Mags: Raising the bar on body image

Glossy Talk

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...?

See also:
Summing up the marie claire medias#*tstorm
Marie Claire, Madison and Magazine Dreams
Is dieting passe?
Is size zero finally over?

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel

11 comments:

Alannah said...

Hi Erica, I read your article in Body and Soul yesterday and i really enoyed it. I thought it was honest and brave and REAL not like as you say "magazines who contradict themselves" by running "body image specials" then hiring a stick thin model for their photo shoot. I also like how you wrote a review of it here later. It's like a "behind the scenes" look on what you were thinking when you wrote it. Thanks. :D

Miss Simplicity said...

Hey Erica, is there a link to your article somewhere? I didn't get to read it on the weekend and would like to take a peek... am v. interested in what you write.

Ronnie :)

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Hi Miss Simplicity,
Simply click the image to enlarge and read/print out.
Thanks for taking an interest!
Cheers,
Erica

B said...

Hi Erica,

I read the article and also noticed your name in Cleo and Cosmo this month, which is always nice to see. Just curious, the B&S article said you were a former magazine editor - I'm not familiar with your career, which one was it may I ask?

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Hi B, I was deputy editor of Girlfriend magazine before going freelance - for some reason, subs always write this up as "a former magazine editor", which is a bit of a misnomer. You can check out the 'About Me' section in the sidebar for credentials.
Cheers,
Erica

B said...

Thanks for your response. I'll go check out that section now!

Anonymous said...

Hi Erica,
daily visitor to your blog. I just wanted to say that i read the erin mcnaught article and actually found it a bit upsetting. you see pics of her on the beach and in the social pages and she is TINY. i find this similar to the naked hawko thing.. 'lets all just be real (but it really helps if you are a hot model!!!)'. this is by no means an attack on Erin - i think she is gorgeous and i'm sure she is lovely, but if she has 'let herself go' as she implies in the story, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
best,
Chloe x

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Hi Chloe,

Get where you're coming from. I suppose what I appreciated about the Erin McNaught story was the idea that she had relaxed her routine and acknowledged that her body issues were tied into resolving her emotional ones.

Of course, it is hard to digest positive body role-modelling c/o an actual model. She's but one body in a sea of female body types. Again, we come back to diversity - which we are seeing a little more... but as far as the glossip magazines go, there are only two types: slim celebrities or weight-challenged reality TV stars intent on losing weight. Which all adds up to a totally warped perception of what's normal.

Fantastic story on this here:
http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2798683.htm

Cheers,
Erica

Anonymous said...

Erica,
Thankyou so much for your reply and the link. Great article and very much appreciated. You make an excellent point and at the end of the day if it gets us talking about these issues then i am happy. I have worked in mags for years and have also struggled with an eating disorder and disordered eating so i see the problem from both sides. it's a tricky one (understatement!) and i'm just thankful that you have created this forum where we can discuss these issues.
Best,
Chloe x

Anonymous said...

Erica,

I immediately searched for your fabulous blog as soon as I read this article the other weekend. I was very moved by your experiences as I have been suffering from an eating disorder since the end of highschool (going on 4-5 years now). There are times when I am on top of the world, I feel strong, I practice yoga and exercise and have a delicious nutritious diet, but then I'll have things that will trigger me and make me revert to my destructive eating disorder ways. I also live in Brisbane and was wondering if there with a nutritionist or someone you could reccommend that I could try (preferably naturopathic as I am against drugs).

Thanks so much for your help, and keep up your great, inspirational work!

p.s. If you don't want to publish someone's name on your blog, I could email you to email me the name.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Anonymous, re. a Brissie based naturopath - I don't have one, as I'm based on Mount Tamborine. However, perhaps someone else out there will? Thank you for commenting.
Cheers,
Erica