Girl in the mirror

I read an essay once that argued that lying is never acceptable because it distorts a person’s perception of reality and robs them of the right to trust their instincts. We’ll come back to this at the end.

Picture me, sitting at a desk at the back of a classroom of teenage models. The task I’ve been set by my employer is pretty simple: get them to talk. With enthusiasm. Get them to talk with enthusiasm, to present well, to be engaging. Get their hands out of their pockets and their eyes off their shoes. Get them to stop being teenagers? Maybe.

Acting teacher brain translates to: Get them to connect to passion.

They’ve been set some homework the previous week by the other teacher: compose a thirty second spiel/commercial for a product and be prepared to present it to the class. A simple enough task.

The presentations begin and the usual obstacles present themselves: this one fidgets out of nerves, this one is monotonal, this one slouches, this one looks at her feet, this one says “um” and “like” too much. And the usual cause is identified: they don’t care about the task.

“Ok,” I say. “So why did you choose to write about shampoo then? You had all the options in the world. You could have written about animal rights, your spiritual beliefs, the situation in Ukraine. Why shampoo? I mean, shampoo is great and all, but it’s hardly something you’re passionate about. I don’t think anyone is passionate about shampoo. I mean, Jennifer Garner doesn’t give a **** about shampoo, no matter how much she looks like she does when she’s being paid a squillion dollars to say she does.

“Well we had to choose a product.”

So I strip it back. I’m not going to get these kids to enthuse over shampoo if I can’t get them to enthuse in general. So we start chatting about their passions. I’m trying to get them to unpack what passion is, what belief in something is, in the hope they can “endow” shampoo with their passion for, um, One Direction or something.

“Why do you model?” I ask.

Few of them have a satisfactory answer. Some identify a love of clothing, a passion for expressing themselves with fashion, and that’s great. I’m seeing some eyes light up.

But one of them says, “I used to watch fashion shows as a kid, the runway stuff, and I would feel ashamed of what I am. So I model to be better than myself.”

I blink. “What do you mean?”

“The way I look.”

WHAT THE ACTUAL ****?

I’m so thrown and disturbed I actually blurt that out, sans censorship.

“You know that is the least healthy reason in the world to be a model, right?”

There’s a nervous laugh.

“No, I’m serious. This industry, broadly speaking–I mean this mediated, televised industry, where your product is your self–it’s a massive invitation to compare yourself to other people. You can’t escape it. Whether you’re an actor or a model or a musician, people will compare you to other people and you will want to do it yourself. But you can’t.”

Awkward shifting. I glance around the room.

“Look, beauty is a construct. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s made up. A hundred years ago the models we see on the runway would have been considered emaciated and incredibly unattractive. So it’s made up – it’s not real. And even when you accept the made-up spoon-fed signed-sealed-delivered message of what beauty is for this thirty seconds, even that is fake, because it’s photoshopped and made-up… With make-up.”

“But I mean I’m not as pretty as…”

“STOP. Look at me. Look at my face. Do you know how long it took to do this? My eyebrows are not this striking. I coloured them in. My skin is having a tantrum today, so I’ve covered it in foundation. I’m wearing blush and eye-liner and mascara. This is not my face.”

She then said something even more disturbing. She said, “I thought you weren’t wearing anything…”

I choke on my own tongue for a minute before glancing around the room. “Pipper–light foundation, mascara and a little blush, yeah?”

Pipper nods.

“Danielle–mascara, eye-liner, foundation, and gloss?”

Danielle nods.

“There is only one girl in this room not wearing make-up, and it’s the one who thinks she’s ugly… I am NOT saying you should wear make-up, let’s be clear about that, but you need to know that the standard of beauty you are holding yourself to is FAKE, from conception to execution, the whole damn thing is FAKE.”

She stares for a moment. I think I see some tears.

“NEVER compare yourself to another woman. You don’t know how long she spent in the mirror that morning feeling ugly and trying to cover it up. And in this industry, in this job, it is SO much more important that you resist that urge. You’ve chosen a career that is by nature superficial–and I don’t say that in a derogatory way, it’s simply the truth: modelling and fashion as an industry is concerned with exteriors. The ONLY way to survive is to make sure you balance that with an equally strong reverence for what is inside you. It’s a cliche but it’s true.”

I’m going to stop quoting myself now and just say it.

NEVER COMPARE YOURSELF TO ANYONE ELSE. Set a standard for yourself. Meet it. Exceed it. Set another standard. Repeat.

AND NEVER look at a photo and think “I wish I was” because that model wishes she was too.

We are lied to and we lie to each other every day in every photo with every lash of mascara. We distort our own perceptions of reality.  I’m not going to stop wearing make-up, I’m not that virtuous, but can I set a challenge? Can I ask everyone, men and women alike, to look in the mirror for thirty seconds each morning, NO MAKE-UP, and find one thing about that face you like?