Balmain’s Digital Supermodels: A Disappointing Novelty

The French luxury brand Balmain has unveiled its latest fashion campaign featuring a new ‘army’ of supermodels: Shudu, Margot, and Zhi. The perfection of these three women are even more distant than the flawless models we normally see, because they are not real. Made using computer-generated imagery (CGI), Balmain’s digital supermodels have triggered mixed reactions, ranging from awe-struck praise for this bold avant-garde move, to fearful disapprovals they will displace real people.

You would think that in an age full of digital technologies, we would be ready to embrace CGI supermodels. As paragons of beauty and sexual appeal, parading and posing in globally broadcasted fashion shows, real supermodels are hardly unfamiliar. Why, then, were these digital versions received so unenthusiastically? Why do we feel unsettled when we think of the future of modelling in the hands of virtual rather than real people?

Debates surrounding the unrealistic expectations that beauty supermodels represent are nothing new. In an article published as far back as 2000, the Guardian reported findings by the British Medical Association that women were beginning to diet at younger ages in hopes of attaining a ‘rake-thin’ body like Kate Moss and Jodie Kidd. More recently in 2016, Erin Heatherton (a Victoria’s Secret model) revealed that she struggled with her body image and confidence.

But have we not progressed beyond the supermodel paradigm of beauty? Mattel Inc. has expanded their original Barbie collection to include curvy, petite, and tall dolls. Brands such as Christian Louboutin, Ralph Lauren, and magazines like Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Vogue Italia have all broken the 34-24-34 mould (the perfect model bust-waist-hip measurements according to the British Fashion Model Agents Association) by hiring plus-size models. Of course, much more can be done to promote a healthier standard of beauty – plus-size models are only a baby step.

Balmain’s digital supermodels, however, represent a step backwards by perpetuating the same-old unrealistic beauty standards. The company’s decision to restrict their perfectly calculated, digital supermodels to a single perfect body shape (stick thin, defined waist, perky butt, long legs, and thigh gap) only bolsters a narrow standard of physical beauty that society has been trying to move past. They could have been a trailblazers for the industry, helping to redefine beauty in a new virtual world of supermodels. Yet instead of diversifying the fashion industry’s homogenous beauty standards, they simply conform. They could have expanded the concept of physical beauty in the modelling industry, but they chose not to.

Balmain claims that their latest campaign shows ‘the same beautiful diverse mix, strong confidence and eagerness to explore new worlds’. Admittedly, Shudu, Margot, and Zhi do check the boxes of racial diversity (one black, one white and one Asian), but can this truly be diverse when they are not real people? Instead of using a real black supermodel, Balmain has replaced her with a fake, digital one.

Although the whole concept is based upon replacing real models with digital ones, irrespective of their ethnicity, the criticism of the lack of diversity in Balmain’s campaign still stands. The diversity they trumpet is superficial: since when has it referred only to ‘racial diversity’? And since when has racial diversity been only a question of skin colour? Balmain’s concept of diversity is narrow. What about models with different body shapes? What about models with disabilities? What about models that follow a different cultural standard of beauty? We can see from Balmain’s digital supermodels that they fit the traditional size zero supermodel mould, with the typical features expected from black, Asian or white beauties. When Balmain says, ‘anyone and everyone is always welcome to join the #BALMAINARMY’, do they actually mean it?

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The idea of racial diversity does not mean only using models of different skin:  it is about  valuing all races. The modelling industry should recognise the beauty of every race’s unique features and embrace the diverse standards of beauty that exist in different cultures across the world. For example, in West Africa, slimness is not a quintessential trait of beauty. Full-figured women are equally appreciated as beautiful. In fact, they are seen as healthy, able-bodied and prosperous, even wealthy!

Digital supermodels have the potential to encourage greater appreciation of different standards of beauty from different cultures. Shudu’s  Instagram posts represent this potential. In one example, she models a neck ring, a symbol of beauty in the Kayan tribe of Thailand and Myanmar where long necks are regarded as beautiful. The women in these tribes (called ‘giraffe women’ for their long necks) wear brass neck rings that elongate their necks, making them more beautiful in their culture. But it is disappointing to see that Balmain has not taken this any further – to feature a greater variety of beauty standards that exist. Shudu’s neck rings are only a one-off attempt at diversity.

Scott's portrait of Padaung 'giraffe women' in the 1890s
Scott’s portrait of Padaung ‘giraffe women’ in the 1890s

This is only one side to the controversy in Balmain’s campaign. There is something unsettling about digital models replacing real ones. Yet virtual humans are nothing new: The Hulk, Groot, Gollum, and Dobby, for example, are all popular CGI icons from 21st-century cinema, and CGI has already been used to create human characters from scratch, such as the younger version of Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. If we can embrace CGI movie characters, why not the digital supermodel?

The uncanny valley effect, a term coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, may have something to do with it. This is the unsettled feeling we experience when humanoid robots closely resemble humans but are not quite sufficiently realistic. The blurring of what defines what we know to be robotic and know to be human creates an unnerving disjunction. Balmain’s digital supermodels look, behave and sound as real human supermodels do, but their lack of a physical presence in our world is disconcerting, especially since they possess the potential to replace real humans. The Chinese news agency, Xinhua has recently released information about its virtual news presenter that is ‘ready to take over 24/7, every single day of the year’. The replacement of real humans with virtual ones may be just around the corner, and it risks diminishing the value of real people.

Balmain’s digital supermodels raise many questions about beauty standards, diversity and the value of a human’s physical existence. They threaten us with a future in which it will be possible to replace real humans with virtual ones. The brand’s decision to ignore the potential for CGI supermodels to redefine beauty standards is a frustrating missed opportunity. If Balmain had taken a truly novel approach, their digital supermodels surely would have received a much warmer welcome.