The pressures on models and young women is becoming more and more mainstream and acceptable to talk about. I’m excited. Not that there’s obvious abuse going on, but there is a clean up job that needs to take place around how we develop the psyche’s of these young women we applaud for being bone thin, tall and photogenic. It takes a lot more than the outsides to be an awesome model, my hope is the industry will eventually place the focus on the talent of modeling and remove from the glare of physical perfection. The impossible to maintain standard is dangerous.
Terry Gross interview Beverly Johnson and Carol Alt for the release of HBO’s new documentary film About Face: The Supermodels Then and Now. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders directs. Listen to Getting Old Is Hard, Even (And Especially) For Models
Here’s an expert:
JOHNSON: Oh, just, just the fashion world.
GROSS: OK, so you had to lose 40 pounds. And Carol, what about you?
ALT: I weighed 165 and I was 5 foot eight and a half. So yes, they wanted me to lose weight. I lost at one point probably around 50 pounds. For the cover of Sports Illustrated I was 115 pounds but I was also at that point 5’10″. I grew until I was 25. They also had an issue with my hair because, of course, I took a scissor to it like any normal teen would do when she doesn’t like her hair and so that was the comments, and I mention it in the film. I said the first thing they said to me is your hair looks like (bleep). Who plucks your eyebrows? And you’re too big for our clothes. And that about summed me up at 17.
GROSS: So you both had to, what, starve yourselves in order to lose that much weight?
ALT: Well, I think it’s much easier to do that when you’re 17. I mean I think you bounce back from those kinds of things at 17 a lot more easily than you do at a later age. It was easy for me. I just really stopped eating, you know, could live on basically body fat for a while and it was really the stupidest thing I ever did. Really, starving yourself is no way to get any kind of self image but when you’re 17 you don’t know any better. And certainly, coming from Long Island, where I grew up on pizza and Chinese food and tacos and Jack in the Box, that was a treat, and bagels for breakfast with butter, I had absolutely no clue about nutrition and never really thought I was fat because I actually was an athlete. I played all the sports at our high school. I just thought I was sportive. Bev?
JOHNSON: I was 103 to 117 pounds during my entire career. And as a young woman, it was OK. I was in the business and modeled for at least three decades and the interesting thing was that no one ever said I was too thin. Everyone kept giving me compliments on, you know, how great I looked and I was just emaciated. That’s the scary part when I look back on it. And I do think for me it did a lot of damage to my body. I mean I’d never get hungry. I have to remind myself to eat because, you know, whatever happens in the brain when you starve yourself like that, the brain doesn’t, you know, tell you when you’re hungry anymore. And I can imagine what, you know, other – so far so good with the other health issues that one can have from, you know, doing that to your body for so many years.
GROSS: Why did they ask you, and why did you say yes?
ALT: Well, they had been asking me since I was 20 to do Playboy. But I thought at 20, like, what’s unique about that? You know, just another girl in a magazine showing her breasts. I mean, it just wasn’t unique to me. But at 49, I had been through a lot in my life. I had health issues, and I had, you know, made it, basically, to 49 years old. I was still alive and still kicking. And I thought it was much more difficult to be, you know, beautiful and attractive at 49, and that the only way that I knew how to do that was through lifestyle and diet.
And I really insisted that I not be retouched in the Playboy. I mean, I literally went into the studio and caught them making my body like Barbie. I said, that is not my body, and anybody who’s ever seen a photo of me in Sports Illustrated will know that’s not my body. And we have a deal in my contract that says no retouching. Do I even want a body that looks that? I’m 49 years old. And that was the point. And for me, it wasn’t about being sexy.
GROSS: What kind of retouching were they doing?
ALT: They were trying to make my body look like Barbie.
GROSS: What does that mean?
ALT: You know, really, really long, slender, you know, torso, to these low – I mean, I don’t have hips. I don’t look like that. They took out every ripple and bump, or whatever, in the photo, and it looked like a Barbie doll. If you stood a Barbie doll next to the picture, that’s what it looked like: completely smooth, like plastic. I said that’s not my body. That’s not in my contract. You cannot do that.
And – because I thought that, you know, for me, this was a statement. I was trying to get conversation out about what we’re doing to our diet and what we’re doing to ourselves to be something that we’re not. I let every bump and flaw show, because at 49, I was proud to be there.