Banking on body image

By Melissa Kenyon

From the time she was a third grader in Puerto Rico, Yaritza Betancourt knew she wanted to be a model.

Though she dreamed of looking just like her idol, Cindy Crawford, the stigma of being the “chubby kid” was something that, for a while, she couldn’t shake.

But then when she was 13 years old, Betancourt said she started losing weight – a process she attributes to a combination of “hormonal changes” and her participation in sports.

“Everyone started noticing my weight loss and started giving me compliments, saying things like ‘Oh, you look great, tell me your secret,’ so that encouraged me to keep losing weight, and I got really skinny,” she said. “Then my family members were asking if I was OK because I was losing too much weight. I just felt like they needed to make up their minds because I was being influenced a lot by what other people said.”

Betancourt, a middler theatre major, did grow up to be a model. Her early insecurities are certainly not uncommon for today’s women and even, as it turns out, other models as well.

Tyra Banks, longtime Victoria’s Secret runway model and creator of the hit show “America’s Next Top Model,” has recently been in the spotlight for a very different reason than she is used to: criticism for gaining an alleged 20 pounds.

The main source of the hype is a photograph of the 5 foot, 10 inch former supermodel on an Australian beach in January, which generated tabloid headlines like “America’s Next Top Waddle” and “Tyra Porkchop.”

Banks, who said she currently weighs in at 161 pounds, admitted she was hurt by the media backlash and decided to respond to the criticism in a tell-all article in People Magazine’s Feb. 5 edition.

Banks also appeared on her talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, in the bathing suit from the infamous photograph, and announced her critics could “kiss [her] fat ass,” while smacking her thigh.

Maggie Brousseau, a sophomore photography major, supports Banks’ reaction.

“She’s probably one of the most beautiful people on the planet and I think her response was justified because she used it to be a role model, sort of saying ‘big is beautiful,'” she said.

Though Banks’ response was reassuring to many women like Brousseau, the media’s scrutiny of a figure idolized by so many American women is also unsettling to some.

“I believe that people look at her as a normal-size woman and for the media to call her big is a shocker because not only do we realize how obsessed the media is with skinny people but we then look at ourselves and say ‘Wow, if she’s fat, then I must look like a cow,'” Brousseau said.

Banks, who admits she has always been bigger than many runway models of her time, expressed her concern in People that her fans would be affected negatively by people scrutinizing her weight.

“I get so much mail from young girls who say ‘I look up to you, you’re not as skinny as everyone else, I think you’re beautiful,'” Banks said in People. “So when they say my body is ‘ugly’ and ‘disgusting’ what does that make those girls feel like?”

But, Evan Crothers, a modeling agent at the Boston-based Model Club Inc., said accountability for women’s insecurities should not reside with any one industry, particularly not the fashion industry.

“It’s out of the company’s hands,” Crothers said. “Most women are not 5 foot, 11 inches and have a completely symmetrical face, a long torso and legs and also happen to be gorgeous. It’s not the individual’s responsibility to look after themselves and see that women do not look up to them as something they aspire to be. These women are the minority, that’s why they are supermodels.”

Freshman engineering major and model Sean Naegeli said this is not just a female phenomenon.

Naegeli, who has been featured in ads for Izod, Cheerios and Wendy’s, and also had the role of young Mowgli in Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” said the pressure to uphold a certain image is not gender specific.

“Companies’ representatives choose whom they want based on if they fit this ideal image they are pursuing,” he said. “It’s difficult to predict whether or not you fit that image and you just work to have the best image you can.”

And having the best body image possible is not just hard for females, Naegeli said.

“Being a male, I think it is important to have a nice physique,” he said. “I feel it is as much on a male to take care of themselves and their appearance as it is on a female. They are very selective in the industry and they do not choose who they want as part of a favor, because they have so many possible models available.”

Crothers, who began his career in New York City, said in New York the modeling standards for women are almost impossible.

“If you’re not 5 foot, 9 inches in New York, you shouldn’t even try,” he said. “That’s the standard. That’s the first thing they need to have is the height.”

Crothers also said many of these same women weigh in at about 115 pounds, which is about 25 pounds lighter than the average American woman at the height of 5 foot, 9 inches, according to the body mass index.

Betancourt argues these industries set the standard for what is ideal and fashionable, and they will have followers who, like she once did, will idolize these cover girls.

“Many girls or women look at the TV or media to find what’s in style this season,” Betancourt said. “They see a model or celebrity wearing a specific type of clothing they like, so they go to the store and they try it on and it doesn’t look the same on them. It might be frustrating and then they look at themselves and say they’re fat.”

According to a 1995 National Eating Disorders Association finding on one college campus, 91 percent of women attempt to control their weight through dieting. With these statistics, body image and weight control are becoming increasingly harder to ignore.

Northeastern University’s Eating and Weight Concerns Project (NEWCOPE) is an on-campus organization that recognized the prevalence of these issues and decided to take action.

Directed by Dr. Emily Fox Kales, NEWCOPE is a student-run group that formed in response to a feeling there is “a student population that struggles with their own body images’ and the idea that ‘thin is in,” said middler psychology major and NEWCOPE publicity chair Krista Sienko.

“We live in a time where celebrity is idolized and thinness is linked to success,” she said. “Celebrity-focused magazines continue to be popular reads for college-aged kids where articles are geared toward dieting and fashion.”

NEWCOPE works to combat these messages, instead providing students with “support through resources and information” and promoting “awareness on issues related to eating disorders, weight and body image,” Sienko said.

The group has drop-in hours from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays at their office in 131 Dockser Hall. Here students can receive “empathetic listening, find informative resources such as books, pamphlets and videotapes and obtain referrals to outside treatment centers if necessary,” Sienko said.

NEWCOPE is also hosting various events during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Feb. 25 to March 3.

As for combating the rise of sickly skinny models, Sienko said, “there should be educated monitors in the fashion world to ensure the health and safety of the models. Healthy-looking models would promote a better lifestyle and give the affected population a good role model.”

Betancourt said the sexy celebrity look is not healthy and shouldn’t be the goal of women everywhere.

“The media today portrays sexy as ‘skinny,’ especially when you see all the celebrities every week in the tabloids,” Betancourt said. “Of course there are movies like ‘Real Women Have Curves’ and actresses like America Ferrera and Queen Latifah, but they are not the majority of movies or actresses. I think if the media focused on being healthy instead of being skinny, it would help a lot.”

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