There’s an America’s Next Top Model marathon on today, and it’s a holiday weekend, so I’m sitting on the couch with the Sunday crossword and some craft stuff and watching. Usually I don’t really watch the TV when I’m doing something else, but I love this show so I’m paying an unprecedented amount of attention. Plus, this season features the lovely Toccara Jones, who I believe was the longest-lasting plus-size model in the show’s history. So this is a great opportunity to notice how the show distills and concentrates cultural attitudes towards bodies.
Toccara just got eliminated, and I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler but this season is three years old so deal with it. Why did she get eliminated? Well, Janice Dickinson, who is of course a fantastic role model for how to treat your body, was against her from the beginning. Maybe not quite from the beginning — I saw a flashback where she said “you could be the first plus-size model to win this” — but every week she seemed to wake from her stupor and go “whoa, this girl’s fat! Who ever heard of a fat model?” (At one point she suggested that Toccara lose “150 pounds.” Tyra said “then she’d weigh 30”; Janice responded with “that would be fine.”) But Tyra backed her up, so that week after week she was allowed to get back out there and do her best while she was ridiculed by designers, squeezed into ill-fitting clothes, pigeonholed, and told over and over that the world wasn’t ready for a model her size. The judges were even magnanimous enough to do the “such a pretty face” and “good personality” routines every week, while reminding her that high-fashion clothes would never be cut to fit her, and that there really wasn’t a place in the fashion world for someone with her body. She seems to have tried to stay positive, and even reacted incredulously when a designer yelled at her for not fitting in the clothes — “I’m supposed to feel bad because you can’t find clothes that fit me?” But it was obvious that being forced to remember how out-of-place she was became a wearisome task.
After two months of this, in show time, Toccara “checked out,” according to judges. She “lost her confidence.” “Where’s Toccara’s vibrant personality?” they asked each other, simply gaping in surprise. She seemed to have lost her spark! How disappointing! Of course she had to be eliminated!
Like most reality TV, this show is fucking far from being reality, but it reflects reality in a concentrated and heightened form. Toccara’s experience is one that we’ve all had, albeit not on national television: we are told that we need to look beautiful by typical cultural standards, but we’re denied clothing that fits. We’re told that we need to be twice as confident, twice as vibrant, twice as pulled-together as a smaller woman — that we need to apologize for being large by being larger-than-life. That we need to make up for our failure to be thin by being outrageous successes in every other aspect of life. That it’s on us to counteract the perception that fat people are sloppy or ugly. Then we have our confidence systematically broken down.
That’s what I see happening in this show. Toccara is told explicitly that she has to work many times harder than the other girls, and look many times better. At the same time, she’s mocked for imagining that high-end clothes might fit her, and told over and over again that there’s no room for her fat ass. Then when she loses confidence, she’s let everyone down — where, oh where, did that sassy personality go? Well, you beat it out of her, asshats.
Let me tell you, guys, every DAY that you avoid this catch-22 is a fucking triumph. People are going to tell you that you have to be better than everyone else, while simultaneously insisting that you’re worse. They’re going to tell you that you need to improve yourself, and that you’re terminally unsalvageable. There’s nothing to do about this except just continuing to be yourself — not a fat stereotype, and not a walking challenge to fat stereotypes, but just a fat person. Do the amount of exercise that makes you feel good; don’t try to prove yourself as the toughest or the buffest or the most resilient. Rock the aesthetic that’s comfortable for you — perform glamor if you want it, but wear a T-shirt if you’d rather. Give in when you have to; if you’ve been to five malls looking for a party dress, try sitting around in jeans and a thermal all day. Fake it when you have to; get angry out loud, when you’re angry. Be the center of attention; let someone else be the center of attention. Consider yourself to have cosmic permission to impress nobody, to do only and exactly what makes you comfortable. It’s the simplest and the hardest thing in the world.