Russelling Feathers in the Fashion World
By Marcy Driehaus
Some women in the fashion industry choose to be blissfully ignorant to the unattainable body image that they project onto girls and women through their work. Others in the industry, such as model Cameron Russell, are taking a stand.
Russell was born on June 14, 1987 in Boston, Massachusetts. Growing up, the young beauty showed an interest in politics, a field that happens to differ greatly from the path she ultimately ended up pursuing. Throughout her childhood, she worked on various democratic political campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1996. The hard work she had done for President Clinton seemed to have paid off when she seized the chance to meet him on June 5, 1998 after a speech he had given in her hometown. The president’s advice to Russell was to stay in school and follow her dreams. Though this was good advice, it’s almost as though the soon-to-be supermodel hadn’t even had time to dream before she was scouted, signed with Ford Models agency, and plunged into the fashion world at age 16.
As her career gained momentum, Russell began to take advantage of the power that came with being in the public eye by breaking the stigma that is “models should be seen and not heard”. An impactful way that she did this was by speaking at a TEDx event in October 2012. At this event, Russell captured the attention of her audience with an insightful and refreshingly honest nine minute lecture deceptions of the modeling industry. In this lecture, Russell emphasized her own privilege (the upper hand she has in society due to her being a thin, beautiful white woman) an approach that shows courage and dignity, thus demanding respect. She made sure everyone knew that she is painfully aware of her privilege and luck, saying how she became a model was simply because she “won a genetic lottery” due to humanity being “biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall, slender figures, and femininity and white skin. And this is a legacy that was built for me, and it’s a legacy that I’ve been cashing out on.” Along with pointing out the happy circumstances that got her where she is today, she made it a point to hone in on the lack of diversity on the runway as well. A recent statistic shows that only about 6% of models out of all the autumn and winter fashion shows in the year 2013 were black, an issue that Russell was determined to shed light on. Taking it even further than the fashion world, Russell also spent time talking about the discrimination in the justice system. She mentioned that, “Last year, of the 140,000 teenagers that were stopped and frisked, 86 percent of them were black and Latino, and most of them were young men.” Russell chose to embrace the attention she unwillingly receives through her privilege and looks by giving those who are silenced a voice and speaking out on their behalf. Not only does she advocate for an end to discrimination in the modeling industry, but in all aspects of life. She also makes sure to discourage young girls from aspiring to be models whenever they come to her and idolize her glamorous lifestyle. She lets them know that modeling is not a career path due to the fact that it solely depends on the luck of the draw and happy coincidences. With this in mind, she has higher hopes for these young girls, and urges them to aim higher and strive for bigger and brighter things. Russell closed her lecture at the TEDx event with, “If there’s a takeaway to this talk, I hope it’s that we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes and our perceived failures.”- words that rang true considering how clear her message read due largely in part to her image and the respect that came with it.
Russell’s most recent project is an online media outlet that launched in March 2013 called Interrupt Mag. As described on the magazine’s website, Interrupt is “an experiment in community storytelling, with a focus on youth marginalized and misrepresented by mainstream media”. This interactive magazine allows for everyday women to give their input on a plethora of important topics that pertain to women in all walks of life. A goal of this magazine is diversify the fashion industry by spotlighting women of all different races and body types. This example of inclusion attracted masses of positive feedback. In regards to why she did this, Russell said “You don’t normally see pictures of that sort of thing in a fashion magazine. But I think fashion will become more diverse as they see that there is an audience for alternatives.” Through Interrupt, Russell is effectively broadening how the world perceives body image and fashion.
Having worked for labels such as Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Vogue, and Armani, Russell’s career is just as prosperous and noteworthy as her activism. She continues to make headlines by projecting her controversial inside opinions on the industry that she still works in today. By acknowledging her privilege and using it to speak out against oppression, Russell is able to be a spokesperson for those who aren’t normally heard. This compassion and determination has the potential impact the lives of many. As she said herself, “We can’t just pay attention to women who look fantastic in photographs, because there are a lot of people that have fantastic things to say that don’t look like 25-year-old, white models.”