Notes on fashion, style and culture

Friday, 13 July 2012

Magazines and the female body

As reported across various media outlets over the past few days, a group of young female activists, going under the name Sparksummit – (a group demanding the end of the sexualisation of young girls and women in the media) are petitioning Teen Vogue to stop using airbrushing in its photoshoots featuring young models. The girls amassed 28,000 signatures which they delivered to Teen Vogue’s headquarters at the Conde Nast building in Times Square, whilst staging a protest outside the building to deliver their petition. The girls marched up and down a makeshift runway, holding placards with messages such as ‘Let's get real - all girls are beautiful’, and ‘Teen Vogue – #KeepitReal’.

Teenagers protest outside Teen Vogue HQ in Times Square
One of the teenagers, Emma Stydahar, 17, from New York, declared ‘I don't think girls should grow up in a world where beauty magazines dictate they should have a low self-esteem’. She referred to the often quoted statistic taken from an academic survey by Pinhas and colleagues in 1999, where he reported that seeing pictures of magazine models, increased depression and anger scores among a female sample.

According to Stydahar, 75 per cent of girls get depressed within three minutes of flicking through a beauty magazine’s pages because the images of beauty they portray as ideal are simply unattainable.
‘Images that have been photoshopped have a bad effect and can really hurt young girls. We’re looking for more diversity of girls and body types [in these publications]’ Stydahar claims.

Socio-cultural theories of eating disorders have implicated the media in the promotion and maintenance of eating disorders, due to the fact that the media portrays an ultra-slender body image that is unattainable by many women. In fact, research has shown that since the 1950s the ideal female body as characterised by models, actresses and beauty queens has consistently decreased in body weight whereas evidence indicates that real women’s body weight has steadily increased since the 1950s. This means that the actual and ideal female body image in our culture is markedly increasing.

Was a healthier body image promoted in the 1950s?
Magazine pictures and newspaper columns devote huge amounts of space to the strict diets of celebrities – in fact, whole publications. We are bombarded with images of a glamorous world that does not tolerate imperfection, particularly the avoidable imperfection of fatness. As a result, in recent years it has become ‘politically correct’ for the media to make some effort to combat eating disorders. Magazine articles featuring the perils and heartbreak of anorexia and bulimia are common. However, their message seems weak, insincere and ineffective when presented in its usual context. How can we believe that a fashion magazine is truly motivated to combat anorexia when their articles about the subject are surrounded by advertisements featuring anorexic-looking models?

And so, the overly thin models persist, as do the fashion industries excuses as to why a boyish body looks best in women’s clothes. The result is an environment where women are compelled to hate their bodies. As a result, particularly among vulnerable adolescents – the urge to be thin can outweigh all other aspirations.

Western society, the media and the fashion industry perpetuate the myth that being thin is not only desirable but that it will make you happier, more successful, a better person. The message from the media and society is that being slim will solve all problems and iron out all contradictions.

Can we ever be too thin?
The differences between media images of happy, successful men and women are interesting. The women with few exceptions are young and thin. Thin is the zenith of desirability. Successful men, on the other hand, are powerful: physically, socially and economically. For men in the media, thin is not desirable; power is desirable. Thin men are skinny, and skinny men are depicted as weak and frail. Much of masculine allure and consequently self-esteem is linked to power. Consequently, men constitute only five to 10 per cent of anorexia sufferers.

So when it comes to men and women improving themselves, a man will begin by lifting weights to make himself bigger, stronger and more powerful. A woman will begin with a diet to make herself smaller, weaker and less powerful. As a result of slender body image bombardment by the media, anorexia nervosa has been arguably described as an extension of determined dieting. In May 1999, research was published that demonstrated the media’s unhealthy effect on some women’s self-esteem and body awareness. In 1995, before TV came to the island of Fiji, the image of a woman’s ideal body was round, plump and soft. After 38 months of American TV shows, Fijian teenage girls showed serious signs of eating disorders. In another study, females who regularly watch TV three or more nights a week are 50 per cent more likely to feel ‘too big’ or ‘too fat’.

Are we a society obsessed with thinness?
There is no doubt that in modern society, there is a clear message that women should be thin. This message is beamed to every woman who watches TV, reads magazines or goes to the movies. According to experts in eating disorders, girls growing up in our society are made aware as early as five years old that adequacy, and thus acceptance, means thinness. This message is reiterated not only by the media but also by mothers and older sisters worrying about gaining weight.

It is argued that it is inherent in femininity to try to be alluring to men in order for the species to reproduce. When more corpulent women were desirable in centuries past for example, women aspired to this ideal. In our society, it is the woman with the least amount of fat tissue that is considered the most alluring. It is suggested that females are more preoccupied with the presentation of the social self. Beauty is seen as central to identity and a predicator of self-esteem.

Attractiveness is central to ‘femininity’ and is a billion-dollar industry. The standards aimed at are hardly ever achieved. In the world of women’s magazines, beauty is an unachievable ideal which fuels consumption. As Marjorie Ferguson points out in her study of women’s magazines, the ideology of beauty, ‘presents the desirable as though it were possible; second only to messages of female obligation to maximise physical attractiveness, are promises of its attainability'.

Are magazines promoting an unattainable body image?
Stydahar and her fellow activists were part of a similar demonstration outside the offices of Seventeen magazine in May, when a 15,000-signature petition requesting the magazine to promise one un-photoshopped spread a month was delivered to the magazine's editor-in-chief Ann Shoket. The petition quickly gained support after the Seventeen magazine action and ended with more than 84,000 signatures. In Seventeen’s August issue, the editor promised to limit photo-editing to things like stray hair and spots, but not bodies. She also said the magazine would post ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures on the magazine’s Tumblr.

‘We’re focusing on Teen Vogue now, and then we’ll see what happens,’ said Stydahar. Teen Vogue has an audience of more than 3.5 million readers, 93 per cent of whom are female. Outside their offices on Wednesday, the makeshift catwalk demonstration was meant to show the magazine what kind of girls they would want to see on the cover of the popular fashion magazine. However, on meeting the editors of Teen Vogue in a sit-down meeting, the girls did not get the response they were hoping for. In an official statement, Teen Vogue said it felt it was being ‘unfairly accused’. The statement claims that ‘Teen Vogue makes a conscious and continuous effort to promote a positive body image among our readers. We feature healthy models on the pages of our magazine and shoot dozens of non-models and readers every year and do not retouch them to alter their body size. Teen Vogue pledges to continue this practice.’ The magazine’s adult-targeted inspiration, Vogue, announced in May that it would only use models who are aged over 16 years and who, based on the editor’s judgment, do not have eating disorders. The girls said their reason for targetting Teen Vogue, was simply because they see the magazine as the leader in its teen-targeted field, with the most power to affect change.

‘Revenge Dieting’ on the cover of OK 
Their critics however, feel otherwise. It has been suggested that it is too simplistic to draw a link between fashion imagery and mental health problems. The suggestion is that it is also patronising to women to suggest that they cannot take magazine images at face value – and see airbrushed images for what they are. This is undoubtedly true.  However, it does not undermine the fact that certain images today are presented to us as an ideal. The job of a fashion magazine is not to peddle escapism, as some suggest, but to sell us a lifestyle, and promote current trends and fads. The aesthetic zeitgeist is no doubt moulded by the media, of which fashion magazines play a significant role. Not so long ago, the female ideal was promoted by curvier models such as Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell – the era of the ‘Glamazon’ supermodel was the height of beauty – and the ideal form was portrayed as being curvaceous, with breasts, hips and a well defined waist. A recent article in Yahoo referred to an advert from the sixties which purported to help women to gain pounds and gain ‘sex appeal’. In this day and age, one would be hard-pressed to find ‘sex appeal’ linked to ‘gaining weight’.

Did 90s supermodels promote a healthier body image?
 So how do these things change? It’s not that your average person wakes up one day and decides being rail thin is where it’s at. These trends are promulgated and promoted by fashion – and magazines are one of the ways fashion houses disseminate their message to the wider public. This is then promoted by celebrities, on TV and through Hollywood etc. When these very powerful organisations which are looked upon as embodying and displaying the zenith of the ideal lifestyle, beauty, fashion etc, decide to peddle only one particular type of aesthetic, then it is little wonder that if not all, then some of the consumers of these magazines begin to subscribe to the aesthetic put forth by these outlets. Thus to pretend that fashion magazines have no influence on their readership is disingenuous to say the least.

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