'America's Next Top Model': Edifying? Soul-Destroying? Or Both?

A friend told me recently that she watches America's Next Top Model with her tween. I didn't gasp outright, but up went my eyebrows. ANTM, Tyra Banks' TV brainchild, indulges the skin-deep concerns and cat-fighting proclivities of gorgeous, impossibly thin waifs. How could the show possibly benefit an actual young woman -- especially a 12-year-old -- who's still coming to terms with my own (probably limited) beauty?

My friend reminded me that, at her daughter's age, we were flipping through fashion magazines, looking at the models and pining for perfection we'd never achieve. Her daughter does it, too, says my friend -- but with the benefit of insights she's gleaned from America's Next Top Model. Her daughter knows the magic of makeup, of wigs, of actual smoke and mirrors and wind machines that manipulate the models' bodies. Of course, we'd heard about all that, too. But my friend's daughter has actually seen lots of "before" photos, with sallow faces and wispy, stringy hair and zits, even. As they say, knowledge is power. Perhaps it could remove some of the sting from our society's out-of-reach beauty standards.

Tonight is the season finale of ANTM, season 13 (which the show inexplicably calls Cycle 13). The competition is down to two, petite-sized models: Nicole and Laura. As the hula/hip hop instructor reminded them last week, "to be a top model, it is crucial to be able to tell a story with your bodies." As I watch, I can't help but ask: Does Nicole's story involve living through a famine? Is Laura's story about a struggle with bulimia? Good guesses, both. But no. Like all the other models on the show, they are just very slim. Also, beautiful -- with long, flowing, shiny hair.

Laura's story is a TV producer's dream. In a previous episode, she says that she comes "from a place where big dreams are not a part of reality." Otherwise known as Stanford, KY. She makes her living waiting tables and working on the family farm. "Not too long ago I was castratin' bulls and cuttin' hay," she explains in an accent that's so down-home southern, you wonder whether she's been asked to lay it on thicker than usual.

Nicole's story is less dramatic. A self-described shy, awkward girl from Louisville, CO, she tries to get along with the others. She's still in school, and "I'm really close to my family," she says in her introductory video. "I love fashion, and I don't have much experience modeling." Or dancing. In last week's episode, she showcased her awkwardness in the dance sequence.

When my friend's tween daughter watches tonight's Laura/Nicole faceoff, she will see some typically alluring images of both models. But whoever wins (and my money's on Laura), she won't idolize the winner. She knows too much about her.

Do you think America's Next Top Model is bad for young girls? Chime in below!

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