Youth Minister Kate Ellis wrote a terrific endorsement for my book Getting Real: challenging the sexualisation of girls. I was – and am – very grateful to her for doing so. Ms Ellis wrote:
Young women and girls today face extraordinary pressures to meet body image expectations that are unhealthy, unhelpful and unrealistic. The contributors to this book make a valuable contribution to an important national debate on how we can help young women to grow up with a healthy self-image and with the freedom and strength to be their real selves.
I believe the Minister is sincere in her commitment to addressing this issue. But her photo shoot for Grazia – which goes on sale today – raises questions about whether her message needs to be more consistent and whether there are a few dots still to be joined up.
Lydia Turner, a Sydney psychologist specialising in eating disorder prevention and who I’ve published here before argues that the Grazia shoot is problematic on a number of levels: sending conflicting messages about body image, encouraging judgement and surveillance of other women’s bodies and reducing a member of parliament to her sexual desirability.
Yet again we’ve seen another body image blunder pushed into the spotlight with Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis, donning tight-fitting leather clothes and dominatrix-style 8-inch heels in a bid to improve body image in Australian women.
According to the Courier Mail in the shoot done on an athletics track in her electorate of Adelaide, the 32-year-old minister sports a pair of killer $1790 Gucci heels and a curve-hugging $695 leather Karen Millen dress and looks more like a runway model than a Member of Parliament.
“I really enjoyed it!” she said of the experience. “I didn’t think it would be so much fun – I didn’t want it to stop.”
Celebrity magazine, Grazia, had approached Ellis to model for its annual ’Body Image Special’. They thought she would say no. She gave an “enthusiastic yes.”
Grazia tells us Ellis was voted the sexiest MP by her male colleagues and recently “chuckled” when invited to pose for lads mag Zoo.
Ellis said her reason for modelling was to “spark a debate on body image” (she said similar when posing in a bikini for The Daily Telegraph not too long ago). She wanted to draw attention to the results of the body image survey in Grazia. But something just doesn’t sit right.
When Ellis was asked whether or not her images were airbrushed, she dodged the question, replying that she had made her views about airbrushing “clear” to the magazine editors. Ellis avoided disclosing whether or not the images were airbrushed, yet disclosure of airbrushed images was one of the key recommendations put forward by the National Advisory Board on Body Image – a board Ellis initiated.
Flipping through the magazine, it’s hard to understand how Grazia’s editors could possibly think they were doing women any body image favours – and harder to understand why Ellis would want to support a magazine like this.
The cover itself shouts “Jen: You voted her BEST BODY. Posh: You voted her TOO THIN. Beyonce: You voted her KEEPING CURVY COOL.” On page 16, four female celebrities are lined up side-by-side, each with numbers scrawled across their image indicating the percentage of readers who approve of their bodies. Beyonce scores a lousy 13%.
Yet when discussing the results of the body image survey, the headline of the article screams “Why are we our own worst enemies? 71% of [women] judge other women based on their bodies” as though it was oblivious to fact that it actively promotes women monitoring and surveillencing other women’s bodies.
In her opening editorial, Editor-in-Chief Alison Veness-McGourty announces that “curves are back” and that women should rush out to buy pencil skirts so they won’t have to be “endlessly watching [their] weight.” Yet the top four out of five most popular articles listed on Grazia’s website focus on dieting. Fad dieting. Dieting to make you “thin by Friday.”
Throughout the ‘Body Image Special’, article after article features celebrities talking about why they loathe their bodies. Sienna Miller confesses that she is “all in favour of airbrushing” and that in ten years time she will “probably be stuffed full of botox and fillers … with fake lips!” How is this supposed to be empowering?
While Ellis says she intends to “work with industry” to improve women’s body image, it’s difficult to imagine how effective this approach might be given that the fashion industry’s profits are significantly inflated by instilling a sense of inadequacy in its consumers. It is also unlikely that a voluntary code of conduct will ever be adhered to.
How will corporations agree to something that runs contrary to their profit margins? Just look at the Weight Council of Australia. It is a voluntary body that requires businesses in the weight loss industry to adhere to a set of guidelines, designed to protect the health of Australians and the quality of weight loss product. Of the tens of thousands of weight loss businesses in Australia, only five are members.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone when Grazia quotes Jennifer Aniston, “looking good is the best revenge!”. But what is Ellis doing supporting this tokenistic stunt? Having recommended, through her National Advisory Board, that a diverse range of body sizes and shapes should be portrayed in magazines, it is rather odd to then engage in a photoshoot that upholds current beauty standards and allowing images of oneself that are most likely airbrushed. Perhaps she just wants to look glamorous in a fashion shoot but needs to cover it in tokenistic body image/self-esteem jargon?
Perhaps most frustrating is that young, smart, high-profile women are routinely subjected to sexualised scrutiny, regardless of their profession. Natasha Stott-Despoja, Stephanie Rice, Julia Gillard, Penny Wong, Gabriella Cilmi – who recently stripped to “prove” she’s “all grown up” – the list is endless.
One of the functions of sexualising powerful women is that they become less threatening. Their abilities fade into the background while whether they are ‘hot-or-not’ becomes the only focus.
It seems the message girls and women are continually sent is that until you’re hot, you don’t count. Girl With a Satchel Erica Bartle summed it up well when she wrote, “…even smart MPs have to fit the fashion mould to become successful”.
Instead of giving in to the pressure to sexualise herself, Ellis could have taken the offer to pose for Zoo and later Grazia, as opportunities to speak out against the pressures on women to consent to objectification. She could have highlighted this as a problematic message sent to girls.
How awkward would it be if you found out that all the men in your workplace had voted you the sexiest worker? If every time you spoke you had to worry about whether they were actually paying attention or just checking out your breasts? Your boss would be strapped for sexual harassment for handing out the survey to begin with.
Yet Ellis accepted the ‘honour’ of being voted sexiest and has allowed herself to be presented in a sexualised manner. And she still wants to be taken seriously as a MP with a portfolio caring for young people.
‘Mick of Brisbane’ provides an example of how some men see the Grazia shots. He commented online in the Courier Mail April 4:
“She is the sexiest politician I have ever seen!!! I wonder if she would do a photo shoot for Penthouse? With all funds raised going to the community of course!!! I think she could pull off a centrefold with ease!!!”
Yes, Mick, as long as it’s for a good cause. So many of the comments posted in response to Ellis’ photoshoot have been about whether she is ‘hot or not.” Because that’s what counts.
There are no easy solutions to our current plague of body image problems. At the same time, none of us should have to put up with faux attempts to put things right. Grazia is merely giving the appearance of wanting to empower women. Ellis’ participation only upholds existing beauty standards while catering to the sexual fantasies of men.
Given that girls and women are already taught that their worth is measured by how sexually desirable they are, having our youth minister reiterate that message just trivialises an issue she seems to care deeply about.