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"We're not real people."

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

Have you seen model Cameron Russell’s Ted Talk from 2012? (YouTube search: ‘Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model.’)

Ms. Russell walks out onto the stage in a body-hugging little black dress, wearing sexy, ultra-high heels. She looks beautiful - the way most people expect models to look. Within a mere few seconds, it is evident that she is uncomfortable. We find out why, when she says to the audience, “I feel like there is an uncomfortable tension in the room right now because I should not have worn this dress.” The audience quietly chuckles.

She then reaches over to a stool next to her and grabs a long sarong, which she wraps around her waist. It’s flowy, not form-fitting, like her dress is underneath, and it covers most of the length of her legs. Then she puts on a loose, long-sleeved t-shirt to hide her body further, and removes her high heels to put on some flat shoes. She nervously laughs as she’s changing, and assumes that “…some of the women were really horrified when I came out (onto the stage)…”

When she has completed her outfit change, she says, “Why did I do that? …Image is powerful, but also, image is superficial. I just totally transformed what you thought of me in six seconds.”

Did she, though? In what ways? And why did she want to transform what people thought of her? To make them more comfortable, or so that she could comfort herself?

Cameron goes on to say that she “won a genetic lottery” and that it’s a "legacy" she’s been “cashing out on”. She said these things as if they are shameful. As if they're wrong. Are they? I think it depends on what you think it means to win a lottery and to cash out on something.

She presents a slide show which includes many pictures of herself. Some of the images are modeling photos, and others are of her in “real life". Next to one of her glamorous modeling photographs are the words “THAT’S AWKWARD”.

I have no intention of dissing a fellow model, partly because Cameron does bring up some valid points in this talk regarding race inequality in the biz, and rampant sexism. And partly because it’s clear that she has only good intentions. What I do intend to do is to draw attention to the fact that this sweet, wise, well-intentioned and compassionate young woman is apologizing for her appearance. And that, in my opinion, is shameful.

Why should any person apologize for their appearance?

It’s a rhetorical question, really, but one answer to that question could be that they lack the confidence to own and to be their true, authentic self.

It’s been almost ten years since Ms. Russell gave that talk. Perhaps today, if she watches herself doing that talk, she realizes how much she has grown and matured as a human being and as a model. Perhaps she realizes that she never needed to explain, justify, apologize, or feel guilty about the way she looks, or for the fact that many people in this society think she’s beautiful to look at.

In another Ted Talk I’ve seen entitled, ‘I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much’, Stella Young, born with a physical disability, appears on the stage in her wheel chair. Her makeup and hair look lovely, professionally done, and stage-ready (Cameron Russell wore no makeup - god forbid she look even more glamorous than she does naturally - and her hair was clearly untouched by a hair stylist, but I digress). Stella wants us to know how normal she is. She informs the audience about what it’s like to have a disability. Not once, however, does she have an apologetic attitude regarding how society perceives her, nor does she try to make the audience more comfortable with her appearance. She doesn't reach for a sarong or a long-sleeved t-shirt to cover her body for the audience. What she does do is tell us what, as a disabled person, she has noticed about how people react to what they see when they look at her. She does this with her natural humor and wit, her true personality easily shining through. It is very evident that she understands that her physicality is what it is...the way she was born. And she accepts it.

As I watched Stella’s talk, it occurred to me that almost every time she said the words ‘disabled people’ or ’disability’, I could replace the words ‘model’ or ‘modeling’, and both views applied, still making sense, interchangeably.

Ms. Young says, “I’m sitting on this stage, looking like I do…and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you. We’ve been sold this lie that Disability (*replace with Modeling) makes you exceptional. Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.” She also says, "We're not (thought of as) real people. We're there to inspire."

Whose concern is it what the general public thinks about your appearance?

I agree with what Cameron Russell says, that image is superficial. Or, rather, that it can be. A person’s image is something to consider, at least, for those of us blessed with the gift of sight. So, let’s get deeper, shall we? Dig deeper to find, cultivate, be grateful, and celebrate what’s true and authentic for ourselves. Own and celebrate who we are, what we are, and how we look. When we care a bit less about making other people more comfortable with how we appear, our confidence naturally seeps out.

I urge you to watch each of these Ted Talks. I wonder who you think comes off as more confident and comfortable in her skin.

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