It’s 7 pm on a weeknight, and I’m sitting in the staircase of a casting agency in the district of Schöneberg, in Berlin. It’s my very first call-back. As a matter of fact, it’s my very first casting - I’m definitely more of a role model than a model model: by that I mean that people tend to use the word “empowering” when I post the occasional thirst trap on social media, instead of the fire emojis. Anyway, here I am, waiting to meet the director of the natural beauty ad campaign I am auditioning for. He opens the door and we do the weird hand-out-wait-no-contact-elbow-shake of late 2020, and we get down to it.
“Your look, your whole vibe, it’s really trendy right now. I have to send the rushes to New York, and I don’t call the shots on casting but I’m pretty confident that we’ll be working together. Natural beauty is in. You are in! Do you have an agent?” he said after 20 minutes of shooting.
Me, Barnaby, token of natural beauty. Can you believe it?? I still can’t.
Growing up, my body has been the butt of a crude joke, from my classmates, my brother, even my closest friends sometimes. I was surrounded by a constant commentary on my curly hair, my angular nose, my dark features, my fat thighs, and I internalised the notion that my body was peculiar, different, funny.
After all, it was not on TV, in magazines, anywhere around me except as some sort of laughable anomalie. And I, Barnaby, get to be in an ad, on TV, and maybe be seen by a little Barnaby like me? Wow. Just… Wow!
It’s 10 am on Saturday, some gaffer knocks on my hotel room door to let me know that it’s time for my shot. Corona regulations make it that we can’t all be on set at the same time, so I’ve been confined to my room watching Bernd das Brot. He adds: “You shouldn’t eat before your shoot, but let’s get you to the stylist first.”. I nod and smile politely, I’m too stressed to eat anyway. Finally! I was starting to think that they had cut me off from the script.
The stylist is stressed, she wasn’t aware that there would be “bigger” people on the shoot. She has virtually no clothes in my size, so I wear my jeans and the one yellow top that accommodates my hips. We send some pictures to New York. They hate it. She runs out to a store and brings a teal spaghetti strap top. I try it on, without a bra.
It’s now 6 pm, and we send more pictures to New York. They like it, but “we need to do something about the breasts”. I nod and smile politely, analysing all the way my breasts could possibly be wrong for New York.
LAYER ONE: my breasts are pulled up from underneath, to the side, with the only nude push up bra available in something close to my size. The straps are tucked to the side and pinned together by a hair pin.
LAYER TWO: double sided adhesive tape is applied from my nipples to the corner of the bra, to further lift my breast and stick the bra - too small and too big at the same time - to my body
LAYER THREE: two extra large nude bra inserts are taped to the bra, in order to smooth what is now closer to a hardware store than a pair of tits
It’s now 8 pm, the spot lights are on, and I’m sweating so much that two gaffers are blow drying my armpits. I do my bit, New York likes it. All I can think about is how painful it will be to take off those three layers, and... Roland Barthes.
Yes, Roland Barthes. Barthes is a French social theorist who was fascinated by how society encrypts it’s discourse into everyday life, including advertisements. In 1964, he published “Rhetoric of the Image”, an essay analysing a Panzani pasta sauce advertisement. His goal was to map out how the advertisement industry leverages discourse to convey meaning, and thus desire.
LAYER ONE: the literal meaning, so what the advertisement is literally saying, with words. In our natural beauty campaign case, something along the line of: I use deodorant.
LAYER TWO: the denotation, how the product is depicted. In our natural beauty campaign case, a “natural” woman is carrying the product in her hand, in a spa.
LAYER THREE: the connotation - this is what we, the audience, are meant to deduct from the short ad clip. The words are not said, the image is not shown, but still somehow we construct this layer of meaning from our cultural background. These will differ from people to people, culture to culture, background to background. In our natural beauty campaign case, for little Barnaby, it could be something along the lines of: this brand sees me as naturally beautiful.
Here’s the trick: there is no such thing as natural beauty. I would even argue that there is no such thing as beauty. These are norms that are socially constructed and become “pseudo-truths”. They are a reflection of our society, rarely of ourselves.
And just like adhesive tape glued on sweaty skin for four hours, these layers are hard and painful to shed.
As my body was shaped, edited, adjusted to craft a message of inclusivity and diverse representation, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of imposture. How could I? In 2021, it’s still inconceivable for mainstream, commercial media that an average, brown woman’s body - with stretch marks, wrinkles, and -god forbid! - nipples - is beautiful enough to carry the meaning of natural beauty. It is still radical to feature intersectionalities, and their narratives almost exclusively shaped in their relation to white, cis, ability.
What about “representation matters”? What about little Barnaby, waiting to see herself on the screen? How do we balance visibility and objectification? I don’t know for sure, but conversations and inclusivity - not just on screen, but in the decision rooms, seems like a good start.
“They loved you in New York! You should really get yourself an agent!” the director said, as he closed the door to the sprinter van that was driving me back home. My nipples still sore from removing the adhesive tape in haste, I nod and smile politely, and wave goodbye. It’s 11 pm, I’m tired, I’m starving, I just don’t have the energy to fight.
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