On Beauty

The other day, Jodi Kantor, in the New York Times, suggested that feminists no longer need to worry about how women are portrayed in magazines (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/20/business/media/debate-on-photo-retouching-flares-online-with-roles-reversed.html). This was in response to Jezebel.com offering a $10,000 bounty for unretouched photos of Lena Dunham’s recent shoot for Vogue. Admittedly, the photos of Dunham weren’t the most egregriously-altered images to ever appear in that magazine—Dunham has been very thorough in displaying her body in the media, very self-consciously defying expectations about how an actress larger than a size 2 ought to (un)clothe her body and the Vogue editors surely knew they’d be under scrutiny for trying to make her look like Kate Winslett. Who was deemed too hefty to appear unretouched and had to be photoshopped to look like Kate Moss. Nevertheless, the magazine did alter Dunham’s photos considerably, not just to make her look better (whatever that means), but, specifically, thinner and less “flawed”—assuming that looking at all like herself would be to look unacceptable. Did Jezebel pursue the “wrong target,” as Kantor suggests? Are “feminists…finally…able to declare victory — or, at least, celebrate major milestones — in their longstanding fight against such magazines?”

First of all, Dunham’s not the target, the magazine is, and not just for the Dunham shoot;  secondly, I think we’re a very long way from being able to congratulate Vogue or any woman’s magazine for accurate representations of the full range of women’s beauty, let alone women’s experiences. Take a look at whatever’s currently in the racks at the gym, from Vogue to Women’s Health, from Elle to Self to Oprah—much has changed since the feminist occupation of the Ladies’ Home Journal offices in 1970, in both the magazines and the lives of their readers. But much remains dishearteningly the same.

Consider just these few examples, which have all struck me in the last week:

  1. In the same week that Dunham was on the cover of Vogue, she also had this “question” from reporter Tim Molloy in a press conference for the launch of the third season of Girls: “I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones, but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.” If you watch Girls, you know Dunham’s often naked under the same conditions that women are naked in most shows—during sex scenes, and to titillate. Except that because Dunham doesn’t look like many of the women who are generally paid to appear naked in TV or film, and more like the average woman who occasionally gets naked with the very average man—a reporter can say, to her face, that her nakedness is not titillating, just random (and by implication, unwelcome). Dunham’s reply: “Yeah. It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem.”  (http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/01/10/nudity_in_girls_television_critic_tim_molloy_doesn_t_get_why_lena_dunham.html)
  2. After a years’ long campaign using ads shot by Terry Richardson—a photographer known for using a porn aesthetic in much of his work, and, allegedly, life—my gym has moved on to something new. Instead of being inspired by young, underwear-clad models doing nothing fitness related, in the “Equinox made me do it” campaign, we’re meant to be inspired—somehow—by images of young models with bruised faces, sitting in ice baths, standing around in their underwear, or running naked from the camera—and still not doing anything fitness related. These ads really don’t tell us much about the gym, about fitness, or health. And importantly—no differently than the Richardson campaign—they don’t do anything to capture the experience of fitness of the people who actually use the gym. Wait, that’s not quite true—the ads don’t capture the positive reasons I and fellow members have for working out, which encompass health, the acquisition of skill and improved feelings of self-efficacy, relief from stress, and camaraderie. Insofar as the ads say anything (because this particular campaign is trying so hard to be edgy, that it’s just absurd and oblique), they do evoke—or provoke—all the negative reasons we have for being there: vanity, self-consciousness, obsession with youth, mindless conformity to constructs of “beauty” and “sex” that have nothing to do with beauty and sex, or “realistic expression[s] of what it’s like to be alive.”
  3. And: in the last couple of days Fb friends have posted on the new, “healthier” direction that we’re heading in for women’s fitness—“strong is the new sexy”. Have you heard? Being attractive now is not about being skinny, it’s about being super-fit. And, incidentally, being very skinny, and very hungry. (Kevin Moore, at the Good Men Project, has a nice take-down of the sinister subtext of this “fitspiration” aesthetic: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/brand-the-6-most-shockingly-irresponsible-fitspiration-photos/). 

I know lots of amazing people—women and men—who possess many great qualities, which include, but are not limited to, impressive fitness and commitment to wellness. None of them look like the fitspiration models in magazines and print ads. The people I’ve known who come closest to the ideals of these extremes of “strength” have only managed it through self-denial and obsession, which occasionally spills over into unwelcome proselytizing. And that’s not me being judgey—I’m including myself there. I started dieting when I was about 11 or 12, and exercising compulsively when I was about 13, and spent long years of my life thinking miserably about what I’d eaten, what I wanted to eat, what I would have to eat (or not eat) instead, and when I’d next make it to the gym to work off the calories from whatever I’d over-eaten. As hard as I tried to look like the photos in the magazines (and not the fashion spreads, either—no, I was always committed to health! always trying to be leaner and more cut) I was never very successful, because I never had the self-discipline to become a serious anorexic, which would have been the only way I could get my germanic body anywhere close to small enough to match the ideals that I was subscribing to. But I spent—wasted—long, long hours talking and thinking about how to get skinnier; and I know, from spending a lot of time with people similarly-obsessed in those days, that the shared mindset is not, in fact, about discipline and strength, and health, and self-respect. It’s often about self-revulsion, and a desire to control that revulsion through constant, grinding judgement of oneself and others.

If I’ve become one of the queen bees at my gym (that’s not just my imagination, right…?), I’m there now because of hard-earned lessons about balance and limits and gratitude for what my body does and how it looks—lessons I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t been motivated almost exclusively by hate and frustration with my non-ideal body that haunted me for far too many years when I was younger (I can tell the story of how I got over the hatred and most of the self-doubt in another post. Short version: therapy, France, over-training myself into such a state of injury that I just had to stop, growing up).
Now, it makes me very sad to hear strong, healthy, beautiful friends publicly berating themselves for being too fat, and too lazy, and swearing that they’re going to just stop eating tomorrow, after they take 3 fitness classes in a row;  to witness male reporters thoughtlessly telling talented actresses that they should put some clothes on because they’re just not pretty and skinny enough to look at naked; to have to end a relationship upon discovering that the other party is so vain and controlling that he thinks he’s being helpful in telling me that I’d look better if my waist were smaller; to see younger women going through elaborate contortions to keep themselves covered by clothes and towels in the changing room because they’re so self-conscious about not looking “fit” and “strong” on their way to the damned shower…The ads for our gym, the fitness magazines that everyone reads at the gym, tv, movies, social media, the occasional date, and voices within ourselves are all telling us that if we live full lives nourished by work, culture, friends, family, travel, dance, and the occasional really, really delicious meal—that we’re not being committed or disciplined or deprived enough to be beautiful.

Ought the collective self-esteem of relatively privileged North Americans to be the top priority for feminists, in the grand scheme of things? No—and yes. Of course, the pressure I feel to “have a better beach body by May!” is minor compared to the systemic discrimination that women still encounter in western culture, and absolutely nothing compared to the lack of legal and social protections women in many developing cultures have. But: the choices made by publishers and marketers to sell fitness by selling insecurity and self-doubt about our appearance only work because our society still places so much value on our adherence to certain expectations about what we can and can’t do with our bodies. While a bit of subtle retouching there or very overt fat-shaming here might seem trivial, it’s all part of a larger system of values that undermine girls and women throughout their lives. When a young woman can’t stop thinking about how un-beautiful she is (because, I can assure you, that happens, a lot)—what is that doing to her developing sense of herself in every other facet of life, as a student, a professional, a leader, a lover, a mother? Nothing good.

So no, I’m not sure we feminists are ready to declare victory over the magazines just yet. Kantor cites an editor at Glamour who argues that “Women changed and our culture changed in general…The front lines right now are not women’s magazines.” Perhaps—but conflicts aren’t won solely through open combat (such nice imagery). As any resistance fighter knows, propaganda, control of information and images, can make all the difference in keeping a population cowed, disorganized, and neutralized—or inspired, organized, and brave enough to push back against oppression. Keep that in mind the next time you pick up a magazine, or fret about your thigh gap, or complain about your cellulite—who’s telling you you’re the wrong size, the wrong shape? What power do they have do decide that? (Hint: none, unless we let them).

*and PS—of course, men are harmed by these images, and by systemic sexism, too, no question. Check out the Good Men Project for more analysis. I’ve written elsewhere about the positive work that wellness magazines can do for male and female readers:

**The Dove Real Beauty campaign does some very positive work in trying to teach young women how to re-assert control over constructions of “beauty”—we need a lot more projects like it.


About Carol-Ann Farkas

Writer, editor, researcher, educator, and dancer. Will opine for cash, pastry, or attention.
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