Should Models be Role Models?: A Deep Dive into NYFW and the Faces it Shows the World

“This is the most exciting thing that has happened in our neighbourhood in, like, twenty years,” exclaims Upper East Side resident Kate Kaplin. Her baggy skinny jeans and childish chatter quickly expose her for her sixteen year old self, while her brace-faced younger sister, Caroline, nods eagerly in agreement. Kate and Caroline have managed to make their way to the front of the crowd that has emerged outside of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the stunning location chosen to debut designer Tory Burch’s spring 2018 lineup. The venue reeks of old money and has been transformed into a garden party that would make the 1920’s jealous.

Stretching her tiny frame upwards, Caroline grasps at the intricate black gate that separates the “somebodies” from simply the “bodies.” The two girls poke their eyes between the bars, yearning for a peek at the fashion bloggers, the photographers, and, most importantly, the models. All this on a Friday morning at 10 a.m. Yes, school was skipped for this occasion.

Models have become to NYFW what an attractive lead singer is to a rock band. They are the literal and figurative faces of fashion. Sadly, these faces, and the bodies they are placed upon, have been made-up and slimmed down to a level of perfection that the average woman finds herself incapable of achieving. Models are seen as archetypal beacons of beauty at NYFW, and are celebrated as such. People come from miles away to “celebrity hunt”, and models are their ubiquitous prey.

Across the world, people can be found lusting over the lives of ladies who have simply won the genetic lottery, falling within the realms of Western beauty (read: white, tall, skinny). But one concern is pervasive: what does the glorification of these models teach the younger generation of girls that look up to them, like Kate and Caroline, about how to prosper in this world?

A few hours after the Tory Burch show, FIT freshmen Joya Tucker and Izabella Italiano could be spotted so-called “celebrity hunting” in Tribeca, balancing their heels upon the curb outside of Spring Studios. The well-dressed duo looks like they belong on a runway, but instead they wait anxiously outside the doors of designer Jeremy Scott’s much-anticipated fashion show, trying to catch any glimpse of the magic that is NYFW. They raise their iPhones every time a luxury vehicle approaches the venue, and flail with a frenzy when the doors open and anyone recognizable emerges. Soon, Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss, two of the most high-profile models of the moment, step out of a car and rush for the doors; heads down and sunglasses on, despite the thick night air being lit only by moonlight. The scene outside the studio immediately explodes with flashbulbs and frenetic fan freak-outs. The two models have both made a name for themselves by strutting their stuff in Victoria’s Secret underwear, but they are gushed over as if they are superheroes, not supermodels.

“They’re definitely over-glorified and overhyped, I mean they’re just modeling clothes” Tucker tells me, her glued-on eyelashes still fluttering with excitement, “but I do it too, you know. It’s just a part of society now… they’re trendsetters, and it’s cool to see that in real life.”

At eighteen years old, Italiano admits that the pervasiveness of flawless supermodels has had a detrimental effect on her own self-image. “They definitely set the standard of how tall you want to be, and how skinny you want to be… You always see them hanging out with high-profile boys, so you’re like, oh that must be what boys want too.” This desire to be deemed beautiful has “created a cycle of self-loathing” for Italiano, an average-sized woman of Italian descent. Unfortunately, she is not alone. The US Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2017 that 80% of American females say that photos of women in the media make them feel insecure.

Three-year NYFW veteran, Nicole Jezerski, however, claims that “things are changing for the better.” As the Head of Distribution for Daily Front Row magazine, Jezerski has now been to seven seasons of fashion week, as the magazine sends employees to every show to pass out their product. I meet her outside of Skylight Clarkson Square in Tribeca, the main hub of NYFW, as she smiles and thrusts a shiny magazine into my welcoming hands. Jezerski is a senior fashion student at LIM College in New York, and thus feels quite up to speed on the ins and outs of the elusive industry. “I actually just wrote an essay on how the Kardashians changed the beauty standard” she laughs, with a hint of pride. Her bold dangly earrings swing as she smiles, distinguishing her own personal style amongst copious colleagues, all forced to wear white, boxy, “Daily Front Row” emblazoned t-shirts.

“There’s always been a beauty standard…it’s a natural progression,” she begins, crinkling her freckle-speckled, ski slope nose. She goes on to insist that a look into NYFW’s past events will show that the type of bodies designers put on their runway is slowly starting to change. This is especially true when it comes to the race of the models. In 2014 Jezebel reported that in the fall of 2008, 87% of models that graced the NYFW stage were white, whereas in 2014, this number shrank to 78.69%. But that’s not all: the age and body weight of NYFW models is also becoming more diverse.

“Oh my god, this is such good topic!” Jezerski excitedly scrolls through her phone to find a picture. “Chromat today, who is a huge designer, was putting models like this on the runway,” she proclaims, showing me a picture of a curvy model donning lingerie, then a picture of a model who looked to be in her forties. “A lot of brands are putting normal-looking people on the runways and not really conforming to the whole beauty standard.” She beams and looks refreshed, her low, golden ponytail dancing between her shoulder blades. “The whole super skinny ideal is changing,” she promises. And if she had it her way, it probably would.

Glancing through fashion show photos, however, impossibly flawless still looks to be the norm, and the sickly stick-figures who grace most runways are arguably far from the type of role models young girls should be glorifying in their formative years.

Back on the Upper East Side, Kate and Caroline mill around after the Tory Burch show has come to a close. I ask them if them if they think models set a negative beauty standard for young girls like them. Thirteen year old Caroline quickly glances at her sister and replies hesitatively, “for me personally no, but I can see how they could.”

Later, Caroline could be seen flipping through the Daily Front Row magazine. The glossy papers dance with colorful runway photographs and high-fashion ads. She squints at the models gracing the pages. Slowly but surely, her braces slowly disappear behind her chapped lips.

Along with them goes her youthful smile.

Mine went with it.

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