Glossy Talk: Did Glamour get it wrong?

Glossy Talk: Did Glamour get it wrong with this cover?

Given that Glamour is one of the few women's glossies on the stands that regularly puts a smile on my face, I'm a bit dispirited with the June swimsuit cover featuring models Crystal Renn, Alessandra Ambrosio and Brooklyn Decker resplendent in ultra-bright bikinis.

I don't mean to sound ungrateful, as Glamour does so many things RIGHT (and gets the kudos for it), but,
to be frank, this cover makes me feel about as fab as seeing Helena in the buff for Reebok. Super-curvy or super-skinny; the focus here is the body beautiful – ergo, let's waste more brain cells on body-bashing ourselves because we don't fit the impossible mould!

I don't like to be one to judge a book by its cover (the heart of a mag is what counts, and I'm yet to flip through the content), but don't we see enough women in swimsuits on the covers of Sports Illustrated and the various other lad-mags assaulting us from the newsstands? Why – in the era of Tina Fey, Michelle Obama and other women generally kicking it, as evidenced by the magazine's annual 'women of the year' issue – must a mainstream women's magazine feel the need to produce a cover that's as likely to be fawned over by men as picked up by women?

Granted, it's the SWIMSUIT issue, which would make swimwear befitting. But we were making progress here, guys (gals, girls, ladies, gents...). Is there a major difference between choosing to put busty airbrushed models on the cover and waif-like models – they are both still ideals few real women can achieve.

The point being: magazine covers may be about aesthetics, but since when are aesthetic norms set in stone (or, indeed, in the stone age)? When did it become okay for women's mags to start objectifying women again? Is this just representative of how far we've NOT come since feminism, or just how lazy we've become about asserting its values?

Journalist Fenella Souter's rather scathing appraisal of women's progress for Good Weekend (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 1, 2010), is one of many recent articles to take stock of 60 years of feminist literature, including Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth (which "declared that the new bondage for women would be the feverish pursuit of an impossible ideal of beauty, endlessly promoted by television, women's magazines, ads and pornography"), and its affect on society. Unfortunately, the diagnosis is not good. She writes (this merely an excerpt in a pleasing 10-page feature validated by statistics, anecdotal evidence and first-person opinion):

"The larger culture, from gyrating g-strings on MTV to the proportion of women at a CHOGM conference, shapes the way women are viewed and view themselves. Right now, the vision seems to be as 'empowered' eye candy. Feminism has had many attempts on her life, but the latest is to shove the hoary old dame into retirement by telling her she's no longer required. Apparently, women have achieved such completely equal status, it's safe to go back to celebrating our 'femininity' and our sexiness, source of the new empowerment. Phew! At last! Back to the traditional role of sex object, even if it does come with some confusing added duties: working twice as hard at the office; striving to be a domestic goddess at home; attempting to 'man-up'... all the while hobbled in 12-centimetre heels or clad in lingerie."
(Or "Beyonce Bootie Shorts"?)

I fear that "enlightened sexism" – described by author Susan J. Douglas as the phenomenon by which "true power has nothing to do with economic independence or professional achievement" but everything to do with "getting men to lust after you and other women to envy you" – or some variation of the concept, is exactly what most women's magazines are peddling. Poo to that. I love clothes, I like to feel "pretty" (not necessarily in a visual sense; I feel prettiest when I've performed some act of kindness or love), but I would like not to be assessed on the shape of my butt in a bikini – by myself or by others.

CLEO writer Nicole Elphik recently penned a story titled 'Is body love missing the point?', which ran amongst fashion pages with hot skinny models (the online version runs with an image of a model in a bikini). As these stories do. Still, props to CLEO for canvassing this editorial territory. Author Emily Maguire (Your Skirt's Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice) is quoted:

"As a society, we have yet to break free of the ancient, patriarchal view of women as decorative objects and status symbols for their male counterparts... It's now widely accepted that women can think and work and achieve as much as men, but we're supposed to do these things in addition to being decorative – not instead of... I think we need to ask ourselves why beauty is valued more than any other trait. Why is it considered important for me to love my body? Of course, hating the way you look feels terrible, but the remedy isn't necessarily learning to love your appearance...

Un-retouched photos of models or professionally shot images of 'ordinary' women are exercises in objectification. They invite us to judge the women in the pictures – even if we're encouraged to celebrate or admire the women, it's still a judgment based on how they look. [The images] ask us to compare ourselves to the bodies in the pictures, and again, even if the stated intention is to make us feel better about our bodies, the fact remains that they perpetuate the idea that how women look really, really matters...

The problem is not with idealising thinness, but
with presenting any particular body 'look' as a must-attain ideal. Telling women to be curvaceous because men love it is no better than telling women to be skinny because fashion designers make their clothes really small. It's just replacing one idealised image with another. Instead of more examples of what 'beautiful' looks like, I think we need to hear and see more women who cheerfully – and successfully – live their lives without a second's thought about whether or not the majority of surveyed men, or some editorial random writer, thinks they're beautiful."

Perhaps this is where glossy websites and iPhone/iPad applications will help balance out the often one-dimensional version of 'being female' we're presented in the Land of Gloss: through video there's the potential to see more three-dimensional visions of women, on the streets, in the office and in their homes (and home offices), all cheerfully – and successfully – going about their lives unencumbered by itsy-bitsy bikinis.

See also:
Vogue running backwards in high heels
A feminist call to fashion arms (without sleeves)

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Anonymous said...

I loved Nicole's piece for Cleo. Totally hit the point. Snaps to Cleo for cutting through the "You can be curvy AND beautiful" bullshit. It's not about curves or thinness, or what anybody's body actually looks like. It's the way we're meant to judge every body, by whatever standard happens to be in vogue at that moment.

Kaitlyn said...

Am loving the aligment of stars that is leading to the huge number of articles on this important issue at the moment - Naomi Wolf is actually Down Under the the Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney this week, just in time for the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Beauty Myth. There was a great interview with her in last weekend's Sundal Life magazine about pornography.

Am wondering if there is anywhere online to read a copy of the Good Weekend piece - I missed it but it sounds very interesting and I can't find it on the SMH website.

Anonymous said...

Awesome piece by Nicole. Very true.

More please?!

petal said...

there does seem to be an increasing number of articles about the place of feminism at the moment. my mother is completely exasperated that i would not have counted myself as a 'feminist' - and until she forced me to read the Good Weekend article at the weekend, i guess i felt i didn't need to be concerned about feminism as i saw that all the work had already been done. what a wake up call!

beyond the statistics about salary discrepancies, how employers are still more likely to employ male graduates, and even reflecting on how the entire professional workforce is geared towards males who don't get pregnant - these are shocking, but i refuse to define my life by work so do not matter to me as much -

what really hit home was the author's comments on how women are suppressing their own progress by worrying so much more about their bodies and fashion. it's like we have built our own cages! i love shopping, my hair, magazines, etc - but from now on i will aim to cultivate my heart for others and my intelligence, and trust that these will speak louder than my appearance.

Fashademic said...

Thanks for writing this post, GWAS! I have been thinking about the same issues lately- why is our empowerment tied to our image? Even reading your next post about Miley Cyrus- she chooses to announce her coming-of-age through a repositioning of herself as a sexual being, thus linking her adult identity with her perception as an object of desire. She could have focused on extending her achievements in singing, acting, anything else- yet this is the road she chose.
I've just started reading 'The Beauty Myth' and think i need to pick up Emily Maguire's book too to think through all this some more!


Ah, today has been filled with lots of Naomi Wolf syncronicities! Last night I saw her speak about The Beauty Myth, 20 years after its release and then this evening I came across this post...

When Naomi stepped onto the stage I have to admit I was a little star struck. But within 5 minutes it couldn't be clearer that Naomi is out of touch the current state of play and how images of beauty are being produced and consumed.

We are in dire need of a new bred of critical thinkers - like yourself GWAS...

I wrote a piece about this on my blog:

I would love it if you dropped by and shared your thoughts...