The Model Community Project

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.

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 jennie@tipofmytongue.me.

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