Once upon a time I refused to ever view one single episode of America’s Next Top Model. To me, just the name alone implied competition among anorexic girls, superficial lives, and pointless attempts at climbing the ladder of fame.

Then rumblings in the fashion world brought Tyra Banks, the host of the show, to my attention. Tyra was taking on the media who tore her apart for “looking fat and letting herself go.” The first black woman to ever grace the cover of the swimsuit addition ofSports Illustrated, and one of the most famous runway models of all time, Tyra is an icon in the fashion world.

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Now using her claim to fame, she is becoming a spokesperson for healthy weight in America’s women. As I read more about Tyra, I became intrigued by America’s Next Top Model and finally began watching it this season (Fall 2008).

America’s Next Top Model

What I found instead of urged-for anorexia was the urge for health. Instead of shallowness and superficiality there was depth and poignancy. Instead of pointless attempts at becoming known there were lessons that resulted in personal life transformations.

After a two hour premier, in which a total of twenty-five top model wannabes were whittled down to twelve, the season began. Each hour-long episode usually consists of fashion lessons of some sort, real-life runway shows or photo shoots, and then critiquing by the judges.

Every time I watch an episode I am amazed at all that goes into the actual fashion world. Who knew that models had to take posing lessons, walking lessons, and learn how to contort themselves into never-before seen poses, just to get the best shot?

Mixed in with the glamour and hard work of the fashion world are the long-reaching life lessons. In one of the episodes, early on in the season, Tyra brought pizza to the contestants and encouraged them to eat up.

As they did, she told how when she first started out in the fashion industry she was naturally stick thin. Then she hit her mid-twenties, and (in her words) began to grow breasts and a butt. Agents told her mother she needed to lose a good 15-20 lbs in order to continue succeeding in the world of models.

“Do you know what we did when we heard this?” Tyra asked the girls. “We went back to our hotel room, ordered pizza and reinvented my modeling career — based on the weight I was going to be naturally.” It was a short time later that Tyra would be gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.

I found it extremely refreshing that on a show that is all about fashion, the reality of real weight and size was not only talked about, but encouraged! Not only did Tyra’s story probably have a lasting impact on the contestants, I’m sure it did on the viewers of the show as well, which more than likely is the teen and young adult population.

As the girls strive to become America’s Next Top Model, they come into knowing themselves. Confronted by weaknesses and encouraged for their strengths, contestants learn more about themselves as individuals than many adults do.

One of these lessons came when the girls were all sent for unexpected makeovers. Some were thrilled, others were devastated. Ironically, some of the girls most crushed by being made over were the ones who came onto the show with the most arrogance and self-confidence.

As one of the girls later commented, she was so used to her image that she had created for herself, she felt she had lost herself when her looks changed. “But,” she added, “I had to realize I’m still me, no matter how my looks may change.” How many of us as women can say we have truly learned that lesson in our lives?

At the end of each episode the girls are all judged for their recent modeling tasks. The judges are quite harsh many times; think Simon, only in the fashion world. What has impressed me the very most is that the majority of these girls quietly take in what is said, nod soberly, and then say thank you. It takes great strength to not explain or defend yourself when being critiqued in front of peers and famous people!

And yet, because each girl is seeking to become the best she can be, she welcomes the critiques no matter how harsh. There is a lesson for all of us to be gleaned from the example of these young girls.

A reality check is that yes, the people hosting the show and judging the girls live lives we only dream about, and the world of fashion seems a bit out of touch with reality. Air brushing does still exist, clothes that are worn are far from everyday clothes the rest of us wear, and the search for a beautifully photogenic face is under way during the season. Because of those factors, the show does seem to have a focus on the external only.

However, four episodes in, and I am finding that Tyra makes concerted attempts to go beyond the fashion world and into the heart of each of the girls. She longs for them to come into their own as individuals and not just as fashion models. It’s a hard balance to find, especially in a world that would just as soon neglect the internal for sake of the external, but Tyra does it and does it well.

I think Top Model would be a great show for moms and daughters to watch together and discuss. There are so many teachable moments -– life lessons that really matter, including the truth about what real beauty is, which fashion magazines neglect to emphasize when showing perfectly edited photographs of models.

Mixing together a bit of the exciting and glamorous world of fashion with lessons on what true beauty and individuality is, America’s Next Top Model is a show that gets two thumbs up from this formerly self-avowed Top Model boycotter.

The world of fashion and models is not going away any time soon. Here’s major props to Tyra for showing girls how to enter that world, keeping in mind the things that really matter –- like inner beauty.

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