This week, Seventeen magazine promised to publish un-photoshopped images of real girls, finally responding to 14-year-old SPARK activist Julia Bluhm’s campaign. Such pressure must continue argues author Laura Bates.
Last week, two editions of Now magazine appeared on newsstands in the UK. The weekly issue featured a dramatic photograph of model Abbey Crouch, emphasizing her prominent collarbones and hollow thighs. The headline read “Oh no! Scary Skinnies,” while a caption warned: “Girls starving to be like her.” Inside, a feature revealed that “worryingly, pro-anorexia sites are using her figure as a skinny role model.” The other magazine was the Now Celebrity Diet Special. Its cover was emblazoned with a photograph of the same model in a glamorous bikini, under the headline: “Bikini body secrets…stars’ diet and fitness tricks REVEALED.”
This is perhaps the most blatant example to date of a disturbing and growing trend of women’s magazines affecting a superficial stance of concern about issues that they themselves are often guilty of causing or exacerbating.
This week, the Women’s Media Center celebrated the success of a campaign by 14-year old SPARK activist Julia Bluhm, whose petition calling upon Seventeen magazine to publish one unaltered photo spread per month attracted over 84,000 signatures. But it was only after Bluhm’s campaign whipped up an international media storm that the magazine finally capitulated. When she visited their New York office in May, Julia’s petition already had over 25,000 signatures, yet Seventeen responded with a saccharine statement that neatly sidestepped any commitment, while loudly proclaiming their ethical standpoint on the issue: “Julia left understanding that Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that’s how we present them.”
There is an undeniable disparity between the caring, concerned tone magazines adopt, and the actual pictures and features they continue to publish week-in, week-out. The recent “health initiative” launched by Vogue was much trumpeted by the magazine as its contribution to promoting positive body image. Yet nowhere in the 6-point agreement is there any commitment to promoting healthy physical ideals through the use of unaltered photographs or a greater range of model sizes. In fact, in terms of its impact on the magazines’ pages, the pact boils down to a commitment not to use underage models or those suffering from eating disorders, as the usual reams of endless thin legs and tiny waists in this month’s Vogue testify.
The same mixed messages are barely concealed across the pages of countless magazines. This month alone, New urges women to “show off their curves,” praising “womanly shapes,” whilst Glamour advises readers to “double up your workout,” “transform your body” and “lose 7 lb – instantly!” Last week’s Star praised Billie Faiers for having “boobs and loving her gorgeous curves,” but just seven days later their next issue proclaimed “Billie hates her big boobs” and “feels self-conscious in a bikini.” Star applauds Pink for being “in no rush to lose her baby weight,” but Now brands Abbey Crouch a “star body” because she “weighs less now than she did before she gave birth last March.” More awards Alexandra Burke “multiple medals for showing off her curves,” but Look badgers readers to “get your dream body in no time” with “calorie burning” hot pants and gym kit that “tones you up fast.” Many feature “curvy celebs” specials, raking thinner celebrities like LeAnn Rimes for “bones jutting out” and a “super-skinny figure,” yet many include celeb diet secrets, painstakingly listing entire daily meal plans.
Holli Rubin, a representative of global initiative Endangered Bodies and a psychotherapist specializing in body image, explains: “Once again, girls and women find themselves in a double bind of on the one hand aspiring to what they believe is the perfect body represented by the celebrities but at the same time, more recently, being told that they really should not want those bodies. Visually we are seeing the images of what girls and women think they should be, yet then the content of the articles berates women for aspiring to that. This makes for a very confusing message not only for girls but for all women and society at large.”
A recent UK government report revealed that “between one third and half of young girls fear becoming fat and engage in dieting or binge eating” and “over 60 percent of girls avoid certain activities because they feel bad about their looks.” It specifically cited media criticism of body weight combined with a lack of body diversity as a contributing factor. Helen Sharpe, a London-based researcher investigating eating disorders in secondary schools agrees: “Exposure to these magazines is robustly linked to body dissatisfaction. We also know that those people most unhappy and vulnerable to begin with are likely to be most affected by the images in a damaging way.”
It’s bad enough that the unrealistic, narrow ideals of female beauty and body prescribed by women’s magazines are so damaging to women’s body confidence and self-esteem. But when “3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine”; when a coroner last month held the fashion industry and “photographs of wafer thin girls” “directly responsible” for the death of 14-year old schoolgirl Fiona Geraghty; when “80% of 10 year old American girls have been on a diet,” it is time for women’s magazines to stop pretending to advocate for solutions and admit they are part of the problem.
Consider Julia Bluhm and Fiona Geraghty: both 14-year old girls, both already deeply affected by the fashion and magazine industry. Women’s magazines must pay attention to their legacy.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.
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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.”
With such hype surrounding it, is this the revolutionary change we’ve been promised? Only by a perfectly blow-dried hair’s breadth.
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.
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).
A UK survey, commissioned by UK charity YWCA Central, has found half of all girls and a third of boys are obsessed with body image.
According to a report in the Daily Mail this week, children are willing to take extreme measures to get a perfect body or reach an ideal weight. The survey of 810 children aged 11 to 16 found a majority compared their bodies to what they saw on TV. A quarter were willing to have cosmetic surgery.
Rosi Prescott, chief executive of Central YMCA, said: ‘Young people appear to be increasingly insecure about their appearance and body image.
‘There is a growing trend to resort to quick fixes, which are damaging to health and often unfulfilling.
‘It is also interesting that what used to be seen as a problem affecting young girls has now spread to young men.
‘The root cause of this problem is the pressure on young people to conform to an unattainable and unrealistic body image ideal.’
A UK Parliamentary inquiry into the issue opened yesterday in the UK.
When are we going to see some real action on the issue in Australia?
Adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg and I were asked our thoughts on Channel 7’s Sunrise program this morning.
Critics of the December-January French Vogue photo spread featuring little girls as mini women decorated in gaudy make up, swathed in luxurious adult women’s clothing, assembled on beds, fawning on animal skin rugs, pouting bright red moist lips under a banner ‘Cadeaux’ – little presents to be unwrapped – just don’t get it.
The 15-page colour shoot of little-girls-as-grown-up-women is just parody, an incisive cutting-edge commentary on the culture. And we’re all just too dumb to realise that because we’re overdosing on moral panics and thinking of the children (a mocking phrase applied to those of us advocating for children).
But it’s also obvious from the over-the-top styling and the overall lurid quality that this story is a parody and a critique of the fashion industry’s unhealthy interest in young girls, not an endorsement or a glamourization of it
When a stylist — Melanie Huynh — and a photographer — Sharif Hamza — somehow get it in their minds to viciously satirize an industry that so fetishizes youth that it pretends adolescents are preferable substitutes for grown women? And when a respected fashion magazine — Vogue Paris — has the balls to publish their horrifying Toddlers in Tiaras-on-speed work? When that happens, cue the outrage! Won’t someone think of the children…
But this spread is a not-so-subtle fuck you to our culture’s unhealthy obsession with youth (in general) and the fashion industry’s (in particular), and to the commodification of childhood that comes with both. Is this story “tasteful”? Hell no. Does it “sell” the clothes? Not really. Is it pleasant to look at? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for us to see.
I don’t accept that this is really a parody or irony or an f**k- you to the culture. It is the culture. Vogue is not critiquing or de-constructing, it is embedding sexualised and adultified notions of children into the culture, inviting the viewer to ‘read’ the images of little girls – in this case, Lea, Prune and Thylane – as mini-women, therefore as much older and more (sexually?) knowing, than they actually are.
Patty Huntington over at Frockwriter was first to publish the photos online, setting off a global frenzy of interest. She described “heavily made-up children draped seductively over chairs, daybeds and an animal skin rug, with their legs and décolletages bared, like child prostitutes in a brothel…”
Saunders is just speculating. She doesn’t quote anyone involved as saying that satire was the intention. No one from Vogue has said “It’s parody people, don’t you get it?” A bold, cutting edge editor would be prepared to go out and defend the shoot against critics, but that hasn’t happened (in fact editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld resigned shortly after the photos went viral, which may of course be a coincidence).
Guest editor Tom Ford is on the front cover, standing behind model Daphne Groeneveld, aged 14 when the shot was taken. Is that meant to be ironic too?
I wonder if the irony will be lost on the kind of men who enjoy prepubescent girls groomed to look like adult women in high heels and with things in their mouths?
I agree with this comment on Huntington’s blog (in response to another commenter who couldn’t see a problem with the images):
You see nothing overtly sexual about a smoldering look through one’s upper eyelashes, about glossy wet pouted lips slightly parted, about bare legs tilted sideways on a disheveled bed, about a silky top plunging well below where the cleavage would be? If any of these looks, coupled with that clothing/makeup, were from a grown woman in a nightclub, the message would be pretty clear. You cannot just separate that kind of body language from the usual meaning just because the body performing it is a child. Yes kids play dressup. Innocent dressup is full of mismatched odds and ends, smeared makeup, plastic shoes, giggles and silliness. It is a pretend parody of the adult experience devoid of the adult understandings. Look into their eyes, THIS is not giggles and silliness. This is the inappropriate double whammy of insinuating adults are no good unless they look like a child, and children are no good unless they look like adults. It is pedophiliac style grooming of the reading public, so slowly and gently you don’t know when the line has been crossed….
Even if these images were created as a commentary on the fashion industry, a critique of the ‘getting older younger’ phenomenon in (or imposed on) children, the reality is they have still used children make their point. Labelling it artistic or clever, doesn’t make it okay. As writer and commentator Nina Funnell wrote to me:
So what is the standard here? Is it acceptable to dress children up in sexualised clobber, photograph them in a sexualised manner but only if the purpose is satirical? Do the children understand the satire that they are being used to create? How does the photo session impact on them? What precautions- if any- did the photographers, stylists and make-up artists put in place to protect the kids? Did they explain it was just ‘fun dress-ups’ for a day? And even if they did, what’s to stop a six year old from walking away with the message that when they look older and dress in a more sexual manner they get more praise, attention and money compared to when they look like their every day self? If we are going to say that child exploitation/ sexualisation is inappropriate then we have to be a bit consistent in that. We can’t say it’s inappropriate if it’s being done to sell a product, but fine if it’s done for ‘artistic merit’ or ‘cultural commentary’ purposes.
Nice of Jezebel to go in to bat for French Vogue. But many of us aren’t buying it. Vogue is not outside the culture. It is the culture.
Here at the MTR blog we’re not exactly what you’d call fans of the global corporation Unilever.
Unilever has been named and shamed here before for its sexist advertising through the Lynx/Axe brand as highlighted here and here, for its hypocrisy in promoting so-called “real beauty” through its Dove brand while presenting women in degrading and objectifying ways, for its Slimfast products promoting rapid weight loss (because real beauty only comes in size skinny) and for promoting skin whitening products to dark-skinned women (Unilever – to the rescue of dark not skinny women everywhere!).
Now Unilever has taken its white supremacist ways a step further, with a new Facebook application which enables Indian men to lighten their profiles, while at the same time promoting its Vaseline brand of skin lightening products. The company spruiks the product using a Bollywood star whose face is split in half, showing the (unsightly) dark side and the (magically transformed) light side.
Unilever appears to have no shame. One of its earlier skin bleaching products was called “White Beauty”. Playing on certain racial insecurities by telling dark skinned people that they can never really be beautiful – that’s what Unilever is doing. For some great Unilever dark skin despising action, check out this You Tube clip.
Of course, it’s not just Unilever. Garnier, Nivea and L’Oreal (‘because you’re worth white skin’. OK, I made that up) do the same.
These products promote ethnocentric stereotypes about the superiority of white people.
Sociology professor T. K. Oommen at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told Agence France Presse:
Lighter skin is associated with the ruling social class, with wealth, with general betterment. Skin lightening creams for women have been a cosmetics staple in India for decades, so when a men’s cream debuted a few years ago, its success was almost ensured.
“I see patients with hypo-pigmentation (loss of pigment) resulting in white patches and hyper-pigmentation leading to darker areas – both are caused by skin bleaching agents. People buy these creams that offer false hopes, but the fact is, there is no safe way to whiten your skin. There needs to be more stringent moderating of these products, as it is a very serious problem.”
Spot on commentary here which illustrates the hypocrisy involved by placing the Dove onslaught ad about airbrushing beside that for Unilever’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ whitening cream.
This is a perfect quote illustrating the hypocrisy, also from The Guardian:
…in an era of increasing transparency, parent companies like Unilever can’t hide behind a barrage of sub-brands anymore. They can’t promote skin-lightening in India and self-esteem in England and expect to retain any credibility when it comes to their corporate brand.
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