Does Being Beautiful Make You Happy?

Apr 19, 2013
Originally published on December 31, 2015 9:16 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode What Is Beauty?

About Cameron Russell's TED Talk

Cameron Russell admits she won "a genetic lottery": She's tall, pretty and an underwear model. But don't judge her by her looks. In this fearless talk, she takes a wry look at the industry that had her looking highly seductive at barely 16 years old.

About Cameron Russell

Cameron Russell has spent the last decade modeling. A Victoria's Secret favorite, she has appeared in multiple international editions of Vogue as well as in ads for brands like Ralph Lauren and Benetton. But she is much more than just a pretty face. Russell experiments with creating street art and runs the blog, which is dedicated to covering grassroots public art and political power. She is also the director of The Big Bad Lab, which creates participatory art that aims to include people in radical demonstrations of positive social change.

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CAMERON RUSSELL: When I walk into a room I feel like there's a lot of tension and, you know, some people probably want to have sex with me and other people are jealous. And other people are judging me because they might know that I'm a model.


That's Cameron Russell. High cheekbones, full lips, long legs - a supermodel. Here's how she opened her TED Talk.


RUSSELL: Hi, my name is Cameron Russell. And for the last little while I've been a model, actually for 10 years. And I feel like there's an uncomfortable tension in the room right now because I should not have worn this dress. So ...

RAZ: Describe what you were wearing.

RUSSELL: I was wearing an incredibly tight black dress that's basically made out of the same stuff we make tights out of and it's really short.


RUSSELL: Luckily, I brought an outfit change. This is the first outfit change on the TED stage, so you guys are pretty lucky to witness it, I think.

RAZ: Were you nervous?

RUSSELL: Oh my God, I was totally nervous. Could you tell?


RUSSELL: That was awkward. Well ...

I thought it would be an interesting way to open a talk about image to put on an incredibly sexy dress and have the audience make a judgment about who I was, and then to switch into my nerdy, academic outfit.


RUSSELL: So why did I do that? I just totally transformed what you thought of me in six seconds. And of course barring surgery, there is very little that we can do to transform how we look. And how we look, though it is superficial and immutable, has a huge impact on our lives.

RAZ: Like, like when?

RUSSELL: It happens to me all the time. Actually just two weeks ago I was driving with my boyfriend on Houston - I forget how it started - but we got pulled over and he definitely seemed like he was going to give us a ticket for something when he was talking to my boyfriend. And then I leaned forward from the passenger seat and I said, oh hi officer. I'm so sorry I don't have my seatbelt; I was eating this little lemon square. And he goes, oh that looks delicious. And I say, yeah, it is delicious. It's great. And he was like, oh, I'm - you know, I'm so sorry; just put your seatbelt on and keep on going. I have that experience often.


RUSSELL: And I am on this stage because I am a model. I am on the stage because I am a pretty white woman. And in my industry, we call that a sexy girl. And I'm going to answer the questions that people always ask me but with an honest twist. So the first question is how do you become a model? And I always just say, oh I was scouted, but that means nothing. The real way that I became a model is I won a genetic lottery and I am the recipient of a legacy. And maybe you're wondering what is a legacy. Well, for the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we're 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.

RAZ: And how has she been cashing out on it? Well, Cameron graduated from Columbia University last June. Now there's a lot she could do, things that would have nothing to do with her looks and yet ...

RUSSELL: I have been offered so many, too many opportunities. I'm offered TV shows and movies and books and that's all just because of how I look. You know, I'm making two different statements. You know, in a larger societal way I think it's unfortunate that we value and reward people who look like me. But on a personal note of course, I'm incredibly lucky.

RAZ: You almost talk about yourself like you're not really - it's just something else, that you kind of step outside of it, and you're sort of observing yourself in that world that you inhabit.

RUSSELL: Well certainly how I look is going to change in the next 10 years, so I don't give it huge importance. You know, I'm paid a ton of money for having a 23-inch waist but of course that's not of value to me. That's not a long-term career.


RUSSELL: I will demonstrate for you now 10 years of accumulated model knowledge, because unlike cardiothoracic surgeons it can just be distilled right into right now. So if the photographer is right there, and the light is right there, like a nice HMI, and the client says Cameron, we want a walking shot. Well, then this leg goes first, nice and long. This arm goes back. This arm goes forward. The head is at three-quarters and you just go back and forth. Just do that. And then you look back at your imaginary friends, 300, 400, 500 times.


RUSSELL: Unfortunately after you've gone to school, and you have a resume, and you've done a few jobs, you can't say anything anymore. So if you say you want to be the president of the United States, but your resume reads underwear model 10 years, people give you a funny look. The next question people always ask me is, do they retouch all the photos? And yeah, they pretty much retouch all the photos. But that is only a small component of what's happening. These pictures are not pictures of me. They are constructions and they are constructions by professionals, by hairstylists, and makeup artists, and photographers, and stylists, and all of their assistants and pre-production, and post-production and they build this. That's not me. When I was researching this talk, I found out that of the 13-year-old girls in the United States, 53 percent don't like their bodies. And that number goes to 78 percent by the time that they're 17.

RAZ: Do you have a problem with it?

RUSSELL: With being misconstrued in those images?

RAZ: No. Do you have a problem with this idea of manufacturing a kind of a look, of essentially reinforcing these notions of what beauty is?

RUSSELL: Well, I don't have a problem with the sort of constructed factor. I think that the artists that work on those pictures are incredibly talented. I think the problem that I have with those images is just that they're very exclusive. There's a little bit more diversity in more mass markets. So if you go into Target, for example, you'll probably see girls that are non-white, girls that are a little bit heavier then you will in French Vogue. But if there's a solution to that, or if there's something that the fashion world can do, and maybe this goes for everyone in the world, is just to assume a piece of the blame. And I'm happy to talk about, you know, being not sure that I should do every single shoot. And I am very thoughtful about whether or not I should work for certain clients or produce certain images. And I worry that I am really a staple now of that industry, which promotes skinny, white women as what's beautiful. And I think it's okay to say that I think we don't live in a retouched world. We can just say, I'm not sure that I made the right decision every time. I am a little bit guilty for what's going on.


RUSSELL: So the last question people ask me is, you know, what is it like to be a model? And I think the answer that they're looking for is, if you are a little bit skinnier and you have shinier hair, you will be so happy and fabulous. And when we're backstage we give an answer that maybe makes it seem like that. We say, it's really amazing to travel and it's amazing to get to work with creative, inspired, passionate people, and those things are true, but they're only one half of the story. Because the thing that we never say on camera, that I have never said on camera, is I am insecure. And I'm insecure because I have to think about what I look like every day. And if you ever are wondering, you know, if I have thinner thighs and shinier hair, will I be happier? You just need to meet a group of models because they have the thinnest thighs, and the shiniest hair, and the coolest clothes, and they're the most physically insecure women probably on the planet. So when I was writing this talk, I found it very difficult to strike an honest balance. Because on the one hand, I felt very uncomfortable to come out here and say, look I've received all these benefits from a deck stacked in my favor. And it also felt really uncomfortable to follow that up with, and it doesn't always make me happy. 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. Thank you.


RAZ: Cameron Russell. She gave that talk last year at TED Mid-Atlantic here in Washington, D.C. You can find that talk at We're talking about beauty today, who decides and why our very survival may depend on experiencing it. Coming up, the most beautiful plastic bag you have ever seen. I'm Guy Raz. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.