It’s nearly June and I’m a suburban mom, so of course I’m being bombarded with targeted advertisements for one summer camp or another at every turn both virtually and in the actual mail. Chess camp, soccer camp, art camp: you name it, some JCC somewhere has got it.
My children are little so I don’t pay too much attention to these ads, but I suppose I’m neutral about the whole idea. It’s one thing if you’re a pushy stage mom intent on molding your completely chess-indifferent child into the next Bobby Fischer, but if your child has a natural inclination or interest in a specific sport or hobby and expresses a desire for an immersive learning experience, then why not send him to a place that will foster this kind of productive pursuit?
But I was taken aback when I recently saw an ad for modeling camp. In the politically correct and feminist realm in which I mostly operate, I had totally forgotten that modeling camps actually exist. Sure, I remember gazing longingly at the Barbizon ads in the back pages of Seventeen during a couple of especially awkward adolescent years, but now, as a 28-year old mom of two including one young daughter, I recoiled at the images of tween girls wobbling around in high heels like uncertain baby deer. I experienced the kind of incredibly judgmental and outraged moment -- “Who would send their kids to this kind of thing?!” -- that fuels the mommy blogosphere, and which normally I try to keep inside but will share with you now in an attempt at full and honest disclosure.
Because despite the deceptively pretty buzz words meant to placate similarly outraged critics of this type of endeavor, like confidence, poise, grace, and other adjectives that are crucial for British princesses to master but not so much when it comes to your average girl, the fact is that modeling camps aren’t really pushing your child to develop a particular skill or talent other than smoldering or posing well for the camera. [Feel free to correct me if you can speak at all to this phenomenon from actual experience.] This seems counter-productive to the values that place an emphasis on the innate rather than the external that most parents I know hope to instill in their children.
My self-righteous disdain seems even more sanctimonious when I remember that it was only last year that I took my daughter, who was about 10 months old at the time, to a model call in Manhattan. See, I told you I’m honest.
I haven’t really told a lot of people about this because it’s mildly embarrassing in my world of progressive and crunchy granola moms, and I have no defense except to say that I was really curious to know if my daughter had what it took to make it into a Target circular, the glossy result of what I know to be a less-than-glamorous process. I was also experiencing a regularly scheduled anxiety attack after reading one of those panic-inducing articles about the exorbitant price tag of a private college education and the associated costs of raising children.
Knowing myself quite well, I’m sure that I freaked out and Googled something like “legal ways to make easy money.” Selling plasma and collecting loose change underneath couch cushions looked less appealing than starting a college fund with the earnings from child modeling. So I thought: Why not?
I know that modeling isn’t easy per se, unless you have an established name already and don’t have to wait eight hours each day on exhausting go-sees. I know modeling is a cutthroat and seedy world where young girls are imported from Slavic countries and summarily dismissed once they develop hips. But I figured baby modeling was a world of lower stakes and expectations.
And my daughter is quite lovely, in both my completely biased opinion and the unbiased opinions of supermarket cashiers and casual observers at the playground. It’s difficult not to feel a surge of pride every time my daughter is complimented for her looks, even though I like it more when people compliment her for sharing nicely, or for her stubborn refusal to let bigger kids intimidate her, which I figure can only help her when she leans in later on.
So though I hated to admit it, I had an insignificant but undeniable eagerness to know whether professional judges of appearance would deem photos of my daughter worthy enough to appear to come for an in-person assessment. (They did.) And I wondered if they would be so taken with her adorableness at the model call that they would demand I sign her there on the spot so she could be in a Target circular the very next week. (They were not.)
The actual model call itself was interesting enough in the unique way that new experiences in which you have no serious emotional investment tend to be. In a room with fluorescent lighting and plastic chairs, all the parents -- who were mostly moms -- checked out each other’s children, and then we all checked out each, and you would think I’d be used to this kind of snotty once-over from weekly visits to my local synagogue but I guess I’ll just never become accustomed to Mean Girls mentality among adult women.
I was the only person among both the grownups and the babies not dressed to the nines, as I was unaware that parents of potential baby models were auditioning for anything. When I tried to make eye contact and exchange sheepish smiles with a few of the other parents before they quickly looked away, I wondered just how many unwritten etiquette rules I was in breach of at this farce of a social gathering.
As we juggled keeping our babies quiet while opening packets of string cheese and cans of puffs, we listened to the young and exhausted-looking agent deliver a robotic lecture about the world of baby modeling. Then we wrote down our babies’ ages, height, weight and clothing size, turned in photos and that was that as we shuffled into a creaky elevator with cranky babies in tow. Glam.
Two days later, I received an e-mail saying thanks but no thanks.
“It has nothing to do with your child’s level of cuteness!” the e-mail made sure to reassure me. And, though I had a flash of seething rage toward them, I fumed for exactly one minute both because I didn’t actually put much stock into what superficial value they assigned to my daughter and because I really knew that there were probably other factors at play, like they had too many brown-eyed brunette 10-month old babies on file at the moment or she just didn’t have the “look” that agency was going for. But I felt bad for those parents who put substantial hope in the process and who must have felt more crestfallen than I did at the agency’s impersonal dismissal of their children.
The whole experience reaffirmed for me that there’s little beauty in the business of modeling, which at its core is mostly (mostly) a very gross enterprise that judges people solely on the way they look. It’s certainly not a very kid-friendly profession, but I suppose there will always be young and impressionable girls with a plethora of opportunities to learn that looks are incredibly important, and parents to either nurture these flawed values or reject them in favor of more meaningful ones.
I threw out those modeling camp ads as quickly as they showed up in my mail. The college fund and better outlets for my idle curiosity can both happen some other way.