I really want to laud America’s Next Top Model for including a transgender contestant on its Cycle 11, even if they eliminated her by the end of the fourth episode. Isis, a 22-year-old former receptionist who self identifies as female, could formulate a coherent sentence, refrained from the ubiquitous cattiness of reality TV, and knew how to mug. She even recently shared in an interview with US Weekly, “I like to help people.” This young woman was perfect, right?
And therein lies the problem for me. Isis’ short-lived success reaffirms an unhealthy and rarely attainable standard of feminine beauty- one that rewards emaciation and malnourishment. Isis was severely underweight and was never shown eating a thing. She might have self-identified as a woman of color, but because she was branded the “transgender contestant,” her race, class, hobbies, values, and other identity markers were insignificant to the Top Model producers. On episode two, Isis was noticeably absent in a house discussion about racial intolerance. When Isis performed poorly at both of her last two photo shoots, the judges chastised her for failing to be “herself,” worrying more about her genitalia coming untaped in a swimsuit than “smiling with her eyes.” How can Top Model purport to be redefining who can be a model while simultaneously ignoring the social, emotional, and physical realities of being a transgender woman?
I find it just as disturbing that although Top Model revealed that Isis was “discovered” during Cycle 10 in New York City, when the former season’s contestants posed with homeless youth, Isis’ experiences as a homeless young woman were never discussed. Was Isis a runaway? Did she get thrown out of her Maryland home? How did participating in Manhattan nonprofit Reciprocity Foundation’s unique media training for homeless teens help her survive? What words of wisdom might she have shared with other transgender teens that looked to her for advice and inspiration?
Top Model proved in Cycle 10 that it eventually rewards niche contestants, choosing “plus-size” model Whitney Thompson as its winner. But let’s be clear. Thompson, a blonde bombshell channeling Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, fluctuated between a size 8 and a size 10, just under the American average for women 5’10’’. Top Model has had almost one plus-size model per season, but only the thinnest made it to top model status. So while Isis might have paved the way for other transgender contestants, perhaps she just came nine episodes too soon. Or should have been less insecure about her body. You know, like a real aspiring model.
If Top Model really wanted to give face time to the transgender community, why could it not have allowed Iris to share her story with America on her terms? Why could it not have actually investigated Isis’ struggle to live her life as a female model while constantly negotiating how to live in a male body, rather than exploit her for ratings- positioning her as a mere footnote in transgender history?