“Fashion Rules” © John Engstrom
Who Will Be On Top
America’s Next Top Model cycle began
with a busload of camera angles
Girls crowded the screen
as they faced Tyra and her rotating judges
with awestruck gazes.
Tyra draped in sequins and Emmy nominee
ambition took her fifteen minutes of episode
to pick through each girl’s hopes,
dreams and tragic backstories.
They balanced on the edge
of a cocked hip and a catwalk show-off
and these girls started to lose themselves
in Tyra’s spotlight eyes and flashbulb smile.
She was a den mother of exploitation
for fourteen young women,
and they fell further into the camera lens.
She spoke on each contestants’ beauty
then presented prime time makeovers
with hair cuts, cinched up corsets
and bent broken limbs
to portion them out and cut them
into the proper viewing segments.
In the beginning, they were all smiles.
They roamed over their new home
prior to group therapy in late night sleepovers.
These women unpacked
every week, until they unfolded family strain,
ironed out missed moments with children
and hung up mental health
so they could slip into a perfect silhouette
of just broke enough.
I watched the girls
become smaller and smaller
as they pushed beyond their skin, bones
and names with each photograph
of airbrush expectations.
Weekly trauma doled out in the best and worst picture,
where the judges became all bite,
sinking in their comments
until their teeth grinded down
on each girl’s backbone.
The heels got higher,
the clothes got tighter,
and the lights got brighter.
Contestants weighed every choice
on a tipping scale where the photo
outweighed their existence.
The girls replaced their college diplomas,
their children, and their identities
with laminated portfolios with smized portraits
and photographer handprints.
One by one, the girls became gaunt
with sunken cheek dreams,
and haggard shoulder reflections,
but kept smiling through their eyes,
so no one noticed them crying for help.
Tyra asked these women every week
what else would they give for being a top model,
and each episode I watched them
throw out pain, flesh, tears
until they made a final catwalk
from the skeletons of the former contestants
to watch the last girls
stomp and pose out
every last piece of themselves,
until they were the perfect objects
to be bent, stapled and muted upon the page.
Amanda Hawk lives in Seattle between the roaring planes and concrete jungle. She splits her time with her son. friends and the city’s neon lights. She enjoys the beauty in the shadows over the brightness of the sun.
John Engstrom is a Boston-based artist-author-poet. A retired journalist-museum worker, he serves as Arts critic for the Fenway News. His collages and poems appear on Facebook and Divergents Magazine.