Glossy Review: Teen Vogue's Your Best Body Issue

Glossy Review: Teen Vogue's Best Body Issue

Let's start with the positive stuff: Tavi Gevinson interviewing Gwen Stefani in the L.A.M.B studio? Gold. Twitter hashtag handles and Foursquare shopping guides linked into the pages? Clever. Jane Keltner de Valle's comment that "anyone who tells you high heels are an assertion of power is lying, plain and simple"? Kudos. Culture Blogger Danielle Nussbaum's 'English Muffins' column? Fun! "Thoughful, hyperarticulate, and more than a tad sardonic" cover girl Lucy Hale's advice on knowing your own worth? Priceless.

BUT "Your Best Body"? Alarm bells! Girls with body image issues will be drawn to this feature like an E! news reporter to a red carpet. Going by past readings of Teen Vogue, this is a magazine that has a low tolerance for the eating of sugary snack foods or soft drinks, is not a fan of plastic surgery (more particularly breast implants), promotes exercise by featuring gorgeous young athletes and uses ultra-tiny, ultra-tall models on its fashion pages (yes, there are "real girls", too, stylised to within an inch of their Miu Miu platforms).

So, understandably, I'm wary. It's one thing to write about body image but another to place a story on the subject within the context of a magazine that contradicts its positive messages. I hope for messages about self-acceptance, self-care and self-respect, though my personal preference is for a holistic-editorial approach that walks the talk rather than drawing girls' attention to their body angst (they don't need help there – it's in schools and ballet studios and shopping malls).

Teen girls are media-savvy enough now to know the images they see are Photoshopped, but help is always needed in the self-image (not just "body image") department (i.e. derive your self-worth from the way in which you use the talents you've been given and the relationships in your life while accepting that your body and looks might not live up to Vogue-y standards, and nor should they have to).

As with Vogue Australia's October issue feature, 'The Great Debate', which skirted around making sweeping judgements on the body issue by relaying comments from Vogue Forum, Teen Vogue's 'Go Figure' feature consists of a round-table discussion where "real girls share their thoughts on what a good body means – from ultracurvy to scary skinny (and everything in between)".

So, straight away, we get the gist: a "good body" is about its size and shape. Uh-oh.

In the lead-up to the body feature, we get a bit of an idea of what a "good body" might look like:
- a busty Guess model
- an athletic Roxy girl
- a thin Louis Vuitton model
- a pale and interesting Marc by Marc Jacobs model
- a muscly Nike girl
- Skiier (and Sports Illustrated cover girl) Lindsey Vonn
- Emmy Rossum, Jessica Stroup, Rachel Bilson, Kate Moss, Shenae Grimes 
- sweet-looking, leggy models who "don't have to break a sweat to suit up in spring's sporty gear"

To Teen Vogue's credit, there is a fashion feature, titled 'Jean Pool', showcasing "plus-size" model Alyona Osmanova (who can't be much bigger than an Aussie 8-10; US 2-4), tennis star Sloane Stephens ("having an athletic body makes it difficult to find clothes that fit perfectly"), pro-surfer Monyca Byrne-Wickey ("I'm petite"), Laura Love, model and trainee at the Los Angeles Ballet, Whitney Port, curvy singer Yasmine Villegas ("I'm not a fan of baggy jeans – they make me look bigger!") and big-busted Hayley Hasselhoff who says, "every curvy girl is different, and you really have to find what is best for you and what brings your personal style into play" (big tick!). Of note: while model Alyona is pictured full-length and close up, the other curvy girls, Hayley and Jasmine, are pictured close-up (Hayley) and sitting cross-legged (Jasmine), so we don't really get to see their bodies.

The 'Go Figure' feature opens with a double-page spread, a giant image of the svelte Blake Lively in a white bikini shot by Mario Testino with the caption, "Wish you had Blake Lively's body? Remember: everyone is built differently. Maximize your own beauty (and self-esteem) with a healthy diet and exercise."

Oh, no.

In a single page, Teen Vogue insinuates that Blake Lively has the perfect body and you do not. Compare and despair. So work harder, little lady. It's one thing to encourage sensible diet and exercise to maintain good mental/physical/emotional health and weight that's right for you, but another to make it all about beauty. And self-esteem? What does that mean exactly? How do we get it? Let's hope Teen Vogue explains.

In the roundtable, the girls are asked which celebrity has the ultimate body. "Heidi Montag has the worst body in Hollywood," says one; "Kristin Cavallari has a good shape – she's well proportioned," says another; Megan Fox used to be "girl-hot" but now she's "guy-hot" says Alex.

Rebekka hits the nail on the head with her response: "What's considered attractive is always changing. Just look at Jessica Simpson. I feel really bad for her. When she lost all that weight, people gave her a hard time for being too skinny. Now everyone is picking on her for gaining weight. She can never win."

We could end the debate just there, but there's more...

All agree that there is such a thing as being too thin and this means that you're unattractive and unnatural and look older than you really are. Too bad if you are a tall and gangly girl, like the models Teen Vogue features.

Plastic surgery? Getting a nose job, a "little tweak", is okay, but boob jobs are not. And if your face isn't pretty enough, girls, try to make up for it by having a good body.

The subject of dieting opens up a crazy can of worms. Here we learn about some of the practises girls are using to stop putting on weight, while also condemning girls who go to college and come out heavier.

Marisa has only one friend not on a diet and a classmate who takes supplements and drinks only water when they go out (but looks "pale and tired... just not healthy"); Rebekka struggled with anorexia and still has issues around eating; Sydney knows of girls who've gained weight from eating unhealthily; Marissa has noticed girls who enter college a normal weight but leave heavier as a result of "partying and drinking so much all the time".

What about polished celebrities? The girls know there's hair, makeup and styling going on behind the scenes, and that images are Photoshopped (namely Audrina Partridge's ads) and one notes that no one eats on The Hills (pointing to the power of teen observational skills... and, more importantly, the idea that they will absorb images before messages).

How do the girls maintain a healthy body image?

Sydney makes no allowances: "Teens are trying to act older and take on more responsibilities (like internships), and part of that is watching your weight and what you eat. Your parents can't always be there to help you make good choices."

Rebekka eats mostly organic food, as she feels better when she eats healthier and her mum encourages it, and Marisa believes that everyone is beautiful in their own way, but when people like Tara Reid go extreme with surgery things go wrong.

There is a strap of celebrity images called 'Variety Show' running across the second spread, as well as bursts of quotes from Serena Williams, Kelly Osbourne, Nikki Reed and author Katherine Schwarzenegger ("Having a positive attitude is a daily effort. Every morning, make a decision to think positively about yourself").

But thinking positively about yourself is, of course, not only a body-confidence thing; if your self-worth were to hinge on that, particularly when faced with the overt celebration of aesthetically "perfect" girls in society and media (whatever the ideal happens to be that season), you're susceptible to a lot of down days.

How much more empowering Teen Vogue would be if it could look past its inherent biases and demonstrate to girls that they were each created for something special and that life is about finding and pursuing exactly what that thing is... all the while finding their own unique "look", exercise activity, creative expression and friends. No time to waste talking about what we want to change about our bodies (or what celebrities should change about theirs) – there's fun to be had and much to accomplish as girls change the world.

A glossy worth spending your pocket money on?

Girl With a Satchel


Alison said...

Yay Erica! what a great review - exposing the contradictions of the mag world. Is the "healthy eating" and "controlled" eating emphasis likely to be used by susceptible people as an acceptable disguise for dieting and body control? Now not only must the body look good but be fuelled by certain types of foods- legitimating food refusal.

It is , of course, a grey area (after all we LOVE healthy eating etc) but I think you go a long way to highlighting the ambiguity in the discussions of these issues in mainstream media. And, to give the commercial world their due, they must sell advertising and the publication itself. And their sales figures are closely monitored.

So , no easy answers- but love your well written questions!

Alison xx

Julie said...

What a great review this is Erica. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. What a bundle of contradictions!