The Ugly Truth I Learned About Beauty At A New York Fashion Shoot

girl modeling

So now 14-year old girls are the standard for "adult" female beauty?

I am not hot.

I am not smokin'. I am no picture perfect model.

I am just an average looking woman considered attractive enough for having long-hair and a "great personality".

At times I can look absolutely lovely, even downright stunning. But, there are also times I look like a bus backed over my head. I mention the subject of my non-hotness because it throws me into a dark pit of self-deprecating despair from time to time.

Especially after I divorced a few years ago and became single again. I quickly noticed that the world considered the hottest women to be all of the Pretty Young Things running around in the world. And I noticed throngs of fellas stumbling and bumbling after them with desire. The beauty and fashion industry sells more of the same. Just recently Prada caused a stir after using a 14-year-old girl in their runway show (model Roos Abels) — a show, I should note, modeling fashion for adult women.

When did a 14-year old girl become the standard of adult female anything, let alone beauty? 

This has been an area of serious and significant struggle for me — reconciling this disparity between what the world holds up as "beautiful" versus what I see in the mirror reflected back at me. Or at least it was, until a recent visit to New York City, during which, two experiences occurred that have forever changed my perspective on the whole "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall" thing.

Experience #1: Beauty is a BEAST, y'all
Upon arriving in NYC, I hopped in a cab and headed straight to a fashion shoot on Madison Avenue. My friend Ben (my host for the weekend) is a beauty and fashion photographer and I was lucky enough to spend my entire first day in the city behind the scenes on one of his test shoots.

The experience was mind-bending and a complete eye opener!

Of course, we all "know" that beauty images are manufactured, and yet, when they are everywhere, every day, every place we look, it's hard not to internalize them and believe that obtaining that level of farcical perfection is somehow possible (not to mention: expected!).
But, now, thanks to my behind-the-scenes glimpse at how every step of the "making pretty" process goes down … my beauty perspective (and the demons that like to torture my brain about it) have finally shifted. Hopefully, once and for all.

The beauty "reality" we normally see ...

Photo: Benjamin Stone

In this photo we see a gorgeous 23-year-old young woman bubbling over with innocent sexuality.

She has hair to die for. Long limbs to die for. Flawless porcelain skin to die for.

She's sweet. Slightly sultry. Self-possessed. The very image of "ideal beauty".

The beauty reality I saw behind-the-scenes ...

Photo: Gladly Beyond

The "23-year-old" model was actually a gangly 15-year-old little girl! Visibly unsure and uncomfortable in her prematurely statuesque body. A 15-year-old … little ...  girl! For heavens sake her MOM was there on set with her.

She was sweet. Definitely beautiful. But awkwardly shy. She barely spoke a word the entire day (even though everyone else on set was boisterously chatting away).

She did not eat the entire 10-hour day (despite the rest of us eating and offering to get her food repeatedly).

For each of her four looks photographed that day, 2 hours of extensive and meticulous hair and makeup were required before hand. I sat with rapt attention watching the team of talented stylists paint her, curl her, shellac her, fluff her, and otherwise "create" her.

From the front, she looked like perfection. From behind, she looked like the Bride of Frankenstein.

They pinned giant cardboard forms into her hair, added hair extensions, then teased and hair-sprayed the hell out of her … all to create that "natural" voluminous sexy, sultry hair look.

The cardboard forms actually stayed in her hair during the shoot (Ben just photographed from the front). It was comically ridiculous to see in person.

Despite her being a size 0 (sidebar: wouldn't size 0 mean she doesn't actually exist?) all of her clothes were pinned and binder-clipped together in the back to create the illusion of the "perfect fit".

Once primed and primped, the model then proceeded to the set, which was enhanced with flattering lighting (which also took over an hour to set up). There, she was photographed with a top of the line professional camera by a professional photographer who would later select only the best of the hundreds of images taken to then edit it in Photoshop to final perfection. And then, that final image will be added to the swarm of images held up to adult women out in the world as a representation of ideal female beauty. 

Uhm. I gotta tell ya. I'd really love to look great for y'all, but I just don't have the time, energy or inclination to try to make my 41-year-old self look like a 23-year-old hottie (who is actually a Fashion SWAT Team-styled, expertly lit, Photoshopped 15-year-old little girl!).

Sorry. You’re gonna have to tag me out on that one.

And what was even crazier about the experience is that, the entire time we were there, this practically perfect, ideally beautiful model had her eye on ME! I was the only non-industry person and she was clearly nervous. Every time the girl would enter the set for a new round of images, she'd nervously catch my eye at the back of the room to see what my opinion and feedback was, or so it seemed. I quickly realized this was occurring, and began to give her lots of warm, "don't be nervous" smiles and "you're doing great" nods and thumbs ups. But all the while, I was thinking: Wow! Our society operates an insidious multi-billion dollar a year beauty industry designed to make me envy and yearn to be this girl. And she is just as insecure and seeking approval as the rest of us.

Experience #2: Muy Lindo at "Fuerza Bruta":

Flash forward three days later to my last night in NYC. Ben took me to see the show "Fuerza Bruta" in Union Square. The audience was packed for this standing-only performance (the audience has to move regularly to accommodate frequent movement of the stage)  "Fuerza Bruta" is a bizarrely beautiful visual spectacle and the Culture Geek in me was ecstatically freaking out. Picture me in pure bliss, loving every minute of it! In a word: happy. 

The show's infectiously pulsing music made me giddy and I was dancing my heart out, smiling like a fool and excitedly exclaiming to Ben (but mostly to myself): "Holy WOW!" and "Ohmygosh, I am so in LOVE with this!"

Suddenly I could feel someone watching me. I scanned the crowd to my left and sure enough, a tall guy a few people away was staring right at me … a gigantic smile on his face.

He met my eyes, smiled even wider and raised his eyebrows to convey: "Isn't this show great?!"

I smiled back with a giant, wide-eyed-with-wonderment, art-loving look on my face and he actually chuckled to himself at my enthusiasm, smiling at me intently … a look of total delighted appreciation on his face.

From that point on, he spent as much time watching me watch the show as he did taking in the performance itself. I didn't pay him much attention, I was too busy being fully present in my own happy moment. But it struck me that the audience that night was full of incredibly pretty women; and in the show, there were three half-naked very gorgeous, very young women rolling around together in water just inches over his head. (I told you, the show is bizarrely beautiful.) Yet, what was most attractive in the room to this guy watching me was the sight of shiny happy me, utterly and completely enjoying myself.

I thought about what my best friend has told at least 900 times since when she’s heard me speak self-depracatingly about my lack of perfect beauty: "The prettiest girls are the happy girls. You are most gorgeous when you stop worrying about being noticed and are simply yourself."

And suddenly it clicked. Being 'model pretty' might get you noticed for the beauty of how you look. But being your radiant, joy-filled, authentic self gets you noticed for the beauty of who you are! (And isn’t the latter so much more fun?!)

I'm content with letting models shoulder the weight of being unrealistically, unobtainably hot. (Although I am still not remotely okay with 14- and 15-year-old girls being held up as the beauty standard from adult women. If clothes are meant for an adult woman's body then they should be modeled by … oh, I don't know … adult women's bodies? #CallMeCrazy.)  

How about YOU?
Have you ever not conformed to social beauty standards yet still managed to be the most gorgeous person in the room? Leave a comment. I'd love to hear about it. 

This article was originally published at Gladly Beyond. Reprinted with permission from the author.