Seeing a broad range of body types makes people more accepting of a broad range of body types.
You might want to read that again. In the complex tangle of words surrounding negative body image and impossible beauty standards, the solution might just be that simple. Seeing a broad range of body types makes people more accepting of a broad range of body types. This is how the Model Community Project began.
A recent study showed that when women viewed pictures of a wide range of female forms, they began responding more positively to all the sizes. As the lead researcher put it, your mind becomes accustomed to a new “visual diet” when you change what your eyes consume.
I started to wonder what would happen if the media consistently used models who represent the true diversity of the human body. My own community includes people of varying sizes, races, and ages. We’re a common enough slice of humanity, but most of us disappear when you open a magazine. Inspired by the study, I invited friends and family to help me create an example of this alternate reality.
The project wasn’t high brow. My husband located a warehouse space we could use for free, and a friend volunteered as photographer. I hung a white sheet between two ladders and let natural light stream in. We ordered a few pizzas and waited for participants to arrive, dressed as instructed in “whatever made them feel most beautiful.”
While people took turns being photographed, those of us in the waiting room talked. Mild anxiety leaked into the air as mothers spoke of “losing their bodies” to gain their children, young men worried about being muscular enough, and older women poked gloomily at wrinkles.
But then! A tectonic shift. As time passed and the population in the room skewed toward people who had already been photographed, the conversation changed. Our words focused on the experience of moving from initial shyness in front of the camera to a feeling of ease, even giddiness. Many people said that being deemed a “model” gave them permission to feel confident; to play and pose and generally enjoy inhabiting their bodies.
And still more words poured out – the kind of words that change the world: What really makes a person attractive? Why do we support companies when their ad campaigns bother us? But the most powerful outcome was seeing some models recognize a beauty in their photos that they’d never noticed in the mirror.
We didn’t like our photos because we’d achieved any kind of societal standard. We liked our photos because they reflected the joy we felt at being worthy of inclusion, exactly as we are.
Here’s my takeaway, drawn from the original study and from what we lived that day: If the media were infused with images of all kinds of people, our cultural perception of beauty would become more inclusive. Over time, this simple change would weaken the grip that body-shaming has on our society. If you want to know what this change might look like, imagine a magazine filled with the photos from my Model Community:
Click a photo to enter the slide show.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“I believe beauty is a person’s soul shining through their body, and nothing should dim that light.”
Unless otherwise credited, all photos were taken by Allison Cook.
If you’d like more information about this project or want advice on how to re-create it in your community, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.