What Does “Alt Model” Even Mean?


Yesterday, one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images, picked apart amputee alt model Viktoria‘s appearance in Bizarre Magazine:

What makes Viktoria “bizarre”? Is it her amputated leg? Is it the fact that she has an amputated leg and is still incredibly sexy? Or is it that she has an amputated leg and still considers herself a sexual person? Is this empowering? And to who? Surely the disabled are desexualized in this country, so it’s nice to see that challenged even, I suppose, in a magazine about weirdos. And yet, I suspect her sexuality is acceptable, fetishizable, only because she conforms to expectations of feminine beauty. In the big scheme of things, does she reproduce the standard of beauty, unattainable for most women, that crushes women’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth? And will disabled women, most of whom (like most non-disabled women) could never dream of being so beautiful, actually look at her and be able to identify? Or will this just draw attention to another way in which they don’t match up?

Now really, I think that SocImages went a little overboard with Viktoria (especially when they dismissed her comments about sexuality as “standard porn star talk”). Maybe it’s because I know her little better than they do, but I think that they oversimplify the genuine place that she comes from in choosing to be a model. However, they do bring up an important discussion that’s been nagging me for some time. What is an alternative model, and what is an alt model’s role in visual culture? In my life, at various points, I came up with 3 different definitions. I believe in each of them, and I have a problem with each of them as well. Here they are below. Which one resonates with you? Do you think it’s a combination of the three below, or something completely different? Opinions, please.

1. The model who challenges society’s notions of beauty.

L: Kenyan-born trans model Biko Beauttah R: Velvet D’Amour

I love these models, but the issue here is that, while they appear to push the boundaries of beauty in some direction, they usually wind up brutally reinforcing another traditional notion in the process. For example, trans models make us rethink gender/beauty, but with their self-presentation they usually reinforce the ideal of a sleek, hairless feminine figure, thus fueling the hair-removal industry. In fact, epilator-manufacturer Philips Norelco has already found a way to to capitalize on this to great effect – just watch this ad. And large models like Velvet D’Amour and skinny-by-comparison but still-considered-plus-size recent ANTM winner Whitney Thompson help to redefine weight in modeling, but what makes them “legitimately beautiful” in the eyes of the mainstream world is their “correct” bone structure, their blond hair. Without some “redeeming quality” of this sort, the world doesn’t recognize them as models, and wouldn’t even give them a shot at making a difference. Mainstream media often presents them as beautiful “in spite of,” not “because of.” While their individual messages are empowering (I love Velvet’s interviews), I don’t find our culture’s use of these models empowering at all.

2. The hottie with strange hair/tattoos/piercings/latex.

Left: Mosh. Right: Scar13.

Like it or not, it’s a valid definition – arguably the most widely-embraced one at that. This idea is epitomized by the Suicide Girls motto: “redefining beauty, one hot, naked chick at a time.” Underneath all the hair dye and black eyeliner, the ideal remains the same: symmetrical faces, clear skin and slim figures with a slightly above-average degree of variation as compared to mainstream modeling. Alterna-porn sites and alt modeling agencies such as Nocturnal Models helped cement this concept, but the biggest reinforcement came from self-proclaimed “alt photographers” and “alt models,” in whom they chose to include and exclude as they built up their online “spheres of influence.” This definition doesn’t make me happy now, though I had no problem with it at 21, when all I did was go clubbing and take pictures that reminded me of how I felt when I was dressed-up on the dance floor. When I realized that my own photography was reinforcing the same standards of beauty that make it difficult for women to have a healthy self-image, I took a step back.

3. The self-made persona.

L: Feisty Diva wearing a hairpiece she created. R: Anachronaut.

Another definition of alt model is someone who completely reinvents themselves from head to toe. This could be someone you’d never otherwise notice on the street, yet through inventive styling, self-applied makeup, self-styled clothing and hair, they create a whole new persona for themselves. The ultimate example of this is Mana, who goes from being a middle-aged man to a gothic Loli. These people make up their own beauty, owning their look from head to toe for the purpose of expressing an artistic ideal, proving a political point, etc. But are are they really “models,” or artists who allow you to take their portrait? It’s the most positive concept to me, but is it a valid definition of “model”?

So there you have it. Three definitions, some of which conflict with each other. And still, even after writing all of this out, I’m not sure if I’m even satisfied with my own personal definition, which draws on all three. Something’s bothering me. Something’s missing. Anyone have any idea?

28 Responses to “What Does “Alt Model” Even Mean?”

  1. six06 Says:

    very insightful, nadya. thank you for sharing this.

    i’ve always found the alt culture interesting in the sense that it is an alternative to mainstream, but at some point becomes so prevalent that it ultimately influences mainstream; thus leaving us with the notion that “nothing is really alternative anymore”.

    in an age where “punk” is a “style” that is easily purchased off the rack at target, one has to ask “is there anything left to rebel against”?

    i, myself, have allowed my ear piercings i’ve had since 1970 to close up. fight the power. heh.

  2. Sakara Says:

    I feel myself that im an alt model due to the fact id never make it in mainstream modelling, due my size(uk12), and height(5 foot3). .so i guess if you want to pidgeon hole alt models then id fit into no.2, due to having tattoos, although ive not got a symmetrical face ( wonky nose).

  3. Zoetica Says:

    I’m not sure I’m expert enough on the topic, considering modeling is one of the ten things I’m doing at any given moment. First, the facts:

    – I stopped doing “regular” modeling at 14 when I realized I wasn’t getting any taller than 5’4 and discovered hair dye
    – I’ve long-transformed myself with said dye, fashion, cosmetics, body modification and very tall shoes
    – My face is extremely symmetrical, but my spine’s curvature gives my shoulders and hips a visual imbalance

    The bottom line? There is no bottom line. There is no defining “alt model”. The strokes are much too broad.

    Am I a true alternative to Claudia Schiffer? Yes.
    Am I a warrior for women’s rights and self esteem? No.

    I shave, diet and fuss about my appearance – and I like it that way. Does it make me any less “alt”? Does the fact that what I do could make others insecure make me less “alt?

    From such a standpoint there can be no “alt models” at all, certainly not ones who dare get a decent night’s sleep. They should be out there picketing and displaying armpits full of luxurious hair.

    So as far as I’m concerned, an alt. model is just a model, used for different purposes than a regular one. Nothing more, nothing less.

  4. Thom B. Says:

    Reading these 3 perspectives on what Alt Models may or may not be and whether Alt models need to challenge mainstream notions of beauty left me thinking that perhaps what should be in question here is what do we expect models to do?

    Personally I’m not entirely sure.

    As a clothing designer I want a model to make the clothes look good and convince the viewer that they’ll look that good too if they buy them. That said I simply won’t make clothes in sizes that don’t suit the design.

    I’m now trying to think of instances where models aren’t there to sell something* and I’m kind of drawing a blank, certainly a really good shoot has artistic value and when all we’re being sold is the image itself (art?) then a lined old face filled with depth of experience is just as beautiful as toned smooth and pouting can be.

    Perhaps then what defines the impact of the model on society is the presentation and our own expectations rather than the models themselves.

    Maybe Alt Modeling, in terms of whether it challenges the norm, is more about the photographer than the model.

    To conclude,
    I too now have more questions than answers.

    *If you have a concept of self then you are “selling” that notion to the world so that point perhaps goes well beyond modeling.

  5. haxor Says:

    Why does the social images blog ask:”what makes her bizarre?” ?

    She looks incredible sexy and distinguishes herself from all the other beauties I guess that is enough for Bizarre Magazine.

    I think that all three definitions are true and that one can propose an even wider definition of alternative model: Alternative models are models that are not mainstream.

    And to the porn star bla bla …: Women have to say that in magazines because it makes them more attractive to men. Men subconsciously add certain external factors like sexual availability to their evaluation of a womans beauty. There is a study about it in which men had to give points for attractiveness if you add the information that the woman has two children on the side of the picture she gets less points although the men had been told to be as objective as possible.

    And some rules concerning beauty are almost general:

  6. lizzelizzel Says:

    Thanks for talking about this, and not in a way that pits models and alt-ness in a competition.

  7. Veronica Says:

    I’m trying to figure out what is bothering me about this article.
    I wonder if it’s the fact that it seeks to further categorize the very thing which “alt” culture seems to resist–categorization. Somehow putting models into just three categories minimizes their art and intentions; it also assumes to know the purposes of the images for the individual and society as a whole, when really the article is just one possible interpretation.

    Now maybe categorizing isn’t such a bad thing in an of itself. Maybe it’s human nature to do that, as we’ve been labeling things in all kinds of ways as long as there has been language on this earth. Humans need to make sense of things they see, hear, touch and feel, for too many reasons to name.

    The other thing I want to point out is the bias of the article towards assigning values towards one or more kind of modeling; what I mean by that is “the self-made persona” seems to be represented in the article as the highest form of alt modeling, or at least the one with the most “positive concept”. And I wonder if that’s not biased towards a Western ideal, that someone is more valued as an individual, as non-conformist. If everyone in Western culture is trying to be a non-conformist, there is a certain conformity going on there. There are plenty of images and models from other cultures that don’t seek to represent individuality. That doesn’t mean those images aren’t alternative, or models, or beautiful, or that they inherently have less value than “self-made personas”.

    These are just a few of the issues that came up for me when reading this; I don’t have enough time to go through them all at the moment.
    I think it’s great that the writer of the article isn’t totally satisfied with the three definitions.

  8. Kitty Says:

    Gosh, I wouldn’t know. I’m what I suppose you’d call an ‘alt’ model, but the reason I might define myself as such is because I’m blatantly not mainstream. Firstly there are always some striking images to be found in regular fashion modeling, but the business in its entirety is not as appealing to me as a less mainstream aesthetic. Also, I’m not tall or thin enough for catwalk modeling, so I’d lose out in that regard anyway. ;)

    I agree that the three definitions you provided are very valid and there are many models who might fit into said categories. I wouldn’t know which I would fit into, if any. I’d like to think I’m slightly different although at the same time I don’t necessarily push crazy boundaries. I at least hope I have something unique to share without being noticeably outlandish.

  9. Xenia Says:

    Right now its “alt modeling” but soon it will simply be just normal everyday modeling, people of the twenty first century are a little more open minded, that’s all.

  10. Io Says:

    Though I don’t know Viktoria, I also take offense to the “standard porn star talk,” because she’s clearly more insightful than they’re letting on. And as for me, personally, her leg is irrelevant to her beauty. In fact, having lived through that only adds to her appeal, just as it would had she overcome some other hardship with her self-esteem and personality intact.

    That said, you do present some interesting points regarding alternative models and their definition. Why I consider myself an alternative model isn’t because I have tattoos, piercings, or strange hair (in fact, I have none of those things), but it’s because of the type of work I participate in, my non-standard height and weight (too short, too heavy) and the clothing I model (latex, tight corsets — though mainstream fashion models often model these items as well). My personal lifestyle is irrelevant with regard to my modeling, there are plenty goth and punk girls in high fashion.

    Yet even the term alternative model is only a part time descriptor of what I do, because I take mainstream work where I can get it, be it beauty work (from benefit of my face fitting a mainstream ideal) or commercial work. Though the genre is valid, it’s also fluid.

    Who knows, perhaps had I grown an extra 3″ inches after I was first scouted for modeling during a trip to NYC at 13 (when I was also a very skinny 105 lbs), I may be a mainstream model today (despite my more alternative real-world persona). But perhaps to my greater benefit artistically/personally, I didn’t surpass 5’5″. Therefor, I’ve never been blinded by the promise of a full-time mainstream modeling career, and thanks to that, I’ve enjoyed the ability to create a lot of art that wouldn’t be acceptable or useful to your industry standard model.

  11. alumiere Says:

    interesting discussion…

    i think the third definition is the closest to how i’d define alt model, but all three have some validity

    but i’m not sure the term alt model even works anymore – as several of the other comments noted with so many “alternative” style choices becoming more accepted i think the idea of beauty is finally beginning to move toward some of the ideals we’d like to see

    when a freak like me can get compliments on her look in the grocery store from someone’s (great?) grandmother while wearing a bondage skirt and a t-shirt that says if “i wanted to play follow the leader i’d be a christian” it’s become pretty obvious that alternative is becoming more acceptable to the mainstream public

  12. Tequila Says:

    “…but the biggest reinforcement came from self-proclaimed “alt photographers” and “alt models,” in whom they chose to include and exclude as they built up their online “spheres of influence…”

    Yes but even this cracked under its own weight. You can’t exclude people from “alternative culture.” Kinda kills the point and “alt” modeling these days is on par with say “alternative” music of the mid 90’s after grunge died. It’s the mainstream but still labeled alternative. “Alt” models and the styles they represent are everywhere…from a wide variety of camps at that. Be it the industrial/goth/whatever sect to the indie/hipster/whatever sect…can’t really escape them even if you’re the Playboy model loving, Maxim subscribing, Armani Exchange wearing type.

    “The hottie with strange hair/tattoos/piercings/latex.

    Underneath all the hair dye and black eyeliner, the ideal remains the same: symmetrical faces, clear skin and slim figures with a slightly above-average degree of variation as compared to mainstream modeling.”

    So then it’s really less a definition than it is about variety in beauty. One could argue you can take a mainstream model and dress her up to look like any “alt” model with no more effort than it takes an “alt” model to achieve their look. In both camps you have many that start to look the same anyhow…the only real stand outs are the models who mix in with definition #3 and have an actual personality and original vision beyond just looking good.

    “When I realized that my own photography was reinforcing the same standards of beauty that make it difficult for women to have a healthy self-image, I took a step back.”

    That part I don’t get. I’ve run into many girls who either want to be photographed by you or look like the girls you’ve worked with. That can’t really be a negative if the women pictured inspire other women to see themselves as original and unique can it? Plus people are always gonna want to look, dress, and even feel like others…it’s rare anyone is happy with who they are on all levels.

    “The self-made persona.”

    Common in many forms of art and society as a whole. Thing is though in terms of models it seems the line is thin between persona and glorified Halloween character. At some point one has to question is it the model people appreciate or their character…and really could that persona live on without the model themselves? Kinda like 007…could other people step into and improve on that persona?

  13. Io Says:

    To Alumiere: Something I found interesting in a little (very non-scientific) experiment that I did myself recently. I uploaded a shot of me in minimal make-up and plain clothes to a site (similar to “hot or not”) that judges a variety of things about you (career, looks, etc.) based on appearance alone. I also uploaded another shot of me with more make up (nothing too outrageous — red lips and dark eyeliner), a Plastik Wrap dress and stompy boots. Both featured my face at the same angle, and in both my body/hair/etc. were unchanged.

    Each got about 1,000 votes. In the regular shot I was judged to be “hot stuff” on average, which is the top rating. For the more alternative shot, I was judged as, no kidding, “repulsive” looking on average — the very bottom rating. Both also had one-word descriptions that people wrote in regarding the photo, for the normal one I got things like, “gorgeous,” “amazing,” “boneable,” and “moviestar,” while for the alt. photo I got “whore,” “ewww,” “scary,” “evil,” and “hooker.”
    Furthermore, my average intelligence on the normal photo was deemed to be “bright” (above average), and on the alt. photo I was determined to be a “doofus,” the lowest choice — below that of “dull.”

    And while I agree that mainstream society has gotten more accepting of unconventional appearances, that alone shows we still have a looong way to go before we can see through the clothes/piercings/tats to the person beneath.

    That said, I should also note that the majority of people on these sites tend to be 15-25, and for those still with the high school mentality of “popular cheerleaders” and “unpopular freaks,” I dare say their scope of what is acceptable is even narrower than those who are older and have more life experience (and hopefully, wisdom).

  14. Erica!!! Says:

    I’ve been struggling with a similar bunch of thoughts recently myself, except on the other end of the spectrum. Alt models of various types from the self invented other type to the hottie in latex and several “plus sized” models have all inspired me in terms of feeling that I can express my creativity and accept parts of myself that mainstream beauty does not accept, and still look beautiful. They have also challenged me to think outside of the box in terms of what i personally accept as beauty and what I will and will not, whether consciously or unconsciously emulate. And I have also struggled with issues of what parts of myself to accept because of how these images shape my perception of beauty. I didn’t shave my legs or pits or wear makeup for three years, but worried about my skin, and my weight to the point of eating disorder, all while trying to challenge popular culture’s beauty standards and ideals vocally on a daily basis in high school. I’ve since begun shaving my legs, but not under my arms, and wearing makeup again, but I rarely worry about my weight (size14/16 now, which is plus size at most stores, and for somereason beyond “plus” on some internet clothing sites) anymore. I am constantly trying to justify any given beauty standard or ritual to myself, and trying to balance feelings of inadequacy with comfort and with sanity. ( i can tell myself very honestly that i like my pubes where they are but I cannot justify to myself wearing that dress with hairy legs) I wonder if it is possible to portray feminine beauty in any way that does not participate in some form of bargaining, and Perhaps as a whole, the alt modeling communities and those who attempt some form of creative take on beauty, even with their bargaining and capitulation with mainstream beauty, make for a big enough spectrum of difference and alt-ness to make some kind of a societal impact. Maybe in the future, when, as Xenia says alt modeling will be regular modeling, then we can really start to push the envelope.

  15. Leo Says:

    i totally agree..ALT is just short for alternative and if your not a generic model for print in fashion catalogs that deal with the norm…like my neighbor Sasha who wears regular clothes dig…would be most likely offended with this type of modeling…art..fetish…etc.

  16. Being Amber Rhea » Blog Archive » links for 2008-06-07 Says:

    […] Coilhouse » Blog Archive » What Does “Alt Model” Even Mean? “What is an alternative model, and what is an alt model’s role in visual culture? In my life, at various points, I came up with 3 different definitions. I believe in each of them, and I have a problem with each of them as well.” (tags: bodyimage sexuality modeling alt interesting) […]

  17. thistly Says:

    Fantastic article! Thanks for taking the time to make a few niggling things as clear as day :)

  18. Lost Little Robot » Blog Archive » Alt Beauty Says:

    […] was reading something over at Coilhouse about alt models and standards of beauty. One of the comments mentioned looking past the visual to […]

  19. Nadya Says:

    Guys, thanks so much for all the thoughtful commentary on this post. I really enjoyed reading all the responses and I’m going to follow up with a few notes.

    Thom B.: Good point, and it opens up a whole other can of worms about art and what makes a given piece of art “alternative.”

    haxor: Interesting study! It’s true; most of humanity’s ideals of beauty center around the need to breed. So maybe concepts of “alternative beauty” can be defined as new ideals of human beauty that don’t tie in any way to our biological, reproductive impulses?

    Veronica: Yep, the last category is a bit West-centric. I’d be curious to discover an alt model from another part of the world whose body of work represents Eastern, collectivist ideals.

    alumiere, Xenia: hear hear!

    IO: Interesting experiment! Thank you for sharing.

    Erica: Loved your comment, and I completely understand where you’re coming from. It’s always like, “okay, I’m winning on this front, but I’m losing on this front.” Yep.

  20. Jennifer A. Says:

    Clothing designers want their designs to look good so people will buy them? Darling, when I look at models in fashion shows and print ads, I know that those clothes weren’t designed for me and I will NOT buy them. I am 6′ tall and a pear-shaped size 18-20 and most clothes sold today in my budget range are either made for women with no hips, ass or boobs (regular sizes) or in plus size range, for alot more bazoombage than I sport at a C-cup. As for alternative modeling, it is just another expression of the fantasy of Western, patriarchal concepts of feminine perfection.

  21. D P Gorringe Says:

    So hang on thar: society (by which you mean the English speaking world) has an unattainable ideal beauty standard, which is impossibly deletrious to women’s view of how awesome or not they are. Thus, it behooves you, and/or an iconoclastic alternative fashion movement, to, in the interests of female mental health, present either standards of beauty deemed attainable, or no beauty standard at all, perhaps by computer-randomised selection of models from the female population. Alt fashion bothers you, if I get you, as many models in some way conform to existing beauty ideals and thus do not reform fully said notions you find so abhorrent. Interesting idea, I’d like to see where that goes.
    I guess I’d critique you on being unhappy with half a loaf, so to speak. Sure, they’re not utterly random fuglies, but looking in some way weird but otherways pretty is a big step forward to a… less standardised sense of aesthetics? I think that’s a good thing. Evolution isn’t as satisfying as revolution, but tends to work out better.

  22. Winominx Says:

    This is horrible. I wrote my response, and I think it’s been deleted. Someone tell me it’s still here.

  23. Winominx Says:

    Well, now that I know that it’s GONE, I’ll try to give you the gist of that post before it disappeared.

    Zoetica is right, alternative models are just models, like Giselle and Kate, but for a different purpose. I personally don’t believe there is such a thing as a true alternate model. All true models in a sense are alternative. The fashion and looks have changed over the centuries. I can see how someone could think that having piercings and tattoos and gas-masks and leather boots is alternative, but it, too has become trite in an effort to be different by some groups. Now hear me, I haven’t anything against those things (I like ’em) but they, like all fashion statements, can over-saturate a culture and become somebody’s pretentious way of setting themselves apart. (I can admit to this) Once reading a review of a Peaches show, someone stated that her unshaven armpits and bawdy performance was just a poor way to seek attention. Some would call that genius (and thus alt) some would agree with him and say she’s just a novelty act. It’s all a test of perception.

  24. meardearna Says:

    Interesting article. I really like your three different categories/ associations of ‘What is an “alt” model’ for what is around right now. In terms of what is an alt models role in our visual culture, here is my two pennies’ worth:

    For me, a model is a model. Much like what Thom B. was saying, a good model in general has to look good in whatever clothes they are given to showcase. (My mother, a former fashion designer has always, perhaps unfairly, described models as “hangers”) Of course there are different kinds of models, like catwalk models are different to editorial ones, models for evening gowns are different in shape to those good for jeans. In this sense, is “alt” model not another type of model who looks good in “alternative clothes”? Although it might be short of what alternative cultures are meant to stand for, but for these alt models, it is still required that they carry the right kind of attitude for the culture/ lifestyle captured through the lens.

    In terms of visual culture, I have always felt that advertising in the 20th century has progressively been about selling a lifestyle rather than the actual product. ‘Symmetrical faces, clear skin and slim figures’ kind of beauty is “easy” in many ways. On the other hand, like many have pointed out, Viktoria is too within this mode but is an alt model because she looks damn good with an amputated leg. Personally I didn’t really like that photoshoot of Viktoria in Bizarre either, because it is adhering to and reinforcing the idea of ‘how a woman should tart up’. Frankly I’m quite bored of that. I do, however, see its advantages in attracting people who are used to seeing a few standards of beauty to think out of those comfort zones. In a way, generic standards of beauty can be considered as a vehicle; it should be twisted round, played with and challenged to make its viewer to seek beauty in more ways than traditionally prescribed. At the end of the day, is this not what “alternative” and “fashion” are supposed to mean?

  25. Jazz Says:

    I decided to try a year with a regular modelling agency. It’s not working out because a) I’m only 5 foot 2 and b) tend to fluctuate between 130 and 140lbs. They were trying to get me jobs in ads (tv or print) and it isn’t working out. Little word of advice…the plus models’ ideal is a size 8 vs the common size 10 two years ago. So they’re still getting skinnier.

    I tend to dress more stylish and sometimes a little Victorian or goth…I’m going to check this out.

    I also a) refuse to pose fully nude and b) adore the idea of becoming a work of art. Meh anyways I already have a portfolio so I should continue looking into it.

  26. Filipe Says:

    Does this fit somewhere?

  27. GUEST POST: WHAT DOES “ALT MODEL” EVEN MEAN? » Sociological Images Says:

    […] welcome Guest Blogger, Nadya Lev. Nadya, a photographer, wrote a thoughtful post at the Coilhouse blog in response to ours on Viktoria, an amputee model on this month’s cover of Bizarre magazine […]

  28. Viktoria Modesta ‘Ambassadors of Singularity’ by Decimononic | Decimononic Says:

    […] her determination and courage. Revealing an iron will to overcome limitations and prejudices, she challenges the modern perception of altered beauty as alt model, reinventing herself […]