Q. What do you get when you cross a naked celebrity model, an outspoken magazine editor, social commentators with strong opinions and column inches to fill, rival media organisations, angry women and a slow news week?
A. A media s#*tstorm like the one created around the Jennifer Hawkins/marie claire affair.
Nary an Aussie media outlet has ignored the issue, with TV, radio, newspapers and the web all hungrily jumping on the body image bandwagon. Some of the coverage I've come across (I am not Media Monitors, but do my best) includes:
LAST WEEK (starting Sunday Jan 3)
- The Sunday Telegraph's 'Jennifer Hawkins poses for nude magazine picture'
- 'Jennifer Hawkins strips to promote positive body image', The Sunday Herald-Sun)
- Melissa Hoyer's Q&A with Jackie Frank
- 'Body image foundation defends nude Jennifer Hawkins cover', The Age
- Bianca Dye's Today show appearance
- Mia Freedman's response @ mamamia.com.au
- 'Jackie Frank hits back at critics over unretouched Hawkins cover' @ mUmbrella
- Grazia Daily's blog response
- The Cut's 'Does a Naked, Unretouched Supermodel Promote Positive Body Image?'
- Pacific Magazines stablemate Famous's one-page advertorial-style feature
- Lisa Pryor's column, 'Flawed logic behind images made to comfort the average woman' for SMH (A+ reading)
- Andrew Hornery's 'Hawkin' a message or chasin' publicity?'
THIS WEEK (starting Sunday Jan 10)
- Sports writer Jessica Halloran's 'Body of opinion is weight doesn't matter', The Sunday Telegraph (another A+ read: where art thou link? A snippet: "We all just need to suck up to the fact that Jen looks like she does because she is genetically blessed and works hard for that fit rig of hers. Don't get angry with Jen – get mad with Jackie Frank... As women have made weight into a paralysing and ugly thing, it is we who need to change it.")
- Ricki-Lee Coulter's bikini-clad response in Woman's Day.
- Grazia editor Alison Veness-McGourty's response in her editor's letter ("Jennifer Hawkins has apologised, although God knows why, after her nakedness on Marie Claire's cover. Ridiculous... will there be another new women's committee of C-list commentators fretting about image, and telling us what's acceptable, again."). Nice to see some glossy comradeship, though McGourty would be wise to side with Frank given her magazine's love of a skinny model/celebrity (see this week's pics of Rachel Zoe in her bikini!)
- And, lastly (but not for long!), Melissa Hoyer's 'Naked Backlash' column in this week's Grazia ("The rationale of the cover shoot was about 'raising awareness', but of what? Awareness of the fact none of us looks like that?")
All this adds up to ka-ching! for marie claire and major PR Brownie points at Pacific Magazines. But is the publicity doing more damage than good for marie claire's favour with female readers (as represented by the 483-and-counting responses @ mamamia.com.au), or does it simply reflect the glossy's positioning as a "magazine of contrasts"; a money-making business enterprise reliant on covers with "cut-through" that "stimulate debate" targeted at thinking women of the world who should know better than to get glum over a picture of a model?
For a marketing move designed to promote positive body image, marie claire has attracted a lot of negativity – and, most disappointingly, The Butterfly Foundation has been caught up in the crossfire. Regardless of marie claire's intentions to donate funds raised from the sale of Hawkins' images (to whom, I'm not sure – your 15-year-old brother?), The Butterfly Foundation has become the unintentional whipping girl. As Lisa Pryor wrote:
"The most important work on improving the self-esteem of young women will never happen inside magazines designed to make women feel insecure so they will buy stuff. Such compromised publications should not be mistaken for champions of the psychological health of young women. Perhaps we should not expect more from a publication such as marie claire. But still, you have to wonder, what is the Butterfly Foundation doing, lending credibility to such a flawed and publicity-seeking initiative?".
Two things: it's my understanding that The Butterfly Foundation, like Myer, was not fully informed about the Hawkins shoot from the get-go. If they had been, things might have turned out a little differently. But now they are involved, they have to grin and bear the consequences. Secondly, why should any media be let off the hook if it appears to be doing a disservice to the public/consumers? Why do the glossies get off with an "I have my periods, can't do sport today" note when other media is beholden to Fourth Estate standards?
Developing Girlfriend's Self Respect campaign with then-editor Sarah Oakes (just down the hall from marie claire!), we spent a significant number of hours consulting various experts in the field of body image (namely Dr Jenny O'Dea of The University of Sydney, Dr Rick Kausman, and also The Butterfly Foundation) before implementing the best policy we could come up with, which encompassed everything from the images we would use, a self-esteem boosting approach to editorial and encouraging more positive self-talk in the office. More than three years on, the campaign is still in action, and readership numbers are impressive, so something must be working.
I really don't buy into the idea that the bar has been set and nothing can change. As much as glossies set the agenda and 'just give readers what they want', the Zeitgeist has clearly shifted and readers, like Jessica Halloran, who concludes her Sunday Telegraph piece by telling us her New Year's resolution is to "give up my masochistic habit of reading all those magazines and to aspire for things other than losing two kilos", will turn away if the glossies don't embrace a new (possibly money-making!) editorial agenda based on making women feel great. It's not just for teens, but for thinking 'women of the world', too.
See also: 'A Feminist Call to Fashion Arms' - the evolution of the size zero story.
Girl With a Satchel
P.S. Speaking of thinking women of the world, did anyone else see the irony in Kate Ellis, the youngest ever Federal Government Minister who has spearheaded the Body Image Advisory Board, being pictured in her bikini on the pages of The Sunday Telegraph? She tells Women's Health magazine (another marie claire stablemate going great-guns in the sales department): "Everyone has fat or ugly days, and I'm certainly no different in that regard. But it has to come back to the fact that it's not the most significant thing. My appearance isn't the top of the list; it's not what makes me feel good about who I am." Now there's a bona fide champion of positive body image we can all aspire to be like. Women's Health's February issue, featuring Ellis, is conveniently on sale today.