The question of how far a model will go for the sake of fashion is still up in the air-just like Kate Upton’s most recent Sports Illustrated photo shoot. In its most recent Swimsuit edition,SI managed to get Upton to pose in a skimpy gold bikini under zero gravity conditions, by shooting her in a Zero Gravity Plane at the Space Coast Regional Airport at Cape Canaveral in Florida. A similar method is used for astronauts as they train for their missions, but the difference here is that Upton was challenged to keep her hair (and the girls) in place while floating around a chamber, all while giving a flawless, effortless look.
It appears SI will do just about anything to put their models in the most absurd conditions-I mean, you would not put a swimsuit model on a beach or near water. That would be too obvious. For the 2013 edition, the magazine had its swimsuit models pose in all seven continents, and where did Upton end up? Antarctica. She posed in nothing but bikini bottoms and a white jacket, with the headline “Kate Upton Goes Polar Bare.” While I commend SI for the pun, I can’t help but wonder if this, along with other extreme photo shoots, is really necessary, and if the risks involved are truly worth the final product.
The truth is, I understand the appeal. I was a religious follower of America’s Next Top Model for the entirety of my high school experience, and now I can’t help but “smize” whenever I’m posing for a photo (smiling with your teeth is, once again, too obvious). Tyra Banks put her contestants through some pretty unbelievable conditions, and I can’t help but cheer on the girls who brave through such challenges. I felt pride in Ambreal for overcoming her fear of heights for the Cycle 9 photo shoot on top of a skyscraper, even if she barely escaped the bottom two. I worried for the girls who posed with alligators, tarantulas, and live bees, but I marveled at how calmly some of them were able to pose with these creatures crawling on their skin. The more extreme the shoot, the more memorable it is, and the ability of a model or a photo to leave an impression has to count for something.
The flip side is that viewers tend to hate on the models who chicken out. We cannot stand the girl who refuses to sacrifice her long locks for a pixie cut per Tyra’s makeover request, or the one who plays the “sick card” when her sub-par photos land her in the bottom two. Any girl who refuses to pose nude like everyone else somehow stands out as the outlier, even though her concerns are warranted. In any other situation, these would be considered rational reactions, but in the world of modeling, that behavior is simply unacceptable. It doesn’t seem possible to refuse Banks, and the mentality forced upon models and their audience is that if you’re in the competition, you’ll do just about anything. More often than not, they do. Just look at CariDee English in Cycle 7, who reached the point of hypothermia while posing in icy cold water, and was later chided for not speaking up. Another example is Danielle Evans, who sprained her ankle after walking in 10-inch heels for a Cycle 6 challenge. When there’s so much pressure to push through the pain, it can be easy to forget that supermodel does not equal superhuman.
These may seem utterly ridiculous and discouraging to the average viewer who sees these models as another species of beauty, ready to submit themselves to zero gravity, zero-degree temperatures, and zero clothing just for the sake of a single photo. While we can blame the modeling industry for setting impossibly high standards and mistreating their women, the reality is that each girl can refuse at any point. It may be difficult to say no with so much pressure, but denying one opportunity leaves doors open for plenty others. In addition, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that the models are being forced to submit themselves to these conditions-perhaps Upton just wanted to be part of an unprecedented photo shoot in SI history. Other types of art-such as dancing, sculpting, or acting-have their “high forms,” so why can’t modeling push the boundaries as well? What models, and the industry as a whole, should strive for is a balance between preserving physical health and safety, and maintaining an element of risk-after all, it’s what makes a piece of art so enthralling. Whether that risk is in subject matter, overcoming a fear, or in the clothes themselves, the drama and awe of modeling deserves to be recognized as an art form. Without that suspense, how else would we be able to ponder what Kate will be Upton-ext?