Cameron Russell's TEDx talk went viral a couple of weeks back, as viewers clamored to share a Victoria's Secret model's frank discussion on fakeness or "construction" of images with their daughters (and sons).
Certainly I want my kids to hear this message, but that's not why I came away so impressed with Cameron Russell. I'd spent college summers interning at a catalog company and seen what she was referring to up close and personal. I had been there for the transformation that took place at a photo shoot. I had learned the magic of Photoshop. I've not been under any illusions about the "beauty industry" for a long time.
What impressed me about Cameron Russell was her ownership of the very thing that made her a success.
"For the past two centuries, we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we're biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall, slender figures and femininity and white skin," said Russell, a 5-foot-10 brunette with a face like Cindy Crawford's. "And this is a legacy that was built for me. And this is a legacy that I've been cashing out on."
That is not something you hear folks claim every day. Not many of us are willing to cop to the various legacies built for us—especially those we've been "cashing out on."
Clearly I wasn't the only one struck by this. While a guest on Soledad O'Brien's Starting Point, Russell says simply she believes we should be talking about the "uncomfortable and complicated" topic of privilege and that she is well-qualified to speak to it.
To illustrate, Russell turns across the table to Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, and says: "You're a senator, and you're a white man. I'm sure you had to work really hard to get there. And that means that it's very complicated to figure out and unpack the role of privilege. But for me, it's so easy. I'm here. I'm successful because I'm pretty. It's easy to tell that story. Because it's honest and it's obvious."
Indeed it is. But no sooner does Russell say this than does she face pushback—CNN contributor Ryan Lizza wants her to credit her own worth ethic as a model. In asking this question, in pushing her to attribute her success to hard work (which Russell insists accounts for just "2 percent" of what's she's achieved), Lizza further proves Russell's point.
Talking about success based on privilege is more than uncomfortable and complicated—it's scandalous. We just don't do that. At least, not us boot-strapping Americans. We want to talk about how hard we've worked, how many hours we put in, how much we sacrificed. Few of us are willing to talk about the level to which our success comes through natural gifts, our own legacies or "genetic lotteries."
This is a shame, especially among Christians. To deny our privilege means we deny the gifts and blessings God has given us. Because, really, what else is that innate flexibility, that speed, endurance that makes athletes win? What else is that uncanny ability to turn clicks and pauses and slurs into eloquent prose or poetry? What else is that ability to see a mess, to look at chaos and be able to bring forth order? What else is that thing that pulls melodies straight out of the cosmos and onto a piano? What else is it, if not privilege or blessing?
Beyond that, when we ignore our own privilege, we fail to recognize that others don't enjoy the same privilege. If we go on believing our success is all about us and our hard work, we can in turn believe that others don't enjoy the same success merely because they are lazy.
An inability to see privilege as a blessing means we fail to see our specific privilege as something to be shared—that we fail to apply the "to whom much has been given, much will be expected" command (Luke 12:48). We fail to heed any responsibly to help others find their own privilege and opportunities to use it.
Of course, there's a reason we don't tend to accept our privileges. We risk appearing arrogant or self-centered. It seems wrong to say, for instance, I am a regular contributor to Her.meneutics because I'm connected with the staff and I'm a good writer. Right? It's awkward to admit that I could've gone to college anywhere I wanted because my parents paid for it.
It feels even worse to nod along with Cameron Russell and say, yes, being a tall, thin, blonde woman in a world where tall, thin and blonde are held high has not been a bad thing for me. It's not that hard work hasn't played a role in any "success" I've achieved—certainly it has. However, if I don't admit to my privileges, blessings and opportunities, I fail to acknowledge the One who gave them to me.
Strangely, it's in denying privilege and blessing that I really make it all about me. When I hear a Victoria's Secret model owning up to the role her beauty has played in her life, I hear her praising the Giver of those gifts. I have no idea where Cameron Russell stands in terms of acknowledging her Creator, but when she admits that her success is not just hard work, not just her own doing, I'm reminded to stop taking so much credit for what's been given to me. Because that's a construction of my imagination no different than the constructions of beauty Russell wants us to see.