I first read about Ben Barry when Teen People named him “one of twenty teens who will change the world.” I felt proud because Barry was a Canadian high school student, just a year older than me. He was on a mission to transform the fashion industry’s narrow standard of beauty by running a modeling agency that represented models of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities.
Reading Barry’s memoir Fashioning Reality, I felt like it had been written for my teenaged self. As he outlines his successes and struggles, Barry offers advice for young would-be entrepreneurs on how they too can use business to create social change. Barry started his agency when he was 14 to represent a friend who had been told by a magazine editor that she was “too big” to model. At first he was motivated by a concern that images of unhealthy models were detrimental to the health and self-worth of his friends, but he soon realized that using “real” models was also a successful business model, since companies that used his models almost always saw increased profits as a result.
Like we do at WORN, Barry believes that consumers want and deserve to see a diversity of ages, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds represented in the media. I’m a firm believer that we should never put people down to elevate others, and so I admire that he never criticizes thin women as not being “real,” instead stressing that thin, white, and tall is overdone, and argues that there’s a desperate need for greater diversity.
The book follows the Ben Barry Agency’s professional highs (such as playing a major role in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty) and its lows (frustrating meetings with designers and editors who refuse to see the merit of diverse models). As we follow the agency’s humble start in the basement of Barry’s family home in Ottawa through to its opening international offices in New York and London, we also see Barry’s personal growth as he moves from high school student to Women’s Studies major to Cambridge University MBA holder.
His views about unrealistic beauty representation are nothing we haven’t heard before, but a scan of any newsstand shows that while we’ve been talking about these issues for years, we’ve yet to see any big changes. Diverse models are still a novelty – if you’re not 5’10”, white, and a size zero, you’re probably not smiling at me from the cover of any mainstream fashion magazine. I’m glad people like Barry are there to remind us that the fight for diverse representations of beauty in models is nowhere near complete.
The book is most interesting when Barry brings us behind closed doors to hear firsthand how reluctant advertisers, editors and designers are to change. I would expect more from an industry so reliant on always-changing trends.However, I did take issue with Barry’s argument that the business world is the best arena to achieve social change, and that other methods are outdated. Having worked in the non-profit sector and volunteered with grassroots movements, I know that change doesn’t have to be profit-motivated. More than anything, I think this book could serve as a valuable motivational tool for teenagers looking to make a difference. The 25-year-old me is impressed with everything Barry has achieved (he can now add “published author” to his resume before his 30th birthday), but I think I think my 15-year-old self would have felt empowered to read how a high school student was able to make money, gain recognition, and yes, change the world.
Fashioning Reality: A New Generation of Entrepreneurship, Ben Barry, Key Porter Books, 2007
review by Jaclyn Irvine