Why Models Never Smile

Miss Universe Argentina, if not Miss Congeniality. Photo by Johanna Lasic.

Why do fashion models never smile? However glamorous or attractive they are, it's hard to find a model who truly looks happy to be photographed. With all the money that goes into advertising, there must be a reason for this.


In fact, it seems that the more expensive the product, the more glum the girl advertising it. While tampon ads often feature maniacally grinning females, a $100,000 necklace might be worn by a woman who looks like she's got a turd in her mouth, but doesn't want to let on.

So why do models never smile if the product is expensive? According to John Berger, the answer is envy. "Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance," he writes in Ways of Seeing,

It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest--if you do, you will become less enviable...It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.

The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.

In other words, models don't smile because their job is to be envied by the viewer. An "absent, unfocused look" indicates that the model isn't paying attention to you--she's too important to do that, and she doesn't have to hide her disgust or misery from you. If, however, you buy the product, you too can become enviable.

In "Augustus," a short story by Hermann Hesse, a mother wishes that her infant son will be loved by everybody. She gets her wish; as Augustus grows up, he becomes handsome, clever and distinguished. Everyone fawns on him and he is "welcome everywhere." When he becomes a young man, women fall in love with him without exception. Does this make him kind or happy? No!

No one could equal the manner in which he went through bustling streets, greeting the attentive girls with a contemptuous look...Women overwhelmed him with tenderness, and his friends raved about him, and nobody saw--he himself hardly noticed it--how empty and greedy his heart had become and how his soul was sick and languishing in pain. Sometimes he became tired of being loved by everyone and went by himself in disguise in foreign cities. Yet everywhere he went he found that the people were foolish and very easy to conquer.
––The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, 86-7

This is the state of mind advertised by fashion magazines. Like Augustus, the fashion models are "sick and languishing in pain," but they are envied, admired, loved even, so much so that they can greet the attentive viewer with a "contemptuous look," and treat the tenderest feelings of other people with blasé entitlement, even sly manipulation.

While fashion ads play on status anxiety, tampons, shampoo, or other household items are purchased for their effectiveness, not their status. If you wear a tampon you're not going to become gorgeous. A $6 shampoo, or a $12 lipstick, has to be advertised on its merits, even if these merits are wildly unrealistic ("tampons are liberating!!!" "shampoo=orgasm!"), not its effect on the woman's social status. Therefore, models are free to smile in these advertisements.

One escape for a sick soul is materialism, in buying nice clothes and houses and so on, in becoming enviable in your loneliness. This is why models never smile for perfume or diamond or fashion advertisements: if you buy this product, the photo implies, people will rave about you, envy you, even make you loved by others, if not yourself. To a person "sick and languishing in pain," this seems like an easy way out, even if they have to go into debt.

It's not that models never smile. They do. But when advertising something to be envied, such as luxury goods, the models must "become" the product and become enviable themselves--by using the love of others as a buttress for power.

This essay originally appeared, in a slightly different format, on minervana.com and feministing.

Related Reading:

Girl's Punk Hairstyles

Lady Gaga - A Dissenting Opinion

Style and Beauty

The Hipster Handbook

Ruth Gordon quotes

Edie: Girl on Fire

Style and Money

Above photo by Johanna Lasic, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

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