Being popular in every arena: How models strategically transfer capital over different fields

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By Kaj Dekker

Abstract: In this paper I analyze the glitter and glamour of the model lifestyle, and more specifically the occupation-as-identity of Dutch female young models, by drawing on Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital. While probing into stereotypical images of models, I show how they use certain strategies to move through expectations in such a way as to suit their own interests. I argue that models are not only able to generate social, cultural and symbolic capital, but can also use this capital to gain success in other fields besides the field of modeling. Through interviews with four models who recently quit this capital-rich occupation, I show how they use their strategic agency to profile themselves as a model, deal with the stereotypes, interact with other models, cope with the high demands posed by the modeling agency, and finally make the decision to quit.

Introduction

In the summer of 2011 I went to a rave party on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Everyone seemed to have a good time. After many hours daylight arose and most of the party people went outside to continue partying in the rising sun. In the early afternoon I heard someone asking around if anybody happened to have some keys, so with all my friendly intentions I asked whether I should help look for the keys as someone might have lost them. A girl responded rather direct: “No, stupid, I want to use them to snort coke.” I tried to act casual and asked her if she wanted to borrow my keys for the cause, which she did. As she dipped the key in the small package filled with white powder I started a conversation with her. She told me she had to work this same day, which surprised me, for she was on drugs and clearly not in a state to present herself to an employer. When I asked her what kind of work she did she told me she worked as a model. This sparked my interest and I started asking her if she was chasing a wild model lifestyle. Still partying in the afternoon, snorting coke and living a wild life all suit this image of being a model. When asked about this she was not amused and that was the end of our conversation.

This incident made me consider stereotypes in general and stereotypes about models in particular. The model I talked to at this rave party was clearly not amused to be put down as a model stereotype. How come? What does this stereotype consist of anyway? I started this research to see how Dutch young female models enact their identity as models while not being at a photo shoot or walking the catwalk but in their everyday life. This focus proved to be too influenced by my internalized image of models as constructed by popular media. After conducting several interviews, I obtained more interesting stories about being a model. What fascinates me most about modeling is the tension between being a model as part of one’s identity and being a model to provide oneself with a livelihood. There is a very thin line between modeling as occupation and as identity. In this paper I will examine to what extent young models also perceive and experience this division and, more specifically, how they construct meaning about their work as giving them more than just a monthly wage.

Considering the relationship between occupation and identity, an interesting aspect of my research is that the respondents all recently quit modeling. This brings the advantage that they can take a step back and reflect on giving meaning to being a model from a temporal distance. Some of the girls made clear to me that situations appeared different in retrospect. By quitting a certain occupation one can better reflect on the structures of thought that are embedded in this occupation and related identity. Also, if a young woman stops working as a model, does that immediately strip her of her identity as a model?

Modeling as occupation

In seeking to provide insights into how one’s occupation can also contribute to one’s identity, I draw on Christiansen’s (1999) work on occupation as identity. He concludes that “identities are central features of understanding the world in an evolving self-narrative and that this continuity provided by identity enables life to be comprehended in a manner that helps minimize the uncertainties and stresses of daily life. […] Identity is the pathway by which people through daily occupations and relationships with others, are able to derive meaning from their lives” (Christiansen, 1999: 556). Models also use their occupation as identity to derive meaning from different situations and, in sum, their lives.

In the case of girls working as models, one can further imagine that this occupation grants them prestige. Girls look up to models on magazine covers and measure their own looks to the looks of these models. Soley-Beltran (2006) writes about the glamour of models as it expresses economic and social power and promotes the value of consumerism. She argues that models have become icons of beauty and social perfection exemplifying success as a reward for conformity (Soley-Beltran, 2006: 40). Mears (2008) wrote about how gender is reproduced in the modeling scene. Also, she shows how the ideal images of models as seen in magazines are presented as if not much work is done concerning beauty, make-up and posture. All these techniques are performed backstage, ‘in secret’, not visible to people outside of the modeling industry. In reality, as Entwistle and Wissinger (2006) show, modeling involves much aesthetic labor. They highlight the insecurity for models since the aesthetic beauty ideal is a very dynamic, unpredictable trend.

What these studies fail to highlight is that models use certain strategies to move through expectations in such a way as to suit their own interests. For example, the stereotype of the lettuce-eating, vodka-slamming, man-devouring model creates expectations for unknowing, media-influenced people like myself. But the models in my research proved to be quite strategic in dealing with issues concerning their model-identity. While interviewing these girls it became clear to me that they were very aware of the stereotypical image that models have these days. They accepted some aspects of this image to their advantage, such as having exciting and extraordinary lives. Other, more negative aspects of the culture were less articulated, or were pressed upon other girls so as to exclude themselves. By accepting and denying certain features of the model lifestyle they were able to expand their cultural capital in the field of popularity. Thus, drawing on Bourdieu (1984, 1990), I argue that models are not only able to generate social, cultural and symbolic capital, but also have the agency to use this capital in such a way as to gain success in other fields besides the field of modeling.

Transferring capital

Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of habitus, field and capital will help deal with the structure/agency opposition. In his view sociological theory focused too much on structures and thereby lost sight of the agent. He tried to overcome this by still focusing on structures but without losing sight of the individual: the agent, thus leaving more space for individual agency. Bourdieu linked agency to the concept of habitus, or the “mental or cognitive structures through which people deal with the social world(Ritzer 2011: 530-531). Habitus can also be explained in terms of ‘common sense’, or in Bourdieu’s words ‘a feel for the game’ (ibid. 531; Bourdieu 1990). Here, the ‘feel’ refers to the habitus whereas the ‘game’ refers to the field. Habitus is the internalized manner of dealing with certain situations in the social world.

For example, models at a photo shoot are very likely to behave in a certain way regarding photographers. They will try to make as good of an impression as possible so they get chosen for upcoming photo shoots. By being on good terms with casters and their modeling agency they will acquire more deals. So, trying to have a good relationship with casters and people from the modeling agency is part of the model’s habitus. It is an internalized mode of behavior in relation to professional colleagues. Another aspect of the model’s habitus is their gracious body language. Models walking the catwalks while showing pretty designer dresses are not born this way. They endured hours of catwalk training to refine their gracious walk. Once models know to walk in a certain sensual way one can say that moving elegantly is part of their habitus. It becomes their second nature.

It is important to keep in mind that habitus merely ‘suggests’ one of the many ways of what people might think and do. It is not an all-controlling mechanism determining all for the agent. Also, habitus is not static and fixed but a fluid structure which might change over time (Ritzer 2011: 231). The model’s habitus gives her a feel for what is expected of her, but she might choose to think or act differently. As more models choose to do so, their habitus might shift along with their choices.

Habitus is played out in what Bourdieu conceptualized as the field, “a network of relations among the objective positions within it(Ritzer, 2011: 532). As Ritzer explains: “There are a number of semiautonomous fields in the social world, all with their own specific logics and all generating among actors a belief about the things that are at stake in a field” (ibid.). Thus, players in the field of power are constantly battling over who is highest up in the ranks of power. Success in any field is determined by capital. Borrowed from, of course, economics, Bourdieu expanded this concept to several forms of capital. Cultural capital refers to one’s internalized way of dealing with others or institutions (ibid.). For instance, a migrant who does not speak the host language fluently but has a prominent street accent will have less cultural capital than someone who knows how to use all four forks in an expensive restaurant. At least in the field of high culture; if the field was street culture it would be the other way around. Social capital is one’s social network. Lastly, symbolic capital is one’s prestige and honor (ibid. 533). The interesting aspect of the different forms of capital is that they are exchangeable. Capital in one field can be transferred to another field and another form of capital.

For example, beauty can grant social as well as symbolic capital. Beauty can lead to many friends and acquaintances. This will bring honor and prestige which is a form of symbolic capital. By entering the field of modeling, a girl might already have relative fame because of her social capital. This can be used to rise in the field of modeling, and thereby her social capital is converted into financial capital. This will accelerate the accumulation of both forms of capital. In sum, success in one field can effectively be used to gain success in another field as well. Below I will show how this works in the case of the models in my research. But first, I will briefly describe how I gathered my data and the difficulties that came with it.

Getting to know models

One of the things that appealed to me about doing research among models is that it is an exclusive world. Gaining entry into ‘high’ culture proves to be much more challenging than gaining entry among the marginalized. By doing research among the culturally and socially rich, I have tried to break away from the standard ‘give voice to the oppressed’ approach in anthropology. But this was easier said than done.

My original plan was to interview several Dutch girls who work, or used to work, as models. I intended to get a small group together and interview them through a focus group discussion. In addition, I had planned to observe some of the girls while working at a photo shoot or running the catwalk. All these plans were shattered once I tried to make appointments with models.

Many times it occurred that my appointment with a model was cancelled or rescheduled the day before. The girl had to go abroad quite suddenly for a casting. She would return after the weekend and excuse herself. After a week had passed I decided I should give it another try and contacted her again. We made another appointment. As the big day arrived on which I would interview a model, she sends me a message and cancelled again, another casting in a foreign country. I told her I perfectly understood and she should just give me a call when she got back. I am still waiting for this call.

It could be hard finding a right balance between being pushy and waiting politely. Most of the time being polite and passive won over being pushy and assertive. I wanted to have conversations in an informal atmosphere where there would be no pressure on the models so they could talk freely without holding anything back. I thought that by pushing and practically forcing them to talk with me I would mess up this atmosphere. So, I just waited for them to react. When this did not happen in about a week I gave up on them and looked for another respondent. I figured that since they do these interviews just to help me I cannot complain or make any demands. There is very little incentive for them to help me besides good will. If they decide, for whatever reason, they do not want to do the interview without informing me, I just have to respect this and let them be. Meanwhile, the difficulty in organizing an appointment with models reinforced their air of exclusivity.

Since getting an interview was already problematic I figured that being a spectator on a modeling set was very unlikely to happen. Even getting one model to do an interview was hard, so I abandoned the idea of a focus group. In the end, I interviewed four girls who all worked as models but had recently quit. This gave me the opportunity to let them reflect on their life as a model with more distance. Someone who just got out of modeling still has the fresh impressions of being a model but can also reflect on this world as something that has been. Also, it gave me the opportunity to ask them about their motives to stop modeling.

After conducting the first two interviews I found that the results did not give me the expected data. The original focus was on how models enact their identity as models in everyday life. I was curious how they might internalize stereotype model behavior. In these interviews I thus aimed at how much and wild they party, whether they take drugs, eat lettuce and seduce photographers. I quickly found that reality did not match my expectations. At first I was put off by this, at second thought this gave me more of a challenge to refocus my research. I switched to an inductive approach, using gathered data to discover sensitizing concepts which come directly from the respondents themselves and thus resemble their lived experience and subjectivity.

Several themes emerged from the interviews, such as interaction with other models, how modeling is abroad, what their prior expectations were and how they came about, what made them quit modeling, how they express themselves as models, what they perceive as stereotype models and, lastly, insecurity. Since these themes recurred in each interview I reckon that they must be important aspects of the model life from the perspective of models themselves.

Profiling oneself as a model

Some of the girls did not like to call themselves models. Sophie (19) had clear-cut criteria in mind concerning the definition of a model: “In my opinion you’re only a model when you are registered at a modeling agency”. Later on in the interview she elaborated:

I think that model work is just work. But because other people make more of it, or look up to it, they see it as some sort of status symbol. I don’t know if it really is a status though, others make more of it then I do myself.

Sophie did acknowledge that being a model grants status. Whether a model contributed to this status herself is not relevant because one cannot make his or her own status; status develops as other people admire or respect you. Other models also trivialized their status, as shown by Rose (20). Note that Rose distances herself from what she perceives as ‘standard models’:

I have never been really proud of it. Maybe because I am not a standard model. Also because people have a certain image of it, that they are all anorexic. Not a positive image.

Later on Rose got back to her previous statement, saying:

I would never introduce myself as a model to others without an immediate reason, but it is nice though. So many people want it and you do it. It does have some sort of prestige.

Dewi (21) was playing down her role as a model too in a very straightforward manner:

Sometimes it frustrates me when people call themselves models you know? I think someone can be a good looking chick but I can’t say you’re a model. When you look at it in an abstract way, a model is nothing more than a hallstand that shows off clothing, that’s also why the girls cannot have too many curves.

On the other hand, Rolien (21) was very aware of her status as a model:

I’ve thought about your questions and I always wanted to rebel against this. But in the end it kinda gives you status, at least in certain scenes it gives you a freepass to enter. I don’t feel part of the modeling scene but I do feel part of the bigger cultural scene.

With ‘cultural scene’ Rolien refers to photographers, designers, fashion professionals and the artistic ‘alternative culture’ scene at large. She is very aware that the cultural capital she acquired in the field of modeling is easily transferred to gain capital in this ‘cultural’ scene. Without being a model she would probably not get accepted as easily in the world of fashion and other artistic aesthetics.

Stereotype models

I also obtained much information concerning how the girls view stereotype models. Rose had a very down-to-earth view on this subject:

Someone who can party but rarely does. Someone who puts everything aside just to be a model A lot of sports, not focusing on other things than being a model. Her world revolves around that.

It became clear that being a model involves a lot of rules and regulations. Rose experienced this first hand:

I don’t get why you should be below the perfect size, even if you have 60/90/60 you still have to lose weight! I just can’t understand that. I can eat as much as I want, I’m very skinny. But the agency still doesn’t allow me to eat fried food. They try to test your dedication by this. Even if the rules don’t apply to you. My sizes were always right.

It must be hard being a model if the modeling agency is never satisfied. Because of this Rose sees the stereotypical model as someone who does not have her own opinion, someone who just takes orders and has an empty personality.

How the girls view other models is very diverse. Dewi says the following: ‘Some girls can have a certain air around them, but of course this does not have to be the case.’ Rolien seems to agree: ‘Other models try to get success over other girls’ back at castings. Everyone around you is your direct competition so these meetings are not quite friendly get-togethers.’ Rose is a bit more nuanced in her statement: ‘Nothing bad though, I’ve never been in a fight with them or anything. They are just not really my, eh, type of people.’ Only Sophie is more positive about other models:

Even though we are competitors we do want to have a good time, so most are not arrogant. Maybe they only act arrogant to non-models? They are confident though, but that’s something else as being arrogant. It could also be the jealousy of non-models.

This is where it gets interesting. In the field of ‘normal’ girls, models are known for their beauty and enjoy a certain amount of capital because of this. But in the field of models, the girls are constantly told to lose weight and centimeters around the belly. So there is a crux. In the one field the model is considered the best looking, while in the other field she is criticized by the modeling agency that is never satisfied. This might be one reason why some of the girls consider models as quite insecure. Rose explains:

I think that many models are insecure about themselves. Because of that they put on an attitude against other people. I know from experience that many are insecure; there is pressure to be successful.

So, in this case the model’s habitus, how she deals with the social world, is twofold. In relation to non-models she puts on an attitude whereas in the field of models she can be quite insecure. Habitus thus also influences the position a person takes in relation to someone else. The model’s habitus which is characterized by exclusiveness is further amplified by acting distant to non-models. By appearing exclusive and confident to the outside world, the inside world of models is kept covert. This results in a better representation of the world of models than might be experienced by the model herself.

Interaction in the field of models

The girls also talked a great deal about their interactions with other models they meet at shows, or friends who also work as models. When Rolien meets girls at shows, they always start with ‘MT’ – ‘model talk’: ‘You always do MT, which casting did you do? What bookings do you have?’ Rose experienced the same: ‘Not really deep conversations, just about model work, who did what and all that.’ It seems that by ‘doing MT’, the girls are comparing their upcoming cultural capital in the field of modeling.

Another way of showing cultural capital as a model is expressed by Sophie:

If I have a connection with them I go partying with them. They may be somewhat wilder than non-models. With model girls, it’s techno parties and drugs most of the time.

Here Sophie places non-models on a slightly lesser rank than models. Models are ‘somewhat wilder’ than non-models. She names techno parties and drug taking as activities they do together. By painting this exciting image she uses her cultural capital as a model and transfers it to the field of partying. Also, this is a good example of downplaying the less attractive aspects of the model lifestyle and putting more emphasis on the aspects which enhance the girl’s capital. The amount of capital possessed by Sophie is strategically put to work to show that she has a ‘somewhat wilder’ life than ‘normal’ people.

Dewi also had a revealing anecdote about partying with a model. Surprisingly, her story unfolds the other way around:

I went much wilder than she did while partying. She was rather shy. Hell no that you would think of her when imagining a model partying, she doesn’t even drink. We were at a party in a hanger and she had never been to these kinds of parties. It was a drum ‘n bass and dubstep party, so a lot of people on drugs. She wasn’t used to this, she is anti-drugs, anti-drinking, anti-everything basically. At a certain point she asked me if there were a lot of people on drugs over there. Yeah, I told her. Next thing she did was talking to someone and telling the guy drugs are bad and you shouldn’t do it and all that. I had to watch her the whole time to make sure she had a good time

Here, Dewi makes clear that she has much more cultural capital in the field of partying than her friend. In contrast to the stereotype of wild lifestyles, she affirms the other stereotype of models discussed above as serious girls who put everything in their life aside for the sake of success. If a girl wants to be a successful model, she has to minimize her alcohol and fried food consumption, not take drugs or smoke and try to lose weight all the time. Dewi’s friend embodies these efforts to the extent of internalizing a moralistic opinion about this.

Rolien also gave an impression of enjoying cultural capital while going out in the city center of Amsterdam:

Almost all my friends are very pretty. Stupid to say but it’s true. And I am very aware of this, the collective impression. When we get ready to go out we are very busy with our outfits, much more than non-models. Models are just very aware of the expression of the group.

Rolien shows that she and her pretty friends put more effort into looking good and are very aware of their collective image. Such use of collectivity for capital-enhancement is not uncommon. It occurs in many scenes that try to express something. Think of activists, businessman or gangs to name a few. With increased numbers the expression of capital also increases. As a collectivity they get noticed more easily and give a more overwhelming impression. Rolien also claims that non-models put less effort in their appearance and are not, or at least not as much, aware of their collective expression. Here she places herself, and her friends, higher up in the field of beauty than non-models. Her cultural capital as a model grants her the possibility to be popular in the party scene as well. It is yet another example of transferring capital over fields.

Beauty and brains?

The expression ‘beauty and brains’ is often pronounced in an ironic manner. This suggests some common opinion that these two elements usually don’t mix. Rolien has a striking example of this:

At my high school graduation, my tutor only said things about me going to make it as a model in his speech. I was very offended since I passed all my exams with high marks. I am more than a model! Only that got emphasized.

In this case Rolien is offended because her cultural capital as a model overshadowed her capital in the field of knowledge, at least for her tutor. This is a big thing for her since she also mentioned that her main identification regarding her identity is being a student, acquiring academic knowledge. Next is being a model. Since her tutor saw her prime identity as a model there is a clash of opinions, leaving her upset after the ceremony. Here, Rolien explicitly distances herself from the stereotype of the ‘dumb model’. Also, she thinks that this stereotype does not hold anymore:

Stupidity of models is really passé. It just gets reproduced by all those stupid shows, especially the Dutch ones. Just look at ‘The Face’ for once. It’s just like ‘oh oh Cherso [Dutch version of Jersey Shore].

But Sophie explains that there is a grain of truth to the stereotype, for logical reasons:

In general models are not very bright. The models who continue modeling don’t have time for a secondary education and are therefore not highly educated. If a model did VWO [pre-university secondary education] then they prefer to continue studying. The girls who are just concerned with fashion are the girls who can make it as a model but not as a student.

Since one has to put all effort into one of these two fields there is not a big chance to succeed in both. But, again, Sophie reproduces the stereotype of the ‘dumb model’ as something that applies to other models, but not herself. She downplays the negative stereotype on herself to keep the best appearance. Rolien altogether denies the stereotype of the ‘dumb model’, though she does not give an explanation whereas Sophie does. It might be that Rolien is annoyed by the stereotype, as well as the situation at her high school graduation ceremony, so that she wants to distance herself as much as possible from the image of ‘dumb model’. Sophie on the other hand is not that bothered by the stereotype and thus might not make a big deal out of this.

Calling it quits

As argued above, there are many incentives for girls to work as a model. So why quit such a capital-rich occupation? The ideal ending of a modeling career would be retirement. Around the age of thirty a model is considered too old and expected to retire. But not all girls await that moment. When asked why the girls quit modeling while still young, many brought up the high demands the modeling agency put on them. The demands of the modeling agency had negative consequences for Dewi:

I’m not your stereotype model, by not fitting into the sizes I can get unhappy. The more time I spent modeling the more I became aware of my looks and that does not work well for me. This did not make me happy. Now I only do things that I like and I must say I am quite proud of that.

Rose had difficulties with the rules put up by the agency as well:

I got fired because I was young and stubborn, I wanted to do everything I couldn’t; like tattoos and piercings for example. There is too much negativity. If I hadn’t quit it could have turned out bad for me. Never any compliments, always harsh remarks. You get sucked in by the negativity. When you’re so young you shouldn’t be involved in such things.

It seems that the modeling industry put a lot of strict rules and restrictions on the girls. Rose is aware of these ‘tests’ to succeed:

When you really want to be a model you wouldn’t even think of having tattoos. So it seems my devotion to be a model wasn’t big enough.

Sophie and Rolien also mentioned restrictions concerning weight and sizes they had to conform to. Sophie tells vividly:

When I was in high school I went to Paris for three months, when I came back I was too fat [said the modeling agency]. Next, they wanted me to take a year off school but I was still too fat. I was fed up with it. If my body tells me it can’t happen then it won’t happen. I’d rather go and study if this is the case. I was really happy and relieved that I was done and didn’t have to lose weight anymore.

Rolien even goes as far as to make quitting the modeling industry a statement against all its restrictions and values:

The only thing you can do against the too-skinny models is quit the industry. So that is my sort of rebellion. I would only do model work if the agency accepts me how I am. But that is not going to happen. Every model is underweight and that is why I quit. This frustrates me enormously.

The models made clear that their reason for stepping out of the industry is mostly the high demands the modeling industry put on them. More specifically, the modeling industry made the girls lose weight in order to go abroad and do shows. Since model work is all about doing shows and shoots it is impossible to refuse the agency’s demand to lose weight. All four respondents quit model work because of this.

Conclusion

Being a young female model goes hand in hand with enjoying a certain amount of social, cultural and symbolic capital. The popularity that comes with being a model is measurable in terms of these forms of capital. This is also what makes being a model more than just an occupation. Being a waiter in a restaurant, for example, will not get one invitations to fancy clubs, parties and artistic gatherings. Even though the models trivialize or downplay their status as a model, they seem very aware of the impact a prestigious label such as ‘a model’ can have.

The forms of capital embedded in the model identity grant the model several possibilities to gain success in other fields besides the field of modeling. The requirement to transfer this success will be to have a pre-established social network, or social capital, in the field to be conquered. So, to gain success in the next field it is necessary to get acquainted with the star players in this field as a prerequisite to transfer success over fields.

But to become a successful player in the field of modeling the model has to cope with the high demands of the industry. To the outside world a model’s occupation seems very glamorous, for models themselves the industry can be considered two-faced. Mears (2008) writes about this front stage/backstage mechanism in the modeling industry. The modeling world looks better from the outside than it does on the inside. Getting pushed to lose more and more weight became too much for my respondents. This is the very reason they quit this capital-rich occupation. Whether quitting the occupation also stripped them of their identity as models is irrelevant. More importantly, the girls used their individual agency to resist the demands of the field of modeling, and now transfer their capital to other fields where they can be themselves.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

Kaj Dekker was an undergrad anthropology student at the time of writing this paper, and is now MSc in the anthropology of fun. He obtained his Master’s degree in 2014 at the University of Amsterdam, and is currently getting his professional life on track while in the meantime enjoying himself. Connect with Kaj on LinkedIn.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press

Christiansen, C. H. (1999). Defining lives: Occupation as identity: An essay on competence, coherence, and the creation of meaning. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 53: 547-558.

Entwistle, J. & Wissinger, E. (2006). Keeping up appearances: aesthetic labour in the fashion modeling industries of London and New York. The Sociological Review, 54, 4: 774-794.

Mears, A. (2008). Discipline of the catwalk: Gender, power and uncertainty in fashion modeling. Ethnography, 9, 4: 429-456.

Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Soley-Beltran, P. (2006). Fashion Models as Ideal Embodiments of Normative Identity. Trípodos número 18, Barcelona.

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