Over the weekend I had a wee, 800-odd-word piece on body image published in The Sunday Telegraph's Body + Soul section (thank you, Cushla Chauhan and team for lending me your newspapery platform). The brief was to write a first-person piece reflecting on my personal body-image story, while also looking at why women are so hard on themselves and the role glossy magazines have played...
My mother's response? "Very honest but I am curious about which aunty poked you in the tummy (and the ballet teacher?)!". Truthfully, I'm not overjoyed with what I wrote – it could have packed a heavier punch or contained a more succinct message about the disabling effects of body obsession, eating disorder, perfectionism (ironic?) and absorbing the wrong media messages. But such is life. And word counts. And the constraints of writing for women's media.
While newspaper columnists often dabble in body image issues, shouting at us about the futility of aspiring to look like supermodels and stupidity of continuing to consume magazines (aka "self-hate manuals") before returning to their regular beats, those who are ensconced in women's media are constantly negotiating their stance on this complex issue.
Faced with the conflicting pressures of female interest in obtaining those golden nuggets of wisdom that will set us all free of weight issues forever and our media-fed desire to look like The Beautiful People (aided by L'Oreal) on the one hand, and being credible and responsible publications on the other (even mag hags go to journalism school), most women's mags – and women's newspaper supplements – are by nature hypocritical or, at the least, confusing (UP! Magazine has a unique mission in this regard).
Former magazine editor Marina Go talked to me for the Body + Soul piece. Though she agrees that women's magazines could widen the scope of the images they present to us, she also believes readers are discerning:
"I don’t think that writing an article about weight loss or the old chestnut of lose a dress size by Friday is dictating that that’s what you need to do. Consumers aren’t stupid. They’ll buy a magazine if they see a coverline that appeals to them. So if you’re in the mindset that you need to lose weight or you need to look more like Kate Moss or Demi Moore then you’ll by the magazine because it’s a resource."
But who's responsible for creating that mindset – that vast gap between self-acceptance and body dissatisfaction? Professor Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University told me: "There have always been beauty standards, but it has become really important to achieve that standard and appearance has become a much more important part of how we value people and ourselves. That’s really where the pity is... All our media links looks being thin and attractive with being successful and happy. So we’ve bought that whole package. The media, being everywhere, is a major contributor because it makes people think about it."
Bitching about women's media is sort of like having a whinge about your mother-in-law's propensity to make you feel about as capable as a monkey on rollerskates. She wants to improve you (ie meld you into her own image), but you are content just as you are. Good for you! But you still have to learn how to get along, because you share some common ground, and she's not going anywhere (just yet).
While change is afoot in glossy land, with editors recognising the value in lifting the self-esteem of their readers (for advertisers, surely this means a more positive brand association) and the inclusion of more encouraging stories (I found Who's story this week on Erin McNaught, pictured, to be uplifting, as was New Idea's Home And Away spread; Grazia's 'The rise of body bulling' not so much), we still have some homework to do if we're to stop from falling into 'The Body Image Trap'.
"It’s difficult to persuade people that appearance is not important, because it damn well is," says Tiggemann. "The trick is to make sure that people have a sense of other things that are also important, that are unique about them – be it sporting ability or artistic ability or being a good friend or being a generous person. So people can have a list of things that make them them that are important in addition to appearance. It’s important not to focus too much on appearance."
So maybe we should just stop talking about it and get on with the rest of the show, like Erin McNaught seems to be...?
Summing up the marie claire medias#*tstorm
Marie Claire, Madison and Magazine Dreams
Is dieting passe?
Is size zero finally over?
Girl With a Satchel