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The Word On The Street

Ashley Mears weaves interviews, the works of social critics, and her own story into “Pricing Beauty.’’ Ashley Mears weaves interviews, the works of social critics, and her own story into “Pricing Beauty.’’
By Jan Gardner
September 11, 2011

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Sociologist Ashley Mears knows the world of modeling from the inside out. She walked runways in New York and London. On the advice of her agent, she lied about her age, shaving years off. And she earned $2,500 a day posing for a British clothing catalog, her face caked with powder, lips thick with gloss, and hair teased to “unimaginable heights,’’ she writes in her new book, “Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model’’ (University of California).

At 23, Mears left modeling to pursue graduate studies at New York University. Yet she was lured back into the industry after an agent scouted her when she was studying in a Manhattan Starbucks. “You’ve got a great look,’’ she was told. But even that and her willowy figure - at just over 5 feet 9 inches, Mears weighed about 125 pounds - wasn’t enough to get her work during New York’s Fashion Week in 2004.

This year, as a sociology professor at Boston University, she has a different perspective on Fashion Week, now underway in New York. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the lack of nonwhite models. “No, I don’t expect to see a greater diversity of skin color on the runway,’’ Mears wrote in an e-mail, “because the standard metric by which beauty is measured in the editorial fashion world is around a ‘high class’ ideal, one that places a premium on youth, skinniness and rigid control of the body, and of course white skin.’’

With “Pricing Beauty,’’ Mears has produced a fascinating study of an industry in which female models are paid twice as much as male models. She knits together her revealing interviews and draws on the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills, feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon, and other social critics. Yet the greatest strength of “Pricing Beauty’’ is Mears’s own story, one that she artfully threads throughout the book. It ends with Mears getting dumped by her agency in an e-mail with the subject line “Hey Doll!!!’’

Book fests in Salem, Burlington Salem and Burlington, Vt., will host book festivals Sept. 23-25. Former Salem resident Erin Morgenstern, whose debut novel, “The Night Circus,’’ is making a splash, headlines the Salem Literary Festival’s opening night. Other festival highlights are novelists Brunonia Barry, Katherine Howe, and Julia Glass discussing the art of writing strong woman characters. The festival features a number of sessions for aspiring authors and a host of talks about characters from the past, including John Glover, the Marblehead merchant who supplied the first ship for George Washington’s navy. Of note at the Burlington Book Festival is a reading by newly named US poet laureate Philip Levine. Also appearing are Yannick Murphy, author of “The Call,’’ an inventive novel structured as a veterinarian’s annotated log of calls in rural Vermont; Spencer Quinn, the creator of the canine and human detective duo Chet and Bernie; and novelist Myla Goldberg of “Bee Season’’ fame.

Coming out

■ “Wonderstruck’’ by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

■ “South with the Sun: Roald Amundsen, His Polar Explorations, & the Quest for Discovery’’ by Lynne Cox (Knopf)

■ “Driving Home’’ by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon)

Pick of the Week Anita Silvey, creator of the Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac, recommends “Me . . . Jane’’ by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown): “A young girl who dreams of going to Africa wakes up to find that her dream has come true. This informative, inspirational, and touching picture book . . . explores Jane Goodall’s childhood.’’

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.