Ambiguous declaration raises more questions
After years of being slammed with accusations that they are projecting unrealistic body image ideals onto women, Vogue magazine has finally decided to do something about it. The 19 editors of the magazines around the globe have collectively made a pact that has the fashion industry giving them a standing ovation. The move has even been hailed as marking “an evolution in the industry.”
In an announcement made last week by Condé Nast International, which is accountable for all 19 magazines, Vogue has pledged to “not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder.”
The move is in a bid to help promote a healthier body image, but with a declaration as ambiguous as this, it’s easy to see why the fash pack is pleased, and why the rest of us have been left wondering what it actually means.
Firstly, are our standards really so low that showcasing models who “don’t appear to have an eating disorder” is actually considered groundbreaking? Shouldn’t that be a given? And secondly, you cannot tell that someone is sick by simply giving them a quick once-over. Bulimia, for example, is extremely hard to detect because many of the signs and symptoms are not visible to the eye.
The ABC’s Dubravka Voloder also questioned this, asking Australian Vogue editor, Kristie Clements, how exactly does one police an eating disorder? Clements’ answered:
I think you just have to make a judgement as to whether the girl looks healthy, whether she’s glowing, whether she has energy. You know, that there are not bones sticking out. I don’t think you can do a BMI like a body mass index. That is sort of cookie-cutter stuff. You can’t weigh people and get the tape measure out but I think from the general demeanour of a girl and the way she presents on the page you can see whether that’s a healthy image.
Clements’ answer only raises more questions. What is a “healthy” body? What does it look like? And is not having “bones sticking out” really the most accurate measure of health they can offer?
As for the healthy glow and energy Clements’ mentioned, that can be attributed to something that was completely overlooked in Vogue’s pledge: photoshop. Across all its publications, Vogue has become notorious for its liberal use of the digital retouching program. They’ve lightened dark skin , wiped out limbs, removed all expression from models and celebrities, and even children aren’t safe – somehow in postproduction of the US September 2011 issue, several fingers were erased from a child’s hand. Plus, let’s not forget the incident where US Vogue put musician, Adele, on the cover (who represents a more accurate version of the average woman), only to whittle her down a few sizes . What kind of message does this send? That “healthy” and “average” are acceptable standards, so long as any trace of normalcy is obliterated?
Finally, Vogue’s promise has ignored a key factor in promoting a healthy body image: diversity. Aside from the token plus-size editorial spread once or twice a year (which so far have been overhyped and over sexualised ), the magazine has shown next to no variety in the shapes and sizes of women. If we were to look at the covers of Vogue US, UK and Australia from the last two years as an idea to what the average woman looks like, we could only draw the conclusion that “normal” equates to skinny and Caucasian.
The closest thing to an average woman Vogue Australia has put on their cover is Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr while she was pregnant, in their December 2010 issue. And although they have previously featured indigenous supermodel Samantha Harris, and Puerto Rican supermodel Joan Smalls, on their covers , that’s still only two women to represent culturally diverse society across two years. As for the US and UK publications, a Photoshopped Adele, and 62-year-old Meryl Streep is all they have to offer.
It is true that Vogue’s decision not to use models under the age of 16 is commendable, and the move not to use girls that look like they have an eating disorder is a lot more than the magazine has done previously in the name of promoting healthy body image. However, as author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty , Audrey Brashich, told the UK’s Daily Mail, this pledge is merely a “tiny baby step of progress.”
“The cynic in me feels like they are simply grandstanding while really just throwing a bone to an audience that is getting ever more savvy and tired of the tricks of the trade,” Brashich said.
Feminist and creator of The Beheld blog, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, agrees saying that:
For as significant as it is that it’s Vogue, with all its class and taste-making connotations, making this announcement, it’s also a double-edged sword. If the go-to reference for the absurdity of the thin imperative has always been Vogue, and then Vogue says it’s switching up the game, we’ve suddenly lost our reference point. Yet the referent still exists. Models are going to remain far thinner than the average woman, fashion images will continue to do their job of creating longing and desire, and otherwise sensible women will keep doing the master cleanse. All that has changed besides models’ labor conditions is that Vogue gets to seem like it’s doing the right thing, and those who have been agitating for body positivity get to feel like we’ve made progress. Vogue is doing nothing truly radical to change the thin imperative, and to pretend otherwise is to silently walk in lockstep with the very system that put us in this situation to begin with.
So although the pledge is a slight nudge in the right direction, what the magazine really needs is a solid sartorial kick. The fact still remains that at its core, Vogue is a business. It is trying to sell a product. In order for a business to survive, it has to listen to the needs of its consumers, yet all Vogue has offered is an implied guarantee. The models will not be hired under the age of 16 knowingly. The models will not be used if they appear to have an eating disorder. The models are not getting healthier, just seeming to do so. However, one definitive thing this move shows is that change is in fact brewing. For after all, a magazine cannot live off ambiguous declarations alone (and neither can its models).