Supermodels and the mortgage crisis

As Dan and I have taken to watching the Nightly News, we’ve seen quite a lot lately about the rising rate of foreclosures and the mortgage crisis. Even after such prolonged exposure to the trauma that families are facing, no longer able to afford their homes, I remain hardhearted to any kind of bailout. I believe that the crisis arose from the fact that a large percentage of the people now losing their homes had no business taking out mortgages in the first place. But more on that in a moment.

The other day, I led a discussion with my students about the rhetoric of advertising. We were examining an ad from The Body Shop that had the tagline “There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only 8 who do,” accompanied by a photo of a naked, Rubenesque plastic doll with a Barbie head stuck on her, posed seductively on a couch. By a very large majority, my students were repulsed by the image and could not wrap their heads around the message of the ad: that women need to become comfortable with not conforming to supermodel standards. Instead, a significant portion of my female students argued that it’s not that hard to look like a supermodel, and that there are more than 8 women who do, and, essentially, “I’m as hot as a supermodel, so don’t try to tell me I’m not.” There was nothing I could do to get them to even open their minds, let alone change them.

What do these two things have to do with each other? Unrealistic expectations. I think unrealistic expectations have taken over American culture at an alarming number of levels. Everyone aspires to be middle-class, if not better, and they simply will themselves to be so, taking on more and more debt to finance their cars, clothes, homes, and other class markers in order to fit the image of a middle-class American. As a result, a great number of people who never should have qualified for $100,000, $200,000, or even $400,000 mortgages took them on anyway in pursuit of the dream of homeownership. Rather than arguing about who’s to blame for qualifying them, I’m more interested in the mindset that led these homeowners to apply for the loans in the first place. It seems to me that the responsibility for knowing what you can realistically afford rests on the shoulders of the applicant, rather than on the shoulders of the lending company.

These two problems are related in that they both stem from the message being pushed on Americans that anything is possible. That’s the American dream, isn’t it? That anyone can do anything in America. With respect to physical appearance, girls seem to have internalized the message, from shows like America’s Next Top Model and Extreme Makeover, that it’s not only possible but desirable and easy for any woman to be ridiculously gorgeous. Clearly too many Americans literally bought into the idea that they could own homes, without regard to the realistic limits of their income. The results of both of these phenomena are just sad.

The idea that anything is possible in America gets pushed heavily by conservative talk radio hosts, notably Sean Hannity, who frequently argue against government help and programs, on the grounds that, “Hey, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, so it’s obviously possible for anyone.” I’m all for personal responsibility, but it has to be realistic. It’s unrealistic to think, as college students do, that you’re going to become rich. They’re aiming for the top 10% or even 5% tax bracket, which, by definition, means that many, many of us are not going to make it up there. It’s also not realistic to expect that every American can own a home, even though we do have one of the highest homeownership rates in the world. If you live in a city where the average home price is $656,000, and your income is (at the median) $68,000, you shouldn’t even be thinking about buying a home. (Even in my neighborhood, where the median income is $53,000, you’ll have trouble buying the average home, at $270,000.) Given the fact that the equity in American homes has dropped below 50% for the first time in 60 years, it would seem that way too many of us don’t know how to manage realistic expectations.

These are the sorts of arguments that lead some to label me a pessimist, but I reject that. I prefer the term realist. I don’t think I’m advocating a glass-half-empty viewpoint, but rather insisting that we recognize that the real American dream — equality of opportunity — doesn’t ensure equality of outcome, nor should it. People are no longer content to purchase only the things they can actually afford, but the solution to that is to change our expectations for how far our money can stretch, not to delude ourselves into purchasing whatever we want. Similarly, girls who are unhappy with their appearance need to limit themselves to the basic tweaks that can be achieved with (a normal, healthy) diet and exercise, plus makeup and hairspray.

I’m not arguing that it’s not possible for anyone to buy a home, just that homeowners have to set reasonable goals for themselves rather than falling into enormous debts and praying that interest rates stay low. I’m not arguing that the girls in my classes are not attractive or should feel bad about how they look, but rather that I want them to see the unreality of conforming to supermodel standards to begin with. America needs a heavy and very unwelcome dose of reality, because right now everything is rose-colored for way too many people.

6 Responses to “Supermodels and the mortgage crisis”

  1. Marty (aka big bro)
    March 12th, 2008 17:16

    I agree with your POV that the message “you can have it all” is a problem. However to suggest that it’s conservative talk radio people pushing this is absurd. As a counter, I’d offer that the Feminist movement is actually the primary force behind setting those unrealistic expectations for younger women.

    I do also believe that the American dream, “up from the bootstraps” as you put it, is alive if not well. This is especially true when I compare to my experience in the UK last year, where clearly that society does not offer such upward mobility. I can point to dozens of such examples of people who came from little and have made the world a better place (my wife is a constant reminder of this for me). However, to achieve the American dream takes focus, dedication, and much sacrifice – at a time in our society when we focus on the short-cut, pop-a-pill, quick fix.

  2. erinmak
    March 12th, 2008 18:07

    The feminist movement isn’t out there telling girls that they ought to (and can) look like supermodels. It’s in fact because of the feminist movement that companies like The Body Shop and Dove have campaigns telling women that it’s OK not to expect that.

    But other than that I agree with much of what you said. How’s that for a first?

  3. SportsGirl
    March 13th, 2008 11:39

    Your stance on this argument is one of the reasons I am against this constant pedaling of that book/life concept called The Secret. The basic premise is that you think your world into existance. So what they’re saying is, go ahead and buy that $400,000 home on your $90,000 income because if you just “think” that you can make the payment, well by jove you will! America has cultivated a society of people who feel entitled. I “deserve” to live in the neighborhood I think is best even though the average price is 5x my annual salary. I “deserve” to weigh 100 pounds even though I don’t exercise and I eat fried food every night. And frankly I feel some of this is caused by the generation of parents who are raising their children to think that they walk on water without ever having to try. When we as parents can get back to teaching our children that you work hard and you live within your means, then some of needed correction to this trend can take place.
    nice blog entry!

  4. erinmak
    March 14th, 2008 13:40

    And now, ladies and gentlemen, you have the full range of opinions by myself and my siblings. This may be the first thing we’ve all agreed on, with the possible exception of Chuy’s.

  5. Andy Michaels
    March 31st, 2008 13:36

    Wow, thanks for saying what you said. I am in complete agreement about the state of expectations in this country. When will we, as a people, rise up against the corporate-funded notions of what we are supposed to look like and what we are entitled to have? I am already thinking of ways to help my child see beyond this and understand that her worth is not dependent on what advertisers want her to value. Thanks again for a breath of fresh air.

  6. Erin
    March 31st, 2008 19:13

    Thanks for saying so, Andy; I’m glad you liked it! We, too, are contemplating how best to handle this with our impending baby.

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