Nancy Upton on Kate Upton: The Issue Behind The Swimsuit Issue
Kate Upton now appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s oft-hoarded and frequently mocked Swimsuit Issue. It is her second year in a row to grace the front page, and this year, the editors thought it would be interesting, or at least different, to drop a model on each continent. Kate Upton got stuck with Antarctica. The photos from the freezing shoot are predictably tacky, complete with tiny bikinis, lots of trout pouting, and provocative poses.
Also predictable, as so often happens when a woman who isn’t a size zero steps into the public eye, publications and bloggers have started sticking their noses where they don’t belong. International Design Times asks, Kate Upton Fat? New York Magazine wonders, Is Model Kate Upton the Answer to the Skinny Backlash Against Victoria’s Secret? And from Cosmopolitan, our embarrassing little sister who always speaks her mind at the dinner table, Why We’re Crushing on Kate Upton’s Sports Illustrated Boobs.
When our editor, Lisa Petty, brought the SI cover (and the coverage of the cover) to my attention, I instantly felt pulled to offer my unique perspective on the issue. After all, few people have the actual experience of being an Upton in your underwear on the internet – and having people raise a fuss about your weight.
Look, I’m not even going to address the idea that Kate Upton is fat. If you think there’s anything remotely overweight about Kate Upton, just stop reading now and go back to watching Intervention and reading Reddit, or whatever it is you do with your time.
The thing that has really spoken to me in the midst of all of the Kate Upton news is that a lot of people are pointing to Kate Upton and saying, “Great! Here’s a model that looks like a real woman.” This drives me insane. Here’s why.
The phrase real woman needs to be dropped from conversation immediately. Would you say I’m more of a real woman than a model? Why? Models are mothers, career women, artists, and wives, too. We’re all real women.
The point is, models are not the average American woman. The U.S. national height and weight rates put average women in the size 12-14 category, while the average model is usually a size 0-2. Not to mention, the average woman doesn’t get her entire body waxed once a week, work out for two hours a day, and subsist on kale and grilled chicken breasts. And she absolutely would not agree to stand around half naked in Antarctica. If you asked the average woman to freeze in a bikini so men could stare at her breasts, she’d give you the average slap across the face.
And why should we expect models to represent the average woman? By definition, they don’t. Would we ask brain surgeons to act more like average people if they are being too darn smart? Of course not. So, why do we need models to appear less beautiful or less statuesque or less flawless? When a mechanic repairs our car, we don’t go home and stare at the car in the garage, asking ourselves over and over, “Why can’t I fix my car like he did?” When a dentist cleans our teeth, we don’t go to Chili’s and cry into our baby back ribs because we can’t fill cavities. But for some reason, when we see a model in a pair of skinny jeans in the pages of a magazine, we beat ourselves up because we don’t look like her in our skinny jeans.
In other words, there is absolutely no need for the common woman to find similarities between herself and a model, or to feel like she can relate to one. That’s never been the point of a model. You’re not supposed to look at a model and think, “Oh, look at her, she’s a regular woman.” To the contrary, advertisers want you to look at models and think, “I want to make myself more like her. She’s magical!”
It’s downright naïve of us, and dangerous for young women, to try and label a model a real woman. Would we have younger women look at that model and think, “Why am I not like her? She’s a real woman. I’m not.”
As soon as we stop idealizing the model and her body (which for 90% of us is unattainable or unhealthy anyway), and we accept that models are not supposed to look like the average American woman, the fewer mixed messages the women in America will send and receive. And, for the record, I feel like this applies to plus size models, as well as fashion models. We can’t compare ourselves to them or compare them to us. It’s not healthy for us to do.
That said, I do sympathize with the desire to view models as more regular or average or real or normal, or whatever other inappropriate word we want to use. I was one of those little girls, as so many of us were, who read fashion magazines and thought, “I’m too fat,” or “I’m not pretty enough.” However, changing models is not the answer to preventing little girls from developing eating disorders and self-esteem issues, or making us, the female adults of America, feel better about ourselves.
The answer is changing how we talk to young women about their bodies, and how early we help them to understand that what they see in magazines is not an ideal, but rather a career. Not everyone should aspire to look like a model, and not being model thin or model glamorous is not only okay – it should be embraced. In real life, being unique and being yourself will always be more magnetic than being a carbon copy of someone you were never meant to be.
(Image credits, from top: 1. Shape.com, 2. SportsConextion.com)