A special guest blog posting by Lydia Jade Turner on the Jennifer Hawkins Marie Claire photoshoot controversy. Lydia is Director and Public Health Advocate with BodyMatters Australasia and an Allied Health Professional specialising in eating disorders prevention.
As an Allied Health professional specialising in the field of eating disorders, it has been interesting to observe the comments published in response to blogs regarding the issue of Jennifer Hawkins purporting a “healthy body image” in Marie Claire. While some of these comments are helpful, others appear to be based on myths. I believe that not only is positioning Hawkins as naked advocate for the cause, ineffective, it’s actively undoing the gains that have been made in the field of eating disorders prevention. Having said this, my response to this empowerment stunt is not an attack on Hawkins herself, but rather a critique of why using her image as a path towards healthy body image is actually harmful.
HAWKINS AS NAKED ADVOCATE
Just this morning, Hawkins was quoted as stating that she had no idea that her image was going to be used to expose her “flaws.” However in the Marie Claire article printed earlier, Hawkins stated that even she is unhappy with her body, dislikes her thighs, and is “not a stick figure.” It makes it a bit hard to believe she could not have possibly known this article was about promoting a healthy body image. The Butterfly Foundation has said that the reason why Hawkins was used was because an average-looking woman would not sell magazines. This is in line with an Online Opinion forum poster who commented that “women demand these magazines” and “like looking at these images.” Wow. So if dark-skinned people didn’t sell well in magazines, should we just leave them out altogether? Yet another reader mentioned that it was too difficult to find an A-list female celebrity who wasn’t “thin.”The difficulty in finding an A-list female celebrity who deviates from the prescribed beauty ideal highlights the systematic discrimination against women in the media and the intense monitoring of their bodies. Positioning a supermodel as naked body image advocate reinforces the idea that there is never going to be a good enough reason to use any image other than that which meets the prescribed beauty ideal.
DISCRIMINATION AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL SHAPING OF ATTRACTION/DESIRE
What people like the poster in the Online Opinion forum don’t realise is that when people are systematically discriminated against (in this case, due to body shape and size), they often end up internalising the values of those in power, i.e. they learn to participate in their own oppression. For example, by buying magazines that continue to inform them that their bodies are not good enough. What is often overlooked is that what we find attractive and sexually desirable is significantly shaped by our environment. Hence the incredible variability in beauty ideals throughout time and cultures. Think about foot-binding, corsetry, 15-17th century voluptuous bodies… thin has not always been ‘in.’ To say models in this day and age are “genetically blessed” gives the impression that the promotion of a thin-ideal is, from an evolutionary perspective, both inevitable and desirable. The fact is that these models are only genetically blessed in that they naturally meet the beauty ideal of our culture, however to assume one’s genes are immediately superior due to the way they look is a very primitive way of screening for health. We can’t possibly know if someone carries the genes for schizophrenia, haemophilia, cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc just by looking at them. This privileging of those meeting the prescribed beauty ideal is not inevitable, but highly malleable to socio-environmental changes. By promoting images that portray a variety of body shapes and sizes, the ‘only-thin-sells’ phenomena would no longer be upheld.
There simply is not enough government funding put towards treating those suffering from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate out of any other psychiatric illness. Too often it takes vast sums of money to treat just one person with an eating disorder, while a shortage of services still exists . However, I strongly urge any eating disorders organisation to consider the impact of accepting funding from corporations that continue to promote a homogenised thin ideal. This is essentially like what we saw in the 70s where tobacco companies funded anti-smoking campaigns and prevention programmes in schools – with limited efficacy. When a charity depends on funding from corporations whose promotions are in conflict with the very issues that that charity is trying to rectify, it is immediately limited as to what it can and cannot advocate for.
Those with special interests in defending the Hawkins shoot promulgate the idea that eating disorders are not caused by the promotion of a thin-ideal. While eating disorders are not directly or solely caused by the reiteration of a thin-ideal, there is overwhelming international evidence demonstrating that these images significantly increase rates of body dissatisfaction, which in turn significantly increase rates of disordered eating, obesity, depression, and self-harm. To add confusion to the cause, Hawkins stating that she only did the shoot to “promote healthy eating and lifestyle” sends the message that all women who eat healthily and adopt a healthy lifestyle can look like her, and should aspire to look like her. This is ironic, given that the modelling profession pressures its female models to be around 20% underweight. This kind of thinking is exactly what leads to the development of poor body image, while increasing risk of developing disordered eating.
BODY IMAGE CRISIS AND OBESITY
The expense of treating these illnesses should highlight the importance of prevention. Endorsing a thin-ideal by defending Hawkins as naked advocate and misleading statements about the link between media images and eating disorders, only serves to reverse the gains made in the field of eating disorders prevention. Some people have even taken the use of Hawkins as naked advocate as a ‘good thing,’ as they believe that to feature an average body size would encourage people to ‘let themselves go’ and ‘promote obesity.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Pressuring women to be unrealistically thin does not motivate them to adopt a healthy lifestyle, it merely encourages them to lose weight.
Losing weight and adopting a healthy lifestyle are not the same thing. Many people are not meant to be thin. A meta-analysis of obesity research indicates that when we promote a thin-ideal (and therefore body shame) this actually increases rates of disordered eating, harmful weightloss methods, and discourages people to commit to regular exercise due to body consciousness (there have been recent reports about schoolgirls refusing to participate in PE because they were ashamed of how they looked in their sports uniforms). Promoting a thin-ideal, ironically, actually inflates both disordered eating and obesity rates.
SEXUALISATION AS FORGIVABLE IF DONE FOR A ‘GOOD CAUSE’
If you were genuinely interested in promoting a healthy body image, you would not choose a supermodel who naturally matches the socially constructed beauty ideal, and who has built her stellar career out of promoting a homogenised body shape and size. A model who, as one of the judges on reality TV show Search For A Supermodel, encouraged contestants to lose weight so they would make better competitors in ‘hotness’ stakes. And you would certainly not pose her in such a sexualised manner as to push her breasts together to maximise cleavage on the front cover, use lighting to enhance the cleavage, all with a ‘come hither’ look.
As ‘Ninaf’ astutely noted on the Online Opinion forum,
“…labeling these photos ‘untouched’ is horrendous as it seems to suggest they are totally natural. Um… hello? Natural would mean not sitting getting hair and make up done for hours, then setting up lighting and poses etc. These photos are HIGHLY contrived to make her look good. Just bc they weren’t photoshopped does not mean thats what she naturally looks like.”
Some men have commented online that any woman who objects to the Hawkins image must be “fat,” “ugly,” “wrinkled,” and “a bitch.” To assume that all women who are disappointed with this body image stunt must be “fat and ugly”, and therefore acting out of jealousy, is typical silencing behaviour that has been used against advocates for women’s rights for decades. To label someone ‘jealous’ is a coward’s way of avoiding having to respond to anything contrary to their view. Interestingly many of the men responding to Hawkins’ claim that she did not know her body would be used to expose her flaws have taken the position of ‘knight in shining armour to save damsel in distress,’ as most of their comments reiterate the message that Jen is beautiful. Reinforcing the message that a Supermodel is beautiful and having men rush to Hawkins’ defence is hardly what I envision an effective start to a healthy body image campaign.