Young, thin, white and disabled

The problem with "Britain's Missing Top Model"

Topics: Reality TV, Broadsheet,

Generally speaking, I believe television shows that make marginalized groups more visible and challenge at least a few stereotypes about them deserve some credit for being more inclusive than most. So I can give Britain’s Missing Top Model — beginning tonight on BBC America — a point or two for challenging the perception of women with disabilities as unattractive. As A.K. Whitney, who has rheumatoid arthritis, wrote in an essay about learning to feel desirable with a “deformed” body,

It’s not like there are many role models out there in the media. The disabled are rarely portrayed as sexy. Brave, yes. Melancholy, sure. Angry about their lot, check. Objects of concern and pity (stop calling me “special”!). But sexy? No. The hot babe who gets the guy isn’t limping toward him, gnarled fingers grasping his strong shoulders as they kiss. And if she is in a wheelchair, it is only temporary.

Because if you’re disabled, you’re pretty much unfuckable.

The women of “Britain’s Missing Top Model” are certainly meant to be seen as fuckable. So, you know, points for that. Now it’s just about the 100 or so demerits the show deserves for sexism, exploitation, cluelessness, condescension, etc. — and I feel perfectly confident docking those points without having seen the show. Alessandra Stanley’s article in the New York Times and the show’s website (spoiler alert — the show is already over in Britain, so if you click, you’ll see who won) provide enough rant fodder for 10 blog posts. Lucky for you, I’ll only do one.

First, on a show that’s supposedly about challenging narrow beauty standards, guess how many models are young, white and thin. That’s right, all of them! Better still, half of the contestants are women with disabilities that aren’t necessarily visible in pictures: Two are deaf, one has partial paralysis that makes walking the catwalk difficult, but says she finds posing for still photographs “easy,” one sometimes uses a wheelchair and wears “splints on her wrists, but treats them as a fashion accessory.” They’re no less disabled than the other four, obviously, but in a competition that’s largely based on how you look in photos, pitting four women with highly visible disabilities against four who photograph very much like young, white, thin, able-bodied aspiring models is an interesting choice, to say the least.

Having said that, in fine reality show tradition, the producers appear to have designed challenges that would make all of the contestants feel inadequate in turn. On the “quotes” page of the website, immediately after Jenny explains that her disability “greatly affected” her in the catwalk challenge, one of the deaf contestants, Kellie, says she felt confident in that one: “I love the music. You feel the vibrations. I feel I can express myself when I’m walking.” But that wasn’t true of a casting for a TV ad, in which the producers insisted Kellie speak instead of sign. “I hated it,” she says. “That made my confidence go right down.” So, it’s a show that aims to challenge the audience’s perception of people with disabilities — by insisting that they display those disabilities for the audience’s gawking pleasure. Feel the love!

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And yet, it’s still a show about young, thin, white hotties, so we can’t have too much disability in the foreground. At least, not in the foreground of the pictures. In many of the photographs on the website, visible disabilities are covered up or underplayed. In one group shot, Rebecca’s prosthetic leg is hidden behind another model, Kelly, who was born without a left forearm, keeps both arms behind a feather boa, Jessica’s “fashion accessory” splint barely registers and Sophie — the only full-time wheelchair user — leans forward as though she might just stand up from the chair. Also, they’re all in their underwear. There’s that. At FWD (Feminists with Disabilities)/Forward, blogger Annaham criticzes a pin-up calendar meant to “raise awareness” of fibromyalgia with points that seem just about as relevant here:

The fact that the calendar is full of photographs that, by and large, seem designed to appeal to a heterosexual and possibly able-bodied male audience, is obviously problematic in a feminist sense… The goals of the Polka Dot Gals are admirable, and the calendar may bring some much-needed attention to a condition that lacks a public face, but the project’s uncritical reproduction of the white, attractive and (seemingly) able-bodied female body as body-on-permanent-display — no matter if the body in question is wrought with constant pain and fatigue — is still troubling.

I know, I know, it’s a modeling competition. Putting the female body on display and making it appear as close as possible to a cultural ideal is the whole point. But then, that’s also my point, and Annaham’s. How much progress are we making toward appreciating body diversity — let alone becoming a society that’s fully inclusive of people with disabilities — by objectifying a slightly different set of bodies in the same old ways? Writes Stanley in The Times,

One thing never changes in the beauty industry, however: an ounce of fat is a greater hurdle than a missing limb. ‘Rebecca’s disability didn’t cause me any problems,’ a photographer says after shooting Rebecca, 27, a stunning brunette who was born with a deformed hip and wears a prosthetic leg. ‘It was just the fact she’s not really in shape. Most models are pretty toned, slimmer, more agile.’

And although Stanley’s right, of course, that an ounce of fat is usually the kiss of death in reality TV modeling contests, I still see at least as much ableism as sizeism in those remarks. Most models are usually more agile? You don’t say! But it’s totally not her disability he’s got a problem with. (Fun fact: Rebecca’s bio says “When doctors recommended that she exercise to build up her strength, she became a gym addict. She works out every weekday morning for at least an hour: swimming, rowing, cycling, weights — anything that gets her heart pumping.” But clearly, “she’s not really in shape.”)

“This series comes with a paradoxical premise,” writes Stanley. “[I]t’s a contest designed to raise the profile and confidence of disabled women but makes a spectacle of their hunger for acceptance… ‘Missing Top Model’ tries to bolster self-esteem yet revels in the piquancy of physically imperfect women competing in a profession that demands physical perfection, which one judge defines this way: ‘It’s what 99 percent of the population do not have and never will.’”

Meanwhile, people with disabilities make up around 20 percent of the population, yet remain rarely and poorly represented on TV. I’ll let Meloukhia, another FWD blogger, have the last word on that:

I want to see people like me when I look at the television. It’s why I watch, to escape into a magical world that I think I might be able to inhabit. And it’s easier for me, as a viewer, to place myself in that world when I see people like me. I think a lot of people feel like this. There’s a distance involved when you can’t connect with any of the characters, experientally.

And when the only people who are like me are introduced as tokens, figures for mockery or abuse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me not want to watch, because if I want to be tokenized, all I have to do is walk out the door.

 

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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