few years and have come to hate having my photo taken. This is crazy, because it means I’m missing a full record of my life due to this useless insecurity. No more!”
“At first, I felt ashamed of my choice to be photographed in my underwear because the media is plastered with images of models in skimpy clothing. The choice of underwear felt predictable to me somehow, like I wasn’t presenting an original idea of beauty but instead one that has been packaged and sold to us for decades. In the end, though, I think beauty is simplicity and this is actually how I feel most empowered. I wanted my body to speak for itself.”
“I think this project is important because clothes can make you feel so confident, and everyone should be able to find good clothes easily. It might sound superficial to say that physical appearance matters but we aren’t brains in jars! We have to live in our bodies. Physicality is one of the major ways we interact with the world, and we should all be able to enjoy expressing ourselves that way.”
“I’m here because I’m much more confident at 63 than when I was younger, and I want to celebrate that.”
“To me, beauty radiates from within. It’s about being comfortable in your skin and not trying too hard. Essentially, self-confidence is beautiful, and the media as it stands strips people of their self-confidence from a very young age.”
“I’m participating because the whole body image obsession that’s force fed to impressionable kids and teens disgusts me. We are all the same here in this world. We are all wonderful, BEAUTIFUL, imperfect human beings. I’m extremely proud to be even a small part of spreading that message, to anyone it may reach.”
“I’m participating because I think projects like this have the power to make social change. If we’re not happy with the way things are, we can’t just complain. We have to get up and do something.”
“When you look at a photo of yourself, you are your own worst critic. The flaws jump right out at you, becoming the only things you see. It was hard at first to look at my pictures and not find fault in them, but I finally accepted the truth… I am beautiful!”
“Why do we obsess over our appearance so much? It’s like we really believe that getting our hair and makeup just right will make all the difference. As if anyone worth your time would fail to see your beauty because your hair clip was at a wonky angle.”
“I think a big part of beauty is wearing clothes that make you feel good, and that should be an option for everyone.”
“Having modeled for several photographers, I know it’s easy to love myself when I’m at my best: well-dressed and made-up! But I think there’s real value in loving yourself when you’re natural, with no filters. This image is not how I usually choose to see myself, but it helps put the idea of beauty in a new, relatable perspective.”
“As a personal trainer, I’ve noticed that people are most attractive when they’re comfortable with themselves, regardless of their body type. There’s a very big difference between being traditionally physically beautiful and being attractive. I think there are lots of people who have beautiful physical traits, but they aren’t attractive because they lack confidence. Their insecurity shows in how they interact with the world. Meanwhile, I’ve seen people of all body types who are very attractive, because they’re comfortable in their own skin.”
“I’m participating in this project because I don’t need to feel bad about myself when my body is not my top priority. Sometimes I can work out regularly and I feel strong and beautiful, but other times there might be family members to care for or huge work responsibilities demanding my attention. I want to revel in the success of those aspects of my humanity without stopping for a second to think I’m less than I should be because I gained a few pounds.”
“I’m here because I’m a feminist and that part of me doesn’t want to accept that I’m also a woman with body issues. Still, even though I understand that beauty standards are a myth, it’s harder to live that truth. You have to learn to embrace what you see as imperfections so you can live fully in your own skin.”
“Beauty is a choice. Sometimes, we forget that. We let people choose what is beautiful for us. But I choose to find myself beautiful. I surround myself with people who make me feel beautiful. I choose to be, so, I am.”
“Defining what beauty means to me has happened fluidly over the past few years. Working on farms and participating in community organizing work, I came to admire hours of tireless work and strong muscles as my kind of beautiful. (Remember, our hearts are muscles, too!) So instead of continuing to have an unhealthy relationship with the ways in which I was like or not like the definition of beauty in mass media, I started to create a healthier relationship with a type of beauty that I actually wanted to attain; one that I could attain through doing the things that actually feel good to me.” Photo credit: self-portrait
“I never get my photo taken, so this is HUGE. But it’s important that we all know we’re not alone. If someone who looks like me can see that I’m able to find myself beautiful, maybe that will inspire some self-love in them.”
“I’m participating because homogeneity is boring. There’s not just one way to do things; there’s not just one way to be; and there’s definitely not just one way to look!”
“Beauty shouldn’t be about ‘excepts’ – ‘You’re so pretty, except you have those rolls.’ The entire concept of beauty is a social construct that changes constantly, and we shouldn’t settle for restricting ourselves to what’s popular now. We’ve all been the hot item at some point in human history, so let’s embrace the big picture.”
“When I look at pictures of people I know, I find myself admiring qualities in them that I would turn around and pick at in myself. I’m really aware of this double-standard where I judge myself more critically than anyone else I love. This is a chance for me to try to step back from that, participate in something I think is important, and learn to view myself more like I view others.”
“A friend of mine was going to join this project until I told her it might be shared in high schools. She immediately backed out. This usually confident woman is fulfilled by her work and happily married, but despite her many successes she just couldn’t overcome the dread that ‘mean high school kids’ might judge her. THAT is why it’s vital to celebrate all body types. The impact of wondering, ‘Why aren’t I pretty?’ sets in early and lasts a lifetime.”
Unless otherwise credited, all photos were taken by Allison Cook.
The Model Community Project Background
Seeing different body sizes makes us more comfortable with different body sizes.
That was the major finding of a recent study in which women who viewed pictures of a variety of body types quickly started to feel more positive about all the varying sizes. This was true for both very thin bodies and fat bodies because – as the lead researcher put it – your mind becomes accustomed to a new “visual diet” as you change what your eyes consume.
It follows that if we saw a more diverse expression of bodies in the media, we’d all unconsciously adjust our perceptions and get more comfortable with (and less judgmental of) our own bodies and those of others. So… why don’t we see that kind of representation?
That disconnect is the reason I started the Model Community Project. I wanted to show an example of what it might look like if the fashion industry (and, really, all advertisers) used models who represent the true diversity of the human “look.” This concept was first inspired by the amazing Spring 2013 Look Book from Debenham’s, which features models from petite to plus sizes, some with amputations, and others in their seventies. As I first flipped through that catalog, my mouth was almost watering. It was so refreshing, so enjoyable, to see beautiful fashions on people who I don’t normally get to see in the media.
That was the key. I was having such a strong response to seeing people of multiple sizes, shapes, races, ages, and “looks” because I rarely see them portrayed in a desirable way in the media. But I see this diversity of people every day in my normal life.
That’s when the Model Community was born. I asked my entire circle of friends and family to participate. Luckily – thanks, universe! – my husband works at a creative think tank where they have both a giant workshop space and an incredibly talented and enthusiastic photographer on staff. In the end, we decided to hold two photo shoots. I told the community models to show up in whatever made them feel most wonderful – from a power suit to some David Bowie face paint. When the shoots came, there were leotards and sparkly dresses and pocket squares and fun hats and, most of all, there was joy.
Everyone was full of it. There was self-love as people got comfortable in front of the camera and started playing, letting their personalities shine through their bodies. There was group love as people encouraged each other’s bravery and seconded each other’s thoughts about how negative body image can be overcome. There were conversations that split long-held insecurities wide open, and we all came out a little stronger on the other side.
So Where Do We Go from Here?
This project was small by design. I wanted to celebrate my local community. I did ask for some submissions from long-distance friends, but the real revelations of the project came from being in the studio setting and joining the powerful discussions sparked in the waiting room.
What I hope now is that this project can be one spark that joins with others to make a raging fire. In my research since starting the Model Community, I’ve been thrilled to come across several other projects with a similar focus. The body image movement is a surge that’s gathering strength. My very simple desire is that this project will inspire more like it, that they all will lead to productive conversations, and that eventually social media will be flooded with enough voices talking loudly about the topic that the mainstream media will take note and evolve.
In the meantime, wonderful things have already started to happen. My friends and family feel empowered and vibrant. They have photos that they treasure, and many tell me their confidence has skyrocketed just from realizing they aren’t alone with their insecurities. These folks are talking about their experiences on Facebook. On WordPress, a fellow blogger read about this project and wrote his own inspired piece about male body image.
And there’s more! This post was made required reading for two first-year courses at Duke University, and students blogged their responses to it. A shelter for survivors of sex trafficking re-created the project to benefit the young women they serve. There’s also a high school teacher who’s planning to share the project with her classes, who are right at that age when they most need this message.
Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” These images represent what’s true in my community, and they’re absolutely beautiful. Is it a community of models? No. But it’s definitely a Model Community.
My thanks +1,000 awesome points go to Allison Cook, a photographer with extraordinary skill at making people feel comfortable in front of her camera, and to my partner Jarrett. He gave this project a home, fed it pizza, and edited it with love.
Read more of my (productive) rants on body image here: