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Seven Kinds of Awful: Fashion Industry Scouting in Brazil

June 8, 2010

Image via NYT

Today’s New York Times Style section contains an eye-opening article (and accompanying depressing slide show) that at once confirms what feminist and anti-racist fashion writers have long suggested, and raises further questions about what one writer has referred to as “Innocent Bystander Syndrome,” which is as pervasive in advertising as it is in journalism.

The article highlights not only the outright preference among fashion scouts for whiteness in models, but also details the calculated way in which such scouts find girls–and, as I’ll come to later, they’re all girls, not women–who fit the bill:

Before setting out in a pink S.U.V. to comb the schoolyards and shopping malls of southern Brazil, Alisson Chornak studies books, maps and Web sites to understand how the towns were colonized and how European their residents might look today.

The goal, he and other model scouts say, is to find the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in. Such a mix, they say, helps produce the tall, thin girls with straight hair, fair skin and light eyes that Brazil exports to the runways of New York, Milan and Paris with stunning success.

So, just to make sure you’re still with us here, it’s important to study the history of colonialism in order to separate the white girls with straight hair from everyone else.  This despite the fact that “São Paulo Fashion Week…has been forced by local prosecutors to ensure that at least 10 percent of its models are of African or indigenous descent.”  Leaving aside the fact that 10 percent is an astoundingly low number to have the government involved in enforcing, the fact that race is clearly a topic of discussion in Brazilian fashion circles makes this quest for blue-eyed blondes look even creepier.  The reason for this, according to the fashion scouts, is simple: white girls sell.

Clóvis Pessoa studies facial traits that are successful on international runways and looks for towns in the south that mirror those genes.

“If a famous top model looks German with a Russian nose, I will do a scientific study and look for cities that were colonized by Germans and Russians in the south of Brazil in order to get a similar face down here,” Mr. Pessoa said.

This line of reasoning is pretty common in the fashion industry: thin, tall, white girls book shows and sell clothes, so why are you blaming us for the lack of diversity on runways and in magazines?  We’re just giving people what they want. If you want to see even more grotesque versions of this, go read the comments section on the original post.  They include such gems as:

You cannot force others to like and enjoy what you decide what is beautiful. It’s racism when authority FORCE some black girls to be included in beauty show. It should be up to people if they like them or not.

Oh, right, I forgot.

The big problem here, both in this sort of comment and in those of the scouts who say that they’re only responding to the desires of the (all-knowing!) market is that they presume that those desires are something pre-existing and fixed prior to the involvement of advertising, and thus that those shaping the industry and its advertising are simply innocent bystanders of any racism that might be involved.  It’s not *our* fault that consumers think white girls are prettier; we have to make a buck, after all! But the thing is, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests that the images we’re bombarded with actually do shape what we find sexy, beautiful, or appealing–not to mention the way we see ourselves and who we identify with.  And beyond this, it’s hardly the case that black or brown women don’t sell magazines or fashion.  Instead, it is sadly well-documented that many fashion houses would rather not be associated with or worn by women of color–or fat women, for that matter–for fear of tarnishing their “image.”

But wait, it gets better.  And by better, I of course mean “more awful than you can imagine.”  Not only is such recruiting transparently racist; it also targets young teenage girls–and if those girls happen to be poor, well, so much the better:

Later, Mr. Chornak pulled up at a school where the director, Liliane Abrão Silva, showed off albums from school beauty contests. She allows scouts to visit during class breaks.

“Since I got to this school, five have left for São Paulo to become models,” she said. “The girls who do not have money to go to university will have to stay here and work in the fields.” [emphasis mine]

The next morning, Mr. Chornak studied the girls returning with red lollipops from recess. “There is nothing special here,” he declared.

At another stop, Mr. Chornak staked out a school in Paraíso do Sul (population 8,000) with the tools of his trade: business cards, camera, measuring tape and a notebook.

The bell rang and students streamed out. Mr. Chornak stopped a tall, skinny blond girl. Within seconds he was fluffing her hair and taking her measurements, directing her to pose against the wall.

Do I even need to mention how creeptastic it is that a grown-ass man is hanging around outside of malls and high schools with a pink SUV scoping out 13-year-olds (with the approval of the school’s director, no less)?  Those ‘lucky’ enough to catch Mr. Chornak’s eye may be shipped off to work in São Paulo, where they may, like 16-year-old Michele Meurer, live in a 3-bedroom apartment with eleven other girls.   Many such girls–who, as teenagers, have never even been away from home before–try modeling with the hope that they could become a fashion phenom like Gisele, and give their rural families better lives.  Of course, when you’re a teenager carted to a strange city without your parents, living in such overcrowded conditions (while people are constantly reminding you to watch what you eat and wear sunscreen when you work in the fields)…well, I can imagine that things look a little less rosy.  And I’m not particularly surprised that someone in such a situation would decide that it wasn’t worth the price of admission–as Michele Meurer did.

This fact, of course, doesn’t stop the fashion scouts from acting as though girls who do make that decision are ungrateful.   When you’re thought about as a collection of beautiful body parts, though–straight hair, Russian nose, skin that needs to be kept light enough with the appropriate UV protection–well, let’s just say you’re a bit easier to think of as expendable.  And in the end, this sort of exploitative, objectifying way of treating models–which includes not only low pay and cramped living conditions, but “many dudes who fuck 16-year-olds,” as one model wrote on Jezebel–is both supported by and reinforcing of the fashion industry’s racism.  It’s old news by now that patriarchy, racism and classism work together, but it’s rarely illustrated so clearly: racist hiring practices in the fashion industry both prevent women of color from accessing career opportunities open to white women (which could, potentially, offer a better financial situation) and make white women less likely to view their own exploitation as exploitation (after all, this is an elite field they should be grateful to even be in, right?).  And by the time fashion makes it to us, the consumers, the problem is even bigger: these are the women who are and can be beautiful, this is what you must do to be a good woman, here are the clothes that are aspirational, that show you have taste, that are classy–you can tell by who’s wearing them, after all.

This isn’t to say that fashion itself is inherently terrible–and in fact, there are some great fashion bloggers around who make it their mission to present a side of fashion that is celebratory rather than oppressive.  Right now, though, they’re unfortunately a tiny minority.  And with stakes so big, it’s crucial to pay attention to that fact–and do what we can to change it.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2010 12:42 am

    wow. this is really, really well-written and depressing as fuck. i really love this quote:

    “It’s old news by now that patriarchy, racism and classism work together, but it’s rarely illustrated so clearly: racist hiring practices in the fashion industry both prevent women of color from accessing career opportunities open to white women (which could, potentially, offer a better financial situation) and make white women less likely to view their own exploitation as exploitation (after all, this is an elite field they should be grateful to even be in, right?). “

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      June 9, 2010 12:08 pm

      Thanks, Julia–and thanks for writing such a great fashion blog!


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