Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How about a healthy dose of body image, and a side of fries with that?

After swearing off fashion magazines in my junior year of college (though I can't deny an occasional glimpse in the supermarket), I recently received a free subscription to Vogue. This month, Vogue's special anniversary cover features Lady Gaga, who admits that she used to throw up all the time because she wanted to be thin. Today I learned that Lady Gaga and I have something in common: I also used to throw up all the time because I wanted to be thin- just like the girls in my Seventeen Magazine

While I don't know if Lady Gaga still struggles with bulimia, I do know that she looks thin in magazines. Vogue’s depiction of her thin waist and hourglass figure in a skin-tight fuchsia dress, is what millions of young women around the world idealize as beautiful. Unfortunately, many rely on the same self-destructive eating disorders that I once did, to achieve this look. According to US News, 1 in 50 American women ranging from ages 15-24 is bulimic. Given that fashion magazines perpetuate unhealthy ideals of beauty, and are largely responsible for the high rates of distorted body image described below, I argue that they are inherently anti-feminist.

Two months ago the Huffington Post featured an article on Julia Bluhm, the courageous teenager who led a petition for Seventeen Magazine to portray girls truthfully. Bluhm, along with 84,000 signatories requested that Seventeen publish a single unaltered photo spread each month, as a true representation of what teenagers look like. To Bluhm's surprise, Seventeen's editor-in chief, Ann Shoket, announced the magazine's commitment to a Body Peace Treaty, promising to preserve natural body shapes and only rely on Photoshop for the occasional "stray hair, clothing wrinkle, errant bra strap or zit." Hold your applause ladies- there is a caveat: the magazine will continue to manipulate images, but feature before and after comparisons on Seventeen's Tumblr page for full transparency. I can't help but wonder how many more girls read the magazine than visit the Tumblr page.  

While the images found on Seventeen's Tumblr may be free of digital doctoring, they certainly do not celebrate all the shapes and sizes that Shoket promised. Scrolling through the first fifteen pages, I identified only three women who appeared to don the average sized eight to ten pant and medium blouse. The rest were quite thin, among the likes of Kylie Jenner (of the Kardashian enterprise), Shay Mitchell (of Pretty Little Liars), and recently skinny Jordin Sparks, who shed fifty pounds in the last year. Regardless of any digital enhancement software, the images that Seventeen publishes on its website communicate one thing: skinny is desirable.

Despite her recent triumph, Julia Bluhm is no pioneer in the campaign against the distorted body image propagated by magazines and commercial media. In 2011, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a policy to encourage advertisers to work with organizations concerned with child and adolescent health, to develop guidelines for advertisements, especially those that are teen-oriented. But what about us adults?  Despite my twenty-seven years of "wisdom," and my better judgement against the "beauty" portrayed in the latest Photoshopped Charlize Theron ad by Dior, I am by no means impervious to the subliminal effects these images have on my own perceived body image. It seems I am not the only one.

In 2009 Glamour Magazine conducted a body-image survey, recording 16,000 women's sentiments about their bodies. Glamour found that 40 percent of women surveyed expressed discontent with their bodies. The results of the poll are introduced with this statement:
We at Glamour think your body is fantastic. Tall and gangly, small and busty, muscular, curvy, soft or sinewy—we celebrate it all... Trouble is, too many of you don’t. Twenty-five years after our first major body-image survey, 16,000 women took our new poll—and admit they still have some issues. 
I have a hard time accepting this statement as genuine from a magazine that has also published articles called: "Calling All Hungry Girls! 4 Healthy Foods That Will Keep You Full Longer," and "Experts Say Anyone Can Lose Weight on a 1,200-Calorie-a-Day Diet--But What Exactly Does It Look Like?" Keeping in mind that these articles are featured alongside the same Photoshopped images that Julia Bluhm protested, I am not surprised by the poll's results (assuming Glamour only polled its own readers).  

In a nationwide survey by David Garner of Psychology Today, 56 percent of women indicated that they were dissatisfied with their appearance. Garner attributes this partially to the fact that "induction into our culture's weight concerns is happening... at younger ages." He also states that it is easy for young girls to look outside themselves to discover who they are, yet, they lack buffers to protect their psyches, which are vulnerable to the images on magazine racks.  

At age eleven my grandmother admonished me for buying into the deceit of fashion magazines. She told me that me that since her own youth, women have bought magazines and condemned themselves for not being as beautiful as "that false haired Marilyn Monroe," when in fact they were just as stunning as Norma Jeane. I thought my grandma just didn't get it, but apparently neither did I. Grandma understood where true beauty resides, and it certainly is not behind the cover of Vogue, or any other magazine. Fashion magazines do not celebrate or empower women: instead, they break us down, cause self-hatred and instigate eating disorders.   I'll be cancelling my subscription.


KSergent said...

Great blog! I wholeheartedly agree that magazines have contributed to the body image crisis facing women today. Not only do magazines Photoshop women to make them appear skinnier, they also Photoshop out cellulite, freckles, and a myriad of other “defects.”

I will always remember a tabloid cover that I saw in the supermarket with a picture of Kim Kardashian and a caption that read, “I have cellulite! So what!” She was responding to paparazzi photos of her in a bathing suit that another magazine had shown. The fact that Kim even felt the need to respond to critics commenting negatively about her cellulite shows the pressures that all women face to fit the “beauty mold.”

I also agree with your point that young women are facing these pressures at an earlier age. I know my eleven-year-old sister has come home crying because of comments that girls from school made about her weight. I think more needs to be done to educate children at school (in the same way that kids learn sex ed.) to help foster positive body image and self-esteem before young women get their hands on these magazines.

Pali said...
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KRB said...
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KRB said...

Great post! I also agree that women's fashion magazines and tabloids contribute to the eating disorder epidemic among American women. 

While I have never struggled with an eating disorder, I have several female friends who have- one ended up at Stanford Medical Center because her blood pressure dropped dangerously, another suffered from anorexia athletica (meaning that she was burning more calories exercising than she was consuming daily), and yet ANOTHER who is a dancer/singer/actress constantly struggles with her body image and the pressure to stay thin.

I came across a really refreshing post on Facebook last night- a young woman I went to high school with who works for a major fashion brand posted a photo of a few models that were auditioning for their upcoming runway shows. The comment that accompanied the photo said something along the lines of: "This is not hot! Go eat a damn burger!" It is nice to know that there are women in the industry that agree this portrayal of women is a problem.

CET said...

After having my first child less than two weeks ago, I am finding, for the first time in my life, I am comfortable with (and maybe even proud of) my body's imperfections. The fascinating changes my body went through during pregnancy combined with the empowering experience of childbirth, have given me a new appreciation for my body. I am looking forward to when many of the changes fade, like the bright stretch marks and a squishy belly. I am finding it easier, however, to accept these changes when I keep in mind the incredible changes my body has gone through and the child it ultimately produced.

Unfortunately, issues with body image seem to get worse after women have children. Society expects women's bodies to shift back to their pre-pregnancy state much quicker than is healthy. After doing some research on getting back in shape after pregnancy, I found many women are looking for quick fixes to get rid of their bellies (which cannot be done safely until the uterus returns to pre-pregnancy size - a whopping 6 weeks postpartum).

There are some exceptions. Websites like "The Shape of a Mother" feature real women who blog about the changes their bodies went through. They post photos of their stretch marks, bellies, and C-section scars.

Although I am looking forward to getting back in shape, for now, I'm quite content with my body. I plan to stay away from websites and magazines touting quick fixes for new moms. Instead, I will be kind to my body and thankful for the changes it went through that brought my son into the world.

Sam said...

"This is not hot! Go eat a damn burger!"

This is deeply problematic. It still objectifies women by policing and criticizing their bodies. It may be more inclusive, but it still excludes. The question we should be asking ourselves is not what our standard of beauty should be, but why we have a standard of beauty at all? Since beauty is inherently subjective, promoting any “standard” of beauty promotes a false view of the world.

Elizabeth said...

Advertisers are fully aware of the negative impact on self-esteem that fashion magazines produce. This is how they sell products. A reader sees the image of a glamourous, thin model wearing that perfect shade of lipstick, and then is supposed to make the connection that if she buys the lipstick she will be equally beautiful.

Honestly, I am shocked that ONLY 40% of women surveyed expressed discontent with their bodies. I feel like I have never had a female friend who did not make some remark about some part or aspect of her body. Average-sized girls want to be thinner. Thin girls want bigger breasts. The list goes on...

Pathetically, this is how girls bond sometimes. I remember having a conversation in high school with a girl on my cross-country team and bragging about not eating dinner very often. This was something I was proud of. I also remember being sent home from practice because I didn't eat lunch and I was getting dizzy. Thinking back on this makes me very sad.

Personally, I definitely feel worse about myself after reading some of those magazines, even the ones that are supposedly about "health" rather than fashion. Sadly, this appears to be something that most of us will not outgrow. We can only hope to work on ourselves and try to protect our children from the same fate, despite the media's efforts to infect our brains with low self-esteem and the resulting desire to buy ourselves into feeling better.

tzey said...

Whenever I look at those magazine I always think of how sexualized they make me feel. I always read something along the lines of "how to please you man" its like not only do you have to adhere to traditional images of beauty but you also better be enthusiastic about sex (only as far as pleasing a man though) or else how dare you even call yourself a cosmo girl!

Charlene said...

In my junior year in college, I was asked by my friend, to take around her friend, Barbara, around campus. I agreed because I had a free weekend, little did I know what I would be doing.

Turns out Barbara is the main scout of men's Calvin Klein models (for the runway, not magazines - which for those who don't know - I certainly didn't before this weekend, require completely different body types). The weekend was eye-opening to say the least. She was scouting college campuses for fresh faces for the Calvin Klein's Winter Collection 2006.

The process was this: she approached a young male who looked between the ages of 18-22, between 5'11" and 6'2", and who was relatively good-looking. As you can imagine, on a college campus we ended up approaching a lot of people.

If selected by the top, they would be flown into Milan, Italy for a weekend to walk down the catwalk for a show.

And so ensued a surreal life experience for me, which is another story. What I want to highlight here though, are some of the truths of the industry that up until then I had no idea about.

For one thing, most magazine models are young girls between the ages of 13-15 who are dressed up and made up to look older. Why? Because older girls physically cannot have the rail-thin body types we've come to admire.

For another, it was shocking how easy it was to identify potential male models on the street. In a weekend, we approached about a seventy candidates. In that time span, I saw maybe one or two women that would have fit the the bill for a female runway model. Our ideal, at least in that sense, is not the anything close to default, but more a physical impossibility.

Sarah said...

I think voyeurism is more harmful to women than it is to men - and therefore, magazines like GQ or Men's Health affect men differently than Vogue or Glamour affect women. This may be in part because men's magazines focus on men's needs, and women's magazines focus on men's needs...which leaves what left over for us? Too many pictures of our kids and pets masquerading as us on facebook. I also think that the photoshopping of women's images is out of control, and not just in fashion magazines. It isn't enough that they are showcasing women who reflect an ideal attainable by maybe 2% of the population? They have to make them look even less womanly (human?) to be beautiful?

Sarah said...

Pali said...

As much as I agree with this blog, I know as their is a push to empower women and break the mold of the waif-like model, I actually know more guys with body image issues than girls. Most of my girlfriends, as much as they like to complain about their bodies, they aren't really doing anything about it, especially nothing harmful to themselves like not eating or throwing up, whereas many guys I know are taking supplements to bulk up and maintain a certain body image perpetuated by the media. It is a strange evolution I think I have seen through the course of my own life. When I was 5 I never thought anything of a man with a slight potbelly; now only a magazine like six pack is impressive.