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).
You’ve probably already heard about 10-year-old French model Thylane Loubry Blondeau and the controversy over the way she is being posed and styled in adult-like ways. I’d written about Vogue’s treatment of Thylane and other young models in an earlier piece titled ‘Vogue’s tarted up photo shoot of little girls is no parody.’
Interest in Thylane has reached hyper drive. I was asked to comment on Channel 7’s Morning Show.
People look at one image and say “I don’t see it. She doesn’t look sexy to me.” This is not about one image or one issue- it’s a collective picture that’s created when we use young girls to sell adult products by putting them in adult make up and adult styling and adult positions. (and we call it fashion and that’s supposed to make it all ok)…
Last year a number of child development experts expressed concern about a Witchery campaign which presented adultified images of children modelling its fashions. Emma Rush, lecturer in ethics at Charles Sturt University and lead author of two significant reports on the sexualisation of children published by the Australia Institute, wrote about Witchery in a piece titled ‘Children are not miniature adults or fashion accessories’ here late last year:
A child is not a miniature adult. They are not a fashion accessory. They are a developing human being and need the cultural space to be just that. Yet we are now seeing constant marketing of adult appearance culture to children, as in, for example, the latest ads for the Witchery Kids brand. The Witchery Kids campaign is simply one particularly sophisticated example of corporations functioning to close down that cultural space for kids to be kids, with resulting ‘appearance anxiety’ for children during a period in their lives when they need the space to develop into their own person.
The wording of the new Witchery Kids campaign, ‘We believe that fun and imagination are the centre of every child’s universe’, is not reflected in the marketing images. Not one of the children in the images is smiling and it would be stretching it to say that even three of them are engaged in imaginative activities…
Nothing about the campaign images recognises that children are anything other than miniaturised adults. You could replace the children in the images with adults and nothing would appear odd. The images invite you to ‘read’ the children as adults…Read the full article and see pics from that campaign here
But Witchery couldn’t care less. They’ve repeated the exercise a mere five months later, stylising and posing children as fashion-conscious mini-me’s:
As described by the Herald Sun in Witchery’s Style Recruits campaign “unsmiling children aged 5-8 are pictured against a drab streetscape, decked out in combat-style garb, knee-high socks and short skirts, and leopard print.”
Kids Free to Be Kids director Julie Gale has complained to the company. Here’s her March 10 email:
Attention Customer Service
To whom it may concern,
As the Director of Kids Free 2B Kids I have been inundated with emails from people concerned about the way you have portrayed children in your catalogues.
I notice that complaints were also posted on the Witchery Kids facebook page prior to the article in the Herald Sun this past Monday. I notice the comments page remains disabled.
A person unknown to me emailed your reply [to them] this afternoon.
It is easy to reject the notion that you ‘intentionally’ conveyed children in an adultified way.
Whilst that may be true, it is extraordinary, given the reaction from child advocates and child developmental professionals to your previous catalogue.
I also think it’s extraordinary that you state the children chose the poses without direction. In my experience photo shoots are highly controlled and managed to the finest detail.
I am fully aware of the role of the NSW Children’s Guardian. Kids Free 2B Kids placed an FOI application in 2008 to better understand the process involving children and advertising at the government department.
It was revealed that Saatchi and Saatchi (for David Jones) gave the photo shoot directive “They are 10-12 years, so slightly more adult and sexy”.
That directive passed through the NSW Children’s Guardian. The directive also stated: “This is a branding exercise for DJ’s where we must communicate aspirational kid’s fashion”.
Last year when Cotton On came under fire for its adult sexualised slogans on children’s wear – there was a lot of initial resistance.
The CEO eventually called a meeting with me and then invited me to Geelong to meet with the National Clothes buyer.
They understood, after a lot of outcry from the community that they had crossed a line – even though they were aiming for ‘edgy and humorous’.
They also withdrew 40,000 items of clothing from their stores Australia wide and put in place protocol that did not previously exist.
Whilst they were initially re-acting – I appreciated their willingness to listen and learn and ultimately take proactive responsibility.
My invitation to the Witchery CEO is to make contact with myself or Dr Michael Carr Gregg to hear the concerns of child development professionals and learn about latest research.
Julie Gale, Director, Kids Free 2B Kids
Witchery claims it doesn’t support the adultification of children. It’s just got a funny way of showing it.
Ralph Lauren goes down the same path
In the same week Witchery employed its children-as-adults marketing tactics, came the latest issue of Vogue Living, featuring a front cover fold out which opens to reveal a young girl also posed, dressed, and styled in an adult woman way, dressed in riding gear and situated in a huge mansion.
I dare anyone to justify this with standard ‘It’s just a little girl playing dress ups’ line. This is no dress-up. The clothes fit perfectly. This is a young girl deliberately made to look older. Her hair, make-up, fashion style, pose and mature intense gaze invite us to read her as not as a girl but a woman. And that is a dangerous thing to do.
If we don’t protest this, what will be next?
Don’t buy Witchery. Don’t buy Ralph Lauren either.
To contact Witchery email: email@example.com
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.
The backlash against corporate exploitation of women
“Women are frequently positioned very differently to men in media. Often shown as passive, vulnerable, scantily clad, headless, and sometimes dead…”
Today a guest post from eating disorder prevention specialist and member of Collective Shout’s core team, Lydia Turner. It’s reprinted from theFierce, Freethinking Fatties blog.
In recent years there has been a growing backlash against the prescription of a rigid beauty ideal. The bombardment of images of ultra-slim models, across a range of mediums, is increasingly gaining recognition as having a harmful effect on girls and women. Late last year, 45 international eating disorder experts released a statement, reporting that after reviewing over 100 international studies, the evidence was “overwhelming” that these images contributed to increasing rates of anxiety, depression, sexual dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, unhealthy weight loss behaviours, and eating disorders [http://bit.ly/cUwZSJ].
Rather than seeing eating disorders as ‘extreme’ responses to a culture that actively discriminates against those labelled fat, the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement recognises unhealthy weight loss practices have become culturally normative as a consequence. When fat people – especially fat women – are depicted in the media, they are usually held up as objects of ridicule, with a barrage of negative characteristics attacking their intellect, integrity, self-worth, and sexuality. For this reason, allowing ‘plus-size’ or fat women to be depicted as ‘sexy mynx’ may seem liberating, giving permission and visibility to women who are systematically denied sexual identity. Yet the need to prove sexual acceptance reveals that participation in a discourse of oppression is required – for women of all sizes – in order to achieve visibility.
We need to discuss the wider problem of the hyper-sexualisation of girls and women in media everywhere. It is not any one particular image that is problematic; but rather the reiteration of the same sexualised images that create a harmful cultural narrative of what it means to be a girl or woman in industrialised nations today. When corporations are given unfettered power, abuse of the consumer is a result. We have already seen this demonstrated in the massive conflicts of interest in obesity research and unethical practices promising thinness. It is now time to recognise that global brands are contributing to illness by cashing in on the narrow way in which women and girls are being depicted in media – even when the ideal is expanded to include fatter women.
While the beauty ideal for decades had already required women to be (usually) white and ultra-slim, pornographic themes are rapidly creeping into mainstream media, showing women in ways that suggest they are nothing more than sexual service stations for men. Consider Australian brand Lovable’s latest campaign. Employing Miss Universe, it shows Jennifer Hawkins in bra and undies, suggestively licking an ice cream with white liquid running down her arms, in reference to male ejaculation.
Then there are Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana ads, known for ‘pushing boundaries,’ with many of their ads alluding to gang rape and violence against women, used in outdoor advertising. One Dolce & Gabbana ad has now been withdrawn in Italy.
In Argentina, Unilever’s child company Axe has launched ads that encourage boys to sexually harass women .
Unilever’s other child company claims it will open a lodge in Sydney later this year, promoting female servitude as “the ultimate male fantasy,” with scantily clad young staff obeying men’s orders in adherence to the lodge’s central theme of “tell her what to do” .
Women are frequently positioned very differently to men in media. Often shown as passive, vulnerable, scantily clad, headless, and sometimes dead such as in these ads:
These images inform women over and over that their body primarily exists for the purpose of evoking male desire, as though their bodies are merely sex aids. Robbing them of their humanity, women are often referred to as “it” or “that”, for example on Facebook’s Lynx Effect UK site fans say things like “you no [sic] you would ruin that all night long” commenting on photos of young women in bikinis. Axe, also a child-company of Unilever, has ads recommending men use its shower gel to “scrub away the skank” the morning after a regretted sexual encounter (including women who are disabled, ill, or elderly).
These images and language choice have a very dehumanising effect, which is dangerous on many levels. They help create a climate which increases violence against women, or at least, puts women in danger of violence. As we see on Lynx Effect Ireland’s page, fans discuss types of women they dislike: “She’s a bitch,” says one commentator. Others advocate violence against them, saying things like “spray Lynx in her face.” Lynx Effect Ireland insists this is all just ‘tongue-in-cheek.’ Lynx are not alone in portraying violence against women as sexy.
It is not just women that are affected. Given these many of these images are displayed in public areas, children can’t be protected from seeing them. Yet if such images were shown to a child by a paedophile in a private area, we would call this “grooming.” Images such as these are also not allowed in the workplace, as they are considered a form of sexual harassment. Yet they pollute our public landscape.
What message do these images send boys about how women should be treated? What message do they send girls about their own bodies and self-worth? Academic psychologist Cordelia Fine revealed numerous studies confirming that environments that cue gender stereotypes negatively affect how men interact with women, even when women are fully clothed. With advertisements positioning women as sex objects, such as in this banned Toyota Yaris ad, this “drip drip effect” has a detrimental impact on women, and on the way men relate to them.
Children are further affected when corporations try to out-sell competitors by pushing boundaries by ‘adultifying’ and sexualising them. Up until two weeks ago, corporate giant BONDS was selling bras for girls as young as six. They weren’t the only ones. Retail chain Best & Less, and even Kmart was stocking ‘bralettes’ for little girls. Another company went as far as selling padded bras – with lace – for six year olds.
These messages go against the spirit of the Health At Every Size and Fat Acceptance movements, as they erode body trust while inducing bodily anxieties, for girls of all sizes. Retail chain Supre whose target market are ‘tweens’ ages 6-12 has sold t-shirts stating “Pussy Power” and “Santa’s Bitch.” In rap/hip hop culture this means the girl is ‘owned’ by Santa as he is her ‘pimp.’
Another retail chain, Witchery was just this week exposed for their latest catalogue showing little girls wearing mini-adult clothing and striking adult poses.
While these are not sexualised images, adultifying girls blurs the line between girls and women, where girls feel increasing pressure to achieve the same beauty ideals traditionally applied only to their mothers. The cultural messaging teaches them that their worth depends primarily on whether they are ‘hot-or-not,’ instead of fostering real values, talent, and intellect. It is predictable these days that when a young female celebrity reaches the age of 16, she must “prove” she is “all grown up” by stripping down, such as in the example of pop singer Gabriella Cilmi and Miley Cyrus. Funny how young male celebrities are never required to do the same.
When a ‘plus-size’ woman is allowed to be ‘sexy,’ she is still positioned as a sexual object rather than one who ‘owns’ her own sexuality and personhood. Take former Australian Idol contestant Ricky-Lee Coulter for example. It was considered a victory posing her on the cover of lads mag Ralph because she was not waif-like.
Yet she was required to be scantily clad, donning a dominatrix-style outfit with whip. ‘Bigger’ women are often positioned in this way. We are still attaching unhealthy messages to women of all sizes – being ‘plus-size’ or fat does not provide immunity against the damaging effects of objectification.
While the Health At Every Size and fat acceptance movements actively speak out against the harms of promoting thinness as the only acceptable body type, I urge all supporters to consider also supporting movements that send other harmful messages to girls and women about their bodies. Messages that tell women all they are ‘good for.’ While some argue that the increasing sexualisation of girls and women is sexually liberating, I say these corporate messages are actually sexually prescriptive.
As Gail Dines argues in her latest book Pornland, it’s time we stopped allowing corporations to hijack our sexuality. Accepting one’s body does not include feeling that everyone must have big breasts or obligatory fattened lips to feel good about themselves, nor that their stripping is necessary to prove their newfound body-love. Just as fat is not “evidence” of poor health, neither is aging- yet we are told on shows like Oprah that aging is somehow linked to not taking good care of oneself. It’s imperative these movements collaborate with others that challenge other notions that also affect body image.
In Australia, a new grassroots advocacy group has already achieved a raft of successes against advertisers, corporations and marketers which promote body shame through their hyper sexualised products and marketing practices. Headed by author and social commentator Melinda Tankard Reist, ‘Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation,’ has managed to stop the sale of bras and bra-like products to girls under age 10, block a rape-simulation game console from being accessed in Australia, successfully pressured Woolworths to cancel its support of the Lynx Lodge, amongst many other wins. Collective Shout is less than a year old already with over 1500 members worldwide. If you would like to show your support, please sign up here .
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