Download the Lesson Plan
In this lesson, students will engage in an in-depth discussion that examines the demand in the advertising industry for thin models under the age of 18 and the impact that this practice has on the body images of consumers.
A number of video clips provided with this lesson are from Girl Model, a film that pulls back the curtain on the modeling industry by following the stories of an American scout, and an aspiring model who is discovered in Siberia at age 13 and sent to work in Japan. Note: This film has subtitles in many parts.
POV offers a lending library of DVDs that you can borrow anytime during the school year--FOR FREE! Get started by joining our Community Network.
Top of Page
By the end of this lesson, students will:
- Discuss their ideas about the ideal beauty standard.
- Identify the connection between the demand for models under the age of 18 and the demand for very thin models.
- Determine the potential impact on the body images of consumers who regularly see advertisements that depict models under the age of 18.
- Evaluate who benefits and who is harmed when young models are used to represent adult women.
- Recognize what the practice of using children to advertise women's products says about how society feels about women and aging.
- Explain in persuasive essays their positions on the use of children to advertise products for adult women.
Language Arts, Social Studies, Current Events
- Internet access and equipment to show the class online video
ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED
One 50-minute class periods, plus time outside of class to complete persuasive essays.
Clip 1: "Scouting New Faces" (length 5:00)
This clip begins at 2:50, showing the back of Ashley, a model scout. It ends at 7:50, when Ashley says, "Perfect. Thank you."
Clip 2: "Unattainable Images of Beauty" (length 6:40)
The clip begins with the question "What are the most common markets for models to be sent to?" It ends when Rachel says, "...which in the long run will just make us feel wrong."
Clip 3: "Modeling in Japan" (length 10:47)
The clip begins at 31:10 with Nadya going to a casting in Japan. It ends at 41:57 with Nadya telling her mother on the phone, "Keep the money for yourself so you can eat."
1. Ask students to imagine that they are scouts for a modeling agency. Have them take a few minutes to write down descriptions of the "ideal beauty standards" that would guide their search--age, size, shape, etc.
2. Have students compare their descriptions with partners, and then invite a few pairs to share their thinking with the class. List on the board the characteristics of the ideal female model that are common among students. Ask the class:
- As a modeling scout, why do you think these characteristics are ideal? Does the list reflect your personal ideas about beauty, or just what you think people want to see in advertising?
- What has influenced your ideas of what an ideal female model looks like?
- How does the class list describing the ideal female model make female students feel about their own bodies?
3. Show the class Clip 1 (length 5:00), which shows a model scout searching for new faces at an open casting event in Siberia. Focus viewing by asking students to imagine what it might be like to be one of the aspiring models shown in the video. After watching the clip, discuss:
- What thoughts would be going through your mind if you were one of the girls waiting to be evaluated at the open casting?
- What was your reaction to the scouts discussing what they did not like about each girl while the aspiring models were present? How would you handle such criticism and rejection?
- Is Nadya's appearance consistent with your idea of what defines an ideal model? Why or why not?
- Later in the film, Ashley the scout says she chose Nadya in part, because "they love skinny girls in Japan and she has a fresh young face. She looks young, like almost a pre-pubescent girl." What do you think the connection is between the demand for young models (girls as opposed to women) and the demand for very thin models?
- In your view, advertising for what types of products should feature 13-year-old models like Nadya? Explain your thinking.
4. Tell students that the use of young models is something that happens around the world, not just in Japan. A survey of working models in New York and Los Angeles indicates that the majority of models begin their careers when they are younger than 16. (Source: The Model Alliance) Show students Clip 2 (length 6:40), which is an excerpt of an interview with model Rachel Blais. Focus viewing by having students listen for what she says about how using young models in advertising affects the body images of consumers.
5. After watching the clip, discuss:
- What impact might the fact that the image of what a woman should look like is represented by the body of a model under the age of 18 have on how adult women see their bodies?
- How might the ideal of beauty presented by young models get people to make purchases?
- Who benefits and who is harmed when young models are used to represent adult women?
- What does the practice of using children to advertise women's products say about how society feels about women and aging?
- Do you agree with Blais's view that models under the age of 18 should not be used in the advertising of products for adult women? Why or why not?
6. Ask students whether they agree with Blais's view that models under the age of 18 should not be used in advertising for products for adult women. Have them capture their thinking on this issue in persuasive essays. If Twitter is available, ask students to submit questions to #askagirlmodel (for example, "how old were you?" and "did you trust the photographer?") and use the answers as supporting points in the essay.
1. Create advertisements for products for adult women that depict the beauty of adult women in your community. Discuss the ads in small groups. How do they compare to professional ads for these types of products? Would they be effective in convincing consumers to buy the products? Why or why not?
2. Work for change in the advertising industry. If students believe that models under the age of 18 should not be used in advertising for products for adult women, have them send letters to companies asking them not to use young models and include excerpts from their persuasive essays to make their points.
3. Use the modeling industry as a case study for learning about labor rights and protections. Begin by showing the class Clip 3 (length 10:47), which shows what happened when 13-year-old Nadya went to Japan by herself to begin modeling. Discuss what stresses Nadya had to endure as a young girl taking care of herself and working in an unfamiliar country. Tell the class that Nadya's agency did not provide the paid work that was promised and sent her home more than $2,000 in debt. Students can further investigate the challenges faced by working models by reading an October 22, 2012 blog post by model Rachel Blais, who appears in the film, and by watching POV's interview with Rachel. Have students summarize the labor rights issues for models described by these sources, steps being taken to improve labor conditions and the obstacles that make progress difficult. Ask students to think of lessons learned from their studies of historical labor rights movements that could be applied to improving conditions for models today.
4. Look more closely at the use of young models in fashion photography. Show students a brief video of model Cameron Russell speaking about her work as a model. During her talk, she shows images from her early years in the industry that contrast modeling pictures with informal shots from the same timeframe that more accurately reflect her true age. Ask students for their reactions to these images. How accurately do Russell's modeling pictures reflect her everyday appearance? Does seeing these contrasting images change the way students think about pictures of models found in magazines? Why or why not? How do these images contribute to the lesson's discussion about the practice of using models under the age of 18 to advertise products for adults?
5. Examine the use of Photoshop in fashion photography. Show the class the video "The Photoshop Effect" and discuss how the model looked before and after Photoshop was used. What techniques were used to change her appearance? Do students believe that such practices are deceptive? Should they be banned? Should retouched photos be labeled as such? Why or why not? What potential harm could come from using Photoshop to alter someone's appearance? How would students respond to the question posed in the video: Have we created an unattainable image of perfection that is widely accepted as the standard for beauty?
6. Discover how society's ideas about "the ideal woman of the moment" are used to create mannequins. The POV short film 34x25x36 shows what goes into mannequin design and reveals cultural beliefs about the ideal female body. A related lesson plan further explores body image.
This site provides tools to help women and girls "understand and resist harmful media messages that affect their self-esteem and body image."
In addition to information about the film and filmmakers, the site includes links to related organizations and resources and blog posts, including one about New York Fashion Week by model Rachel Blais.
Media Literacy Clearinghouse
This site provides education resources that promote critical thinking about media messages.
The Model Alliance
This organization seeks to improve working conditions for models by focusing on labor rights, health for models, protections for child models and sexual harassment issues and providing the perspectives of models on industry issues.
POV: Infographic: The International Model Supply Chain
POV lifts the veil on the international modeling supply chain with a graphic representation of industry statistics.
POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects
SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
SL.11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
SL.9-10.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
SL.11-12.2 Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
W.9-10, 11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.
W.9-10, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.
Content Knowledge:A compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).
Geography, Standard 9: Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth's surface.
Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
Language Arts, Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.
Language Arts, Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.
Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
Language Arts, Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media.
U.S. History, Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and northern Virginia.
I have a friend who dates only exceptionally attractive women. These women aren’t trophy-wife types—they are comparable to him in age, education level, and professional status. They are just really, notably good looking, standouts even in the kind of urban milieu where regular workouts and healthy eating are commonplace and an abundance of disposable income to spend on facials, waxing, straightening, and coloring keeps the average level of female attractiveness unusually high.
My friend is sensitive and intelligent and, in almost every particular, unlike the stereotypical sexist, T & A-obsessed meathead. For years, I assumed that it was just his good fortune that the women he felt an emotional connection with all happened to be so damn hot. Over time, however, I came to realize that my friend, nice as he is, prizes extreme beauty above all the other desiderata that one might seek in a partner.
I have another friend who broke up with a woman because her body, though fit, was the wrong type for him. While he liked her personality, he felt that he’d never be sufficiently attracted to her, and that it was better to end things sooner rather than later.
Some people would say these men are fatally shallow. Others would say they are realistic about their own needs, and that there is no use beating oneself up about one’s preferences: some things cannot be changed. Those in the first camp would probably say that my friends are outliers—uniquely immature men to be avoided. Many in the second camp argue that, in fact, all men would be like the man who dates only beautiful women, if only they enjoyed his ability to snare such knockouts. In my experience, people on both sides are emphatic, and treat their position as if it is obvious and incontrovertible.
To me, these stories highlight the intense and often guilty relationship that many men have with female beauty, a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women.
You’d think it would also be a rich subject for fiction writers—after all, our attitudes about beauty and attraction are tightly bound up with the question of romantic love. But, in fact, many novels fail to meaningfully address the issue of beauty. In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.
This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.
When a novelist does examine beauty more closely, the results are often startling. Two of my favorite male novelists do not fall into the trap that Shriver delineated. They are clear-sighted and acute chroniclers of the male gaze.
Consider Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” a novel about a dysfunctional marriage. Frank Wheeler’s love for his wife, April, has everything to do with her good looks: April, whom he first spots across the room at a party, is a “tall ash blonde with a patrician kind of beauty.” Frank’s upbringing was distinctly un-patrician. His father was a lifelong salesman; during the Depression, his parents struggled to hold onto their modest lower-middle-class existence. Then Frank served in the Second World War, which allowed him to attend Columbia on the G.I. Bill. He built a new identity, as a bohemian and an intellectual—an “intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man,” in his self-romanticizing account. But he still couldn’t quiet a certain anxiety about his status. Yates writes,> It nagged him, in particular, that none of the girls he’d known so far had given him a sense of unalloyed triumph. One had been very pretty except for unpardonably thick ankles, and one had been intelligent, though possessed of an annoying tendency to mother him, but he had to admit that none had been first-rate. Nor was he ever in doubt about what he meant by a first-rate girl, though he’d never yet come close enough to one to touch her hand.
Enter April, “an exceptionally first-rate girl whose shining hair and splendid legs had drawn him halfway across a roomful of strangers.” Frank, “bolstered by four straight gulps of whiskey … followed the counsel of victory.” He approached her, and “within five minutes, he found he could make April Johnson laugh, that he could not only hold the steady attention of her wide gray eyes but could make their pupils dart up and down and around in little arcs while he talked to her.” So begins one of contemporary literature’s worst relationships.
For Frank, April represents success. April, for her part, likes Frank O.K.—he’s “interesting,” she tells him—but she doesn’t like him well enough that he ever feels secure. To be so close to the woman who represents so much but to also feel her perpetually holding back maddens Frank. When April gets pregnant, she wants to have an illegal abortion, which Frank interprets as a rejection of him. And this is intolerable. Though he doesn’t want a child any more than she does, he is finally able to talk her into getting married and having one. Anything is better than a rejection from the only first-rate girl he’s ever been close to.
It is notable that April’s power over Frank does not lie in the fact that she excites him more than other women sexually—it is, rather, that her cool brand of beauty imbues her, in his mind, with a higher social value than that of his previous lovers. In other words, he is driven, if unconsciously, by an impulse cooler and more calculating than lust.
Both Frank and April are, in some sense, victims of her beauty, of its hold on Frank’s imagination. They both would have been better off if he had let her go. And this is key: if April’s looks give her power, it’s not always a power that works to her advantage. The course of her life is shaped by Frank’s need to repeatedly win her affection. Young and without a better alternative on the horizon, she gives in to the pull of Frank’s desire and decides that what she feels is probably love, or at least close enough.
Frank’s relationship to April’s beauty is hardly heroic, though he aspires to meet a Hemingway-esque ideal of masculinity (he’s always clenching his jaw to look more commanding).We imagine that someone like Hemingway winds up with beautiful women as a matter of course—we don’t picture him working at it consciously, wondering whether this one’s hair is too frizzy or her hips too wide for her to be a suitable complement to the image he seeks to project. It is one of the many strengths of “Revolutionary Road” that Yates so thoroughly sees through his characters’ pretensions.
Jump ahead several decades, and we see a similarly keen eye in Jonathan Franzen. In “The Corrections,” he proved adept at capturing the complicated dynamics among women surrounding that most charged of beauty-related topics: weight. When the svelte, stylish thirtysomething Denise Lambert sits down for lunch with her parents, Franzen notes that her less svelte mother,
Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of each of Enid’s. Now Denise’s plate was empty and she hadn’t taken seconds of anything.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Enid said.
“Yes. That was my lunch.”
“You’ve lost weight.”
“In fact not.”
“Well, don’t lose any more,” Enid said with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.
That “skimpy laugh” and those “large feelings” show us just how raw this subject is, how something so seemingly innocuous is so fraught for Enid. I suspect that I am not the only woman who finds this scenario familiar, whether from Enid’s vantage point or from Denise’s, or both. The size of appetites—for many women, it’s as sensitive a topic as there is.
Of course, this sensitivity didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It develops alongside a consciousness of the male gaze, the sense of being constantly sized up. (Women level this gaze on each other as well.) What makes this so persistent, so impervious to feminism or anti-consumerism, or any type of ideology, is that it’s so often unconscious.
Walter Berglund, in Franzen’s later novel “Freedom,” provides a perfect example. He is the ultimate “nice guy.” In college, he’s the type who doesn’t get a lot of girls. In this, he’s not at all like his best friend and roommate, Richard Katz, a bad-boy musician with a steady supply of female admirers. Walter is as feminist as feminist can be. He disapproves of Richard’s womanizing ways and rails against “the Subjugation of Women.” He’s also a devoted son who spends his weekends helping his aging mother run a struggling motel. The guy is a real mensch. Yet he is more exacting than Richard about women’s looks. Walter, Richard explains, “always goes for good-looking. For pretty and well-formed. He’s ambitious that way.” Blond, athletic Patty Emerson fits the bill, even though for a long time she, like most of Walter’s love interests, fails to reciprocate his feelings.
We can’t help but suspect that Walter’s ambitiousness is related to his feelings of inferiority. Walter, we think, wants to prove something about himself, about his own desirability, by winning the kind of girl that men agree is a prize—that is, an unambiguously attractive one. On the other hand, Richard’s very sexiness enables him to be more spontaneous and broad-minded, more open to women who aren’t conventional beauties. He mistreats them in other ways.
It isn’t, however, the case that men value beauty only from insecurity. If only. Then we could simply write off men who evaluate women by their looks as scheming social climbers. But the human response to beauty is also visceral, and Franzen reminds us of this, too. In “Freedom,” Walter and Patty’s college-age son, Joey, becomes infatuated with Jenna, an exceptionally pretty girl, an attachment that proves to be both powerful and long-lasting.
We see the force of Jenna’s looks when Joey notices how men respond to her in public. It’s of a different order from what he experiences with Connie, his more ordinarily pretty girlfriend. With Jenna at an airport, Joey realizes, men were
checking him out resentfully. He forced himself to stare down each of them in turn, to mark Jenna as claimed. It was going to be tiring, he realized, to have to do this everywhere they went in public. Men sometimes stared at Connie, too, but they usually seemed to accept, without undue regret, that she was his. With Jenna, already, he had the sense that other men’s interest was not deterred by his presence but continued to seek ways around him.
Soon after, Franzen has fun with the disconnect between beauty and desire, even when desire has been stoked by beauty. When Joey finally gets together with Jenna, he finds his attention drifting away at the very moment he should be most fully engaged (in bed). Joey notes that Jenna
fooled around more brutally, less pliantly than Connie did—that was part of it. But he also couldn’t see her face in the dark, and when he couldn’t see it he had only the memory, the idea, of its beauty. He kept telling himself that he was finally getting Jenna, that this was Jenna, Jenna, Jenna. But in the absence of visual confirmation all he had in his arms was a random sweaty attacking female.
“Can we turn a light on?” he said.
Eventually Joey and Jenna go to sleep, mutually dissatisfied.
As it happens, Jenna is a vacuous, spoiled drip, with little to recommend her other than her good looks. But Franzen is too fair a novelist to blame Jenna for not being the woman of Joey’s dreams. It is, rather, Joey’s obsession that is shown to be foolish. Aware of his youth, readers are likely to sympathize with his silly fixation on a good-looking woman he doesn’t even like, but we also hope that he will grow out of it.
Franzen’s presentation of Joey and Jenna stands in contrast to myriad novels in which a male protagonist falls for a woman for little reason other than her beauty, and then seems not merely disappointed but also angry, almost self-righteous, when she turns out not to be exactly the person he wanted her to be. We see something of this, for example, in Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus.” Its hero, Neil Klugman, meets Brenda Patimkin at her family’s country club, where their conversation consists only of her asking him to hold her glasses while she dives in the pool. We’ve got to assume she looked pretty good in her bathing suit, because that evening Neil finds her family in the phone book and asks her out. The summer romance that ensues is wonderfully and unsentimentally evoked, but it isn’t built to last. By autumn, Neil and Brenda’s ardor is beginning to cool. Neil is increasingly disdainful of Brenda and her family, whom he sees as vulgar and materialistic. As a narrator, he seems bent on showing us how terrible they are. Indeed, they are rather terrible, but I’m not sure this indignation reflects particularly well on Neil, either. The high-mindedness that he is capable of elsewhere is not really in play in his pursuit of Brenda. He went after a girl because he found her attractive, and, for a while, he was willing to overlook what he didn’t like. Eventually, though, he could no longer forgive her for who she was and for what her family was like. But Brenda didn’t mislead him, except in so much as her good looks can be said to have enchanted him. Of course, women no more deserve contempt for their beauty than they do for their lack of it, and to be initially adored and then, when better known, to be found wanting can be punishing, too. “Goodbye, Columbus” is a terrific novella, but “Freedom” is more humane, its authorial sympathies distributed more justly among its characters.
Beauty is often treated as an essentially feminine subject, something trivial and frivolous that women are excessively concerned with. Men, meanwhile, are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with it: they are drawn to it. The implication is that this may be unfortunate—not exactly ideal morally—but it can’t be helped, because it’s natural, biological. This seems more than a little ironic. Women are not only subject to a constant and exhausting and sometimes humiliating scrutiny—they are also belittled for caring about their beauty, mocked for seeking to enhance or to hold onto their good looks, while men are just, well, being men.
The reality is, of course, far more complicated, as our best novelists show us. They train our gazes on men at not only their most shallow and status conscious but also at their most ridiculous (the clenched jaw). It’s not always easy to know what to make of these men, who certainly aren’t wholly bad. But in a world where women are so frequently judged by their looks, it’s refreshing to encounter male characters whose superficial thoughts are at least acknowledged by their creators.
Adelle Waldman is the author of the novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”
Illustration: Jing Wei.