The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

‘Britain’s Missing Top Model’: Enlightening Or Othering?

Posted by Clem Bastow on June 26, 2008

Britain\'s Missing Top Model

BBC3’s ‘Beauty Season‘ programming (for July) features a number of shows dedicated to exploring and exploding the myths of “beauty”. One show features Mis-Teeq’s Alesha Dixon shining a light on airbrushing and retouching, another sees ex-Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq taking a ‘when beauty treatments go wrong’ angle, but perhaps the most compelling of all the shows is Britain’s Missing Top Model, a six-part reality/documentary series that will track eight women of differing abilities in their attempts to convince “industry experts” that they can cut it in the modelling industry.

It’s not the first time the fashion industry has tried to pushed the boundaries of how we see “beautiful” – photographer Nick Night and designer Alexander McQueen collaborated with double-amputee Paralympian and model Aimee Mullins (amongst others) for their 1998 Dazed+Confused shoot, Fashion-Able. And on America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 3’s Amanda (who is legally blind) and Cycle 9’s Heather (who has Asperger’s Syndrome).

But I guess what I find slightly uneasy about Britain’s Missing Top Model – apart from the title, which surely flies in the face of what the show is trying to achieve; if they’re trying to show that these women still have what it takes, why focus the title on the things they don’t have? – is wondering, in the end, to what extent these shows do help broaden the average viewer’s horizons.

Hopefully the show will be more rooted in the Beeb’s history of fine documentary making than in tabloid television, though my worry is that it will be the latter, and these inspiring (and, yes, beautiful) women’s stories will be subverted for “shock value”. The BBC3 Controller’s stance is encouraging, however:

“This bold season aims to explore the pressures young people feel under to conform to mainstream and deeply ingrained perceptions of beauty. Through Britain’s Missing Top Model and the documentary experiences of women like Alesha we want to open up the debate about what it means to be beautiful in a world in which we are continually bombarded with images of apparent perfection.”

On the other hand, we have Marie O’Riordan, editor of UK Marie Claire magazine, who is one of the judges on the show:

“When I first heard about the programme, my immediate thought was would it all be women in wheelchairs. And I knew that if it was going to be some sort of freak show, I didn’t want to be involved. But I very quickly realised there are many disabled people who are not in wheelchairs, and that is just one of the many preconceptions we all hold about disability. From being involved, I do believe the programme could help challenge our attitudes to disability. I want to see the winner shake up the fashion industry. These young women shouldn’t be invisible to the fashion world just because they are disabled.”

She “realised” there were many disabled people who aren’t in wheelchairs? “Preconceptions”? I think misconceptions is the word you’re looking for, Marie.

The quandary in these situations is risking the continued persecution and hiding of disabled people by not making shows like this, but potentially using their stories for little more than the gawp factor when shows like this are made.

Here’s hoping Britain’s Missing Top Model will find a new middle-ground between the two that is better for everyone involved.


5 Responses to “‘Britain’s Missing Top Model’: Enlightening Or Othering?”

  1. catalysta said

    ok it’s a little creepy. It’s nice that they are trying to do something different… but that’s getting a little out there…
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  2. billyjoebob said

    i came for the contempory feminism, i stayed for the top model discussions.

  3. Jenny Johnson said

    i was actually one of the eight girls from that show. i was the american chick from washington state. anyways, i just wanted to say that participating in that show was one of the best experiences of my life and one that i learned a great deal from. in no way, am i regretting taking part…

  4. mscate said

    I think it’s an interesting idea as women with disabilities are typical absent in popular culture-(I’m struggling to think of any characters on television besides a woman with bipolar on Neighbours). I can see that in some respects it would increase the visibility and perhaps challenge people’s assumptions of beauty. Everyone at some level wants to be thought of as attractive and desirable, even if in ways that are socially sanctioned like being young and slender.

    Further, the existence of the show in itself it an admission that contemporary modeling is not a level playing field for women with disabilities.

    But for the show to be truly challenging they could include some size 16’s, ethnic minorities, burns victims and double masectomies. But of course, this would negate the objective of a modelling competition.

  5. Sara L said

    When I first saw the title here I read the “missing” simply as a reference to the lack of models with disabilities in the industry (as opposed to the contestants’ lack of ‘ability’ in some form or other… although perhaps that’s its undertone). I think I’d personally prefer to see these models within the ‘regular’ Britain’s Next Top Model… it might be more telling/realistic to have them competing against those ‘able-bodied’ (for lack of a better term) contestants. It would also reduce the blatant pigeon-holing/’othering’ effect that I think this show might have.

    RE O’Riordan’s comments: Hasn’t she seen other seasons of Top Model across the world? They’re all veritable ‘freak shows’, and I’m pretty sure most of those girls weren’t physically disabled.

    On a side note – one of NZ’s most successful models is Anna Fitzpatrick who suffers from alopecia:

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