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From Gibson Girls to Glamazons to Sociology 100

February 23, 2011

In a 2007 article in the Inquirer, a journal devoted to teaching and learning at BMCC, Associate Professor of Sociology Elizabeth Wissinger writes about using open-ended questions to evoke students’ curiosity and engage them in a critical response. 

Applying that strategy to talk about the complex topic of her own research work on culture and the modeling industry, she starts with a question students would likely come up with, themselves: “Why do models look the way they do? Why are they so tall, why are they so thin, why are they so white?” In other words, Why are they all a certain “type”?—albeit one that changes over time.

History, Wissinger has found, points toward some answers. “For instance in the 1920s,” she says, “we were in a kind of capitalist society that focused on industrial production. The idealized body of the flapper was very mechanical. The muscles were very clean-lined, and the ideal arrangement of bodies in space…was all in a row, making the same movement, synchronized.”

That idealization of the body evolved over the decades, becoming a tool for “promoting a lifestyle that’s ‘productive’, or good for capital, and that keeps us engaged with various forms of technology, like the Internet,” she says.

That relates to another question about the modeling industry: “Why do so many people find models so fascinating?,” Wissinger asks. “What’s changed in the last decade that has made so many more young people know about the fashion industry and want to be a part of it—almost at any cost, it seems, for some of them?”

Modeling more than fashion

Besides reality television shows that draw people to modeling, Wissinger says, “modeling is an industry that seems to have developed, making money on these young people’s desires—even young people who don’t have the physical qualifications to become part of the industry.”

The industry these young people want to be part of, has evolved over the years. At first, Wissinger’s research shows, fashion ads were “very text-heavy…you can see what it is you’re supposed to buy… Often the model is full body, and they’re explaining what it is that she’s wearing and why you should want it.”

In archival interviews, Wissinger found, models and photographers are quoted as saying, “‘We had a narrative. We had a story the photographer was telling…’” Models were told, “This is the story that you’re playing out. This is the role you’re going to evoke for the camera.”

“Now fast forward to recent interviews I’ve done with models and photographers,” Wissinger says, “and the models are saying, ‘Nobody tells me what I’m supposed to do—half the time they don’t know what they want until they’ve gotten it’, and it’s much more free flowing.”

Profiting from the ideal body

Today’s high-fashion industry doesn’t just facilitate the sale of a product, Wissinger says, it creates an environment in which models have to not only generate their own unique image, they have to be “‘in the know’, they have to be ‘out there’ and exposed, to be ‘on’ all the time.”

That state of being “out there” all the time is accelerated through social media, a phenomenon prevalent among BMCC students, and an entire generation of young people. 

“Models are actually glamorizing a way of life in which you have to follow fashion, in which you have to have a Facebook page,” says Wissinger. “You have to constantly work on your public personae and produce an image that’s employable, that is attractive…so getting people into the rhythms of those interactions, with informational technologies, is something I argue models glamorize in their work.”

Those “rhythms of interactions,” she says, “are part of a lifestyle that’s ‘productive’ or good for capital, that keeps us engaged with various forms of technology, like the Internet.”

The presence of the modeling industry is so pervasive, she argues, that people are weaving it into their daily lives, even buying Tyra Banks ring tones, and “making a profit for people who produce those kinds of technologies.”

Wissinger also looks at the concept of profit as it relates to another modeling image, “waifs, in the nineties and into the 2000s. That was a time when big pharmaceuticals were coming up…and the waif body is one that’s wasted, in need of treatment, in need of medicine.”

Noting the irony in that image, she adds, “The ‘waif’ also was famous for having done too many drugs, but it was an idealization of doing drugs—she’s beautiful, she’s drugged out; we want to be like her. And that, I argue is also a form of a ‘productive’ body, that idealizes a way of interacting with technologies,” that seems to imply “it’s an interaction we should all aspire to, that helps produce profit for capital.”

Women and girls

“I came to this topic partly because I was curious to understand more about men’s and women’s roles in society,” Wissinger says, “and I was really interested in the power of beauty, and what did it mean, the image of beauty.”

That said, another question Wissinger would present, to facilitate analysis of the modeling industry is, “Why are models predominantly women? That seems like a really obvious one, but then you start to delve into it and you begin to understand questions about gender, about the value of women, and about men’s and women’s roles—that sort of thing.”

Looking at the “value” of individuals, based on gender, race and other factors leads Wissinger to look at the modeling industry’s impact on women, worldwide.

“Another question might be, what can we learn about globalization from the fashion modeling industry; not just in terms of clothes, but in terms of...different areas of the planet that are experiencing economic crisis— all of a sudden, there is a whole trove of girls trying to make a fortune because there’s no fortune to be had, where they came from.”

Economic need, she explains, presents more ways for exploitation to enter the picture.

“There’s this whole kind of mining for talent; supposedly, for example, there’s a part of Brazil where a lot of Germans settled, and with intermarriage you tend to get a lot of tall, lanky, sexy-looking, blond, blue-eyed girls,” she says.

“And I say ‘girls’ on purpose because in the fashion modeling industry, it’s not a compliment to be called a woman—you age out at about age 25…You can move into other fields in the industry; commercial modeling, character modeling, things like that. But to be a fashion model on a runway, you don’t want to be much over the age of 25— unless you’re a returning celebrity, like Linda Evangelista, or Naomi Campbell.”

Part human, part machine

Having earned a Ph.D. in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center with a certificate in Women’s Studies—and specializing in cultural studies and techno-scientific feminism—Wissinger views gender and power issues within modeling through a highly fine-tuned lens.

“Techno-scientific feminism is a branch of feminism,” she explains. “We’re familiar with the1970s feminism—women should have equal pay for equal work, that kind of feminism that came up through the seventies…but in the mid 1990s a kind of feminism came up through writers like Donna Haraway,” who, she explains, went beyond the feminist idea that the male is viewed as rational, female as emotional, and “started questioning those binaries and asking questions about who is really ‘human’.”

In her writing about cyborgs—beings that are part human, part machine—Haraway “started asking questions,” Wissinger says, “about where does human end, and the technological begin; where does man end, where does woman begin? We have transgendered individuals, we have all sorts of technologies that allow us to alter our bodies in many different ways.”

Techno-scientific feminism, then, “is called feminism, but it’s really more of a science-studies-fascination-with-technology approach to feminism,” Wissinger says, and it presents a way to look at phases of the modeling industry in which models seem “roboticized…there is this idealizing of the cyborg look and many images of the supermodels—they’re muscular, they’re futuristic looking, they’re looking like they’re cyborgs.”

Enter the Glamazons

When Wissinger was a college student, her interest in the modeling industry presented itself in the context of an anthropology course.

“It was an ethnographic film course,” she says, “and I ended up pulling up all of the sociological films from the anthropological archive, and most of them were about beauty and beauty rituals and what beauty means to people. I wrote a paper about it and my professor said, ‘You know you really should look into sociology because you’re done a sociology paper in my anthropology class’.”

That early interest developed into a doctoral dissertation, a number of journal articles, and eventually a book contract with New York University Press, with a tentative publication date of Fall, 2011.

The Modeling Life, Fashioning our Attention from Gibson Girls to Glamazons is actually the working title of a book manuscript that is the result of my efforts to translate my dissertation into a book,” says Wissinger. “There’s a social history of modeling in there, and I added two new chapters, where I try to consider how we think about fashion models and how they represent things to us. They represent an ideal.”

Students pull back the veil

Meanwhile, Wissinger continues researching and writing about her subject, attending conferences such as the recent Fashion Media: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow at the London College of Fashion, England, in which she presented a paper, "Modeling Work Within Changing Imaging Regimes," correlating changing ideals for fashion models’ bodies, with the inception of digital media. 

Back in New York, Wissinger’s Introduction to Sociology students—many of whom are immersed in digital media and surrounded by images of models and products—grapple with new connections about culture, power, and where they fit into the mix.

“I find it incredibly enriching to have that moment where I see the students make those connections,” she says, “and kind of pull the veil away from their eyes and see the world in a new way. It’s fun to get them when they’ve done that for the first time. In the upper level classes they’ve probably already done that, but in that intro class, they might really have that epiphany moment—and it’s great to be part of that.”

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