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Dolly brings back its model search. But why?

Dolly model finalist, Elodie Russell, 14

This month at Melbourne Westfield Fountain Gate, Elodie Russell beat 500 other teens to be named Victorian state finalist in the new Dolly Model Search.

The Geelong student and 500 other girls competed in the model search resurrected after 10 years.

Elodie is 14. But girls as young as 13 can enter. The winner will receive a modelling contract, fashion shoot and cover shoot for Dolly, and be a “Dolly ambassador.”

The would-be models, many just in high school, are told they can be the next Miranda Kerr. The month’s Dolly has the Victoria’s Secret model in a red dress with words and arrow: ‘This could be you!’

Kerr is touted as an “inspiration” for young girls. (I’m not sure it’s just girls who find online images of Kerr semi-naked inspiring).

I asked editor Tiffany Dunk why the original search was shut down. She said: “I understand it was over concerns about negative body imaging”.

Dunk is right. Former Dolly boss Mia Freedman told me she was responsible to putting an end to the competition back in 2002:

“One of the first things I did when I became Editor In Chief of Dolly was to axe the Dolly Model Contest. At the time I felt strongly it was a negative thing for the readers and a negative thing for the Dolly brand.

I wanted the magazine to make a strong stand against the idea of valuing teenage girls purely for the way they look. Because no matter how you try to dress it up, the modelling industry is 100% based on external appearance, something few girls can ever change about themselves no matter how much they torture themselves. Girls who are able to model are a tiny tiny minority who were simply born with certain genetics.

No matter how you dress it up to be about ‘inspiration’, modelling is simply a beauty contest.  And I’ve always felt – as a mother, a woman and an editor – that this was the wrong message to send to young girls when they are at their most vulnerable. Aren’t there better things for 13 and 14 year old girls to aspire to?

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So why revive the model search when things are even worse now? In an age of rampant body hatred and eating disorders, the timing seems off. In a video of the scouting session in Sydney, girls are asked why Kerr is an inspiration. “She’s got a great body!” is one of a number of similar responses.

Which shows us, no matter how many times words like “role model” and “inspiration” are thrown around, it’s still all about bodies. Even now girls will be comparing themselves to Elodie and thinking they are just not good enough.

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Body image and eating disorder specialists I spoke to are concerned about the ability of a 13- year-old to navigate the world of modelling. Why is Dolly including such young girls when globally there is a move away from younger models?

In 2005 there was a storm over having a 12-year-old as the face of Gold Coast Fashion Week. Three years later Australian Fashion Week organisers bowed to pressure and dropped a 14- year-year-old Polish girl as the face of the event.

Australia’s Body Image Code of Conduct recommends only using those over 16 to model adult clothes or work or model in fashion shows targeting an adult audience.

The idea that 13 or 14 is too young to model is often met with “But Miranda Kerr started at that age and she’s doing great!”

But how many girls fell by the wayside, how many were damaged due to the harmful consequences of internalizing the message that their value as a person is in how others view and judge their bodies?

The revamped comp has a special spin. “Become a Model Citizen”. Dolly wants “more than a pretty face”, it wants a “great role model for Dolly readers.” It wants girls to “Have fun, don’t let looks rule your life!” (at the same time Chadwick’s judge lists ‘looks” first in what he’s seeking).

Dolly has enlisted the help of The Butterfly Foundation. They’ve prepared “an awesome body image tip sheet” and will also conduct a workshop with finalists. Dolly also says it will have strict rules on how its winner can be used.

But while I support Butterfly’s goals, I’m not sure telling yourself to be beautiful on the inside and the rest is enough to deal with a message dominant in the modelling and fashion industries that you have to be hot to matter. As Mia Freedman says “The Butterfly Foundation may talk about being ‘beautiful on the inside’ and I’m sure their intentions are good but the modelling and fashion industries don’t give a hoot about your insides. You don’t have to be healthy or kind or smart to be a model. You just have to conform to some pre-ordained, impossible standards set by the modelling industry.”

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Thrusting any girl into an industry where they are taught that what matters most is that they fit some cookie-cutter mould of what women should look like, is troubling.

Jess Hart, Dolly’s 1998 model search winner, posed with Jen Hawkins on a 2010 Grazia cover last year headed: “Jen & Jess: how to get their $5M bodies!”

Hart told Grazia she gets “super strict about her diet” prior to a photoshoot. The Victoria’s Secret models – including Alessandra Ambrosio who was 12 weeks pregnant during the most recent catwalk show – admit to taking drastic measures before their Victoria’s Secret lingerie shoots and parades, including liquid diets and extreme exercise regimes.

It is difficult to see how a Dolly Model search winner will deviate from the standard beauty ideal.

It would be one thing to pluck a girl out of a crowd and offer her a contract. But Dolly (with the apparent support of Butterfly) is enabling competition between teen girls on the basis (primarily) of physical appearance. As Mia Freedman wonders: “Why would anyone want to send the message to girls that they should compete and be judged on the way they look?  Surely they get that message more than enough already.”

Dunk says readers want a “relatable teen role model.” “We have endless research that girls respond best to seeing “someone like me” in the media,” she told me.

But couldn’t Dolly give readers a great role model outside a competitive appearance-focussed event in which girls are compared and judged and learn life is just one big beauty pageant?

What about a role model who is an awesome athlete, or musician, or campaigner against violence against women? A teen anti-bullying ‘hero’ writing advice columns – ‘someone like me’ doing amazing things in the world.

It seems to me girls who are truly role models for other girls would be the least likely to enter, because their goals in life are beyond physical appearance. So the true role models may never be discovered.

Rather than introduce them to an industry which glorifies the cult of celebrity and fashion – and contributes to body image despair – why not foster more meaningful values and aspirations in girls? Now that would be inspiring

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is well known for her work on the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls and working to address violence against women. You can find her website here and follow her on Twitter here.

This is an expanded version of a piece published on the weekend in the Sunday Herald Sun (reprinted on Melinda’s blog)

Read Mia Freedman’s modelling manifesto for wannabe models and their parents here

What do you think? Modelling for 13 year olds – can it ever be healthy?

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