Image is Superficial, But Still Powerful

Have you caught Cameron Russell’s TEDx talk? Her topic?

Image is powerful, even when it is superficial.

In the ten minute clip, the supermodel is candid and honest about “winning the genetic lottery.” Russell walks on to the TED stage in what many would consider a fancy evening dress and eight-inch matching heels. To make a valid point about how quickly we can change the way we are perceived, Cameron quickly changes her wardrobe by adding a wrap-around skirt, and a loose-fitting sweater over top of her dress. Then the supermodel ditches her heels for a pair of flats.

With her sense of humor fully in place, Russell places multiple side by side images of herself from professional photography sessions next to personal photos of her with her family and friends. She makes jabs at the images and jokes about having sexy photographs taken as a teenager before she had even kissed a boy. Then she points out that the supermodel pictures are not pictures of herself, but rather pieces of carefully constructed artwork. Hairdressers, makeup artists, lighting specialists and prop and equipment crews all worked very hard for many hours to capture that one “perfectly constructed image.”And then the image is photo shopped.

Cameron discusses the privileges she receives for her genetics. Of course, she admits to receiving freebies from different photo shoots such as the eight-inch high heels she walked on stage wearing but the free heals are not the freebies that make her think twice. She admits to being the recipient of freebies for how she looks, such as being let off by a traffic cop. Her conversation even branches out to include the taboo topic of how “people are paying the cost for how they look.” Cameron opens up on not just how she is perceived for being an attractive white female but also how others are perceived for being non-white. Using startling statistics, Cameron discusses the number of Latino and black teenagers who are stopped for traffic infractions in New York City. Simply because of their color, their odds of being pulled over are increased simply for being non-white.

Everyone has insecurities. I find it completely refreshing that Russell is willing to admit that supermodels are some of the most insecure people on the planet. She was even open in admitting that she is insecure, saying, “I am insecure every day.”However, the most important part of this video is her advice to young girls. To the young aspiring supermodels this successful model tells little girls to set their dreams higher, and encourages them to aim for being the president or the chief executive officer for a Fortune 500 company — aim for anything except being supermodel:

“Saying that you want to be a model when you grow up is akin to saying that you want to win the Powerball when you grow up. — Wanting to be a supermodel is not a career path.”

Russell is right — that kind of dream is out of one’s control because there are too many variables.

As Russell suggests, many of us have perceptions based on looks. I know I’m guilty as charged. From a young age, we use genetic features such as hair and skin color and clothing as a way of separating individuals apart from the masses. It’s almost impossible to go through a day without categorizing people in some way. You go to a gathering and meet ten new people — Jill had on red heels and Mario is from L.A. But acknowledging that we do so is important. As a society we need to acknowledge that gender and racial oppression are still an issue. That is what Russell would like each of us to take away from her TEDx talk. I’m going to remember her wise words:

“That we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes and our perceived failures.”

You can watch more of her talk here:

Leah Sipress is a happily married stay at home mom to two high energy little characters ages two and four. She first started her blog  to keep a digital scrapbook of her family’s activities for relatives out-of-state and has since found writing to be therapeutic. As a recent University of Washington – Tacoma graduate with a BA in Urban Studies, and a community volunteer, she spends her spare time with her family enjoying the great outdoors and getting crafty by scrap-booking and sewing.

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  • I also found her candid assessment of “winning the genetic lottery” and her honesty about that totally refreshing. We need more allies like her! It’s brave to say out loud how certain kinds of privilege open certain doors, and it’s compassionate to point out how those doors remain closed to others.

  • Enigmaticstatic

    I was glad to see her ask young girls to aspire to be something more than models. I am glad she was honest about it being a dead end career path, Society places far to much importance in things such as appearance. It is nice to see it get addressed.

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