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Images of Perfection in an Imperfect World.
The power of images to influence and inform cannot be underestimated. This is especially true in contemporary society, where we are continually bombarded with images – and with the messages implicit in them. The messages they emit are far-reaching, pervasive, and overwhelming in sheer magnitude. Most importantly: they are perfect. Photographs of beauty queens and movie stars – the nearly perfect people who are the icons of society – are manipulated so that the images are of true perfection. Blemishes dissolve, complexions glow, pounds melt away, and teeth sparkle as technology works its magic.
When these images appear in the format of magazines targeted at young people, all of society should be concerned. What messages are informing the thoughts of youth today? How are they reacting? What can we do if we see that damage is being done? This paper will address that question, with a particular emphasis on the print publications aimed at girls and young women, who are statistically more apt to be bombarded with unattainable goals in the form of endless images of perfection.
The people apparently in control of these publications – particularly editors – should have the authority to control that content, to redirect and or redistribute it to present more realistic views to their readers. This is particularly when faced, as they are, with evidence that the messages they are disseminating are harmful to large numbers of young people. In the case of young women who suffer from eating disorders, that evidence is in fact overwhelming. This paper intends to demonstrate the harm that is being done to young people globally, and most especially to young women, and the responsibility of the media to be accountable for content – or at the very least, to stop airbrushing all the blemishes and imperfections they may see on original images, and present a more realistic and attainable vision of reality to those who seek it in their pages.
When Liz Jones, who was then editor of the women’s magazine Marie Claire, resigned from the magazine, it was not a sudden decision. It was, rather, the culmination of a lifetime of experiences as a female member of society, followed by years working in a business that had a great influence on females in society. Quite simply: she had had enough. She explained – publicly – the reasons she decided to step down from her position as editor at Marie Claire, and she did so with heartfelt emotion and compelling clarity. First, she described her feelings earlier that year as she sat through another season of high fashion: modeling spectacles in which all eyes are upon myriads of unnaturally thin young women – the ‘supermodels’:
For those used to the fashion industry there was nothing unusual about the shows at all. But for me it was the end, it was then that I decided to resign as editor of Marie Claire magazine. I had reached the point where I had simply had enough of working in an industry that pretends to support women while it bombards them with impossible images of perfection day after day, undermining their self-confidence, their health and hard-earned cash (Jones, 2001).
Jones goes on to explain the sequence of events that, together, resulted in her resignation. One of the most important factors was the considerable effort she had put into a campaign to effect profound change on the media’s approach to and impact on young women. The campaign was met with such vehement hostility that she found it extremely difficult to continue to be involved with this part of the industry. Just one year earlier, she notes, she had optimistic beliefs – unrealistic, perhaps – about the prospects for change: ‘I believed wholeheartedly that we could stop magazines and advertisers using underweight girls as fashion icons’ she wrote (2001). She had already proscribed articles about diets and weight-loss, which was an action that was far ahead of its time. This was clearly a step in the right direction – but she knew that it was not enough.
As part of an experiment, she decided to publish the same edition with two covers – one of size-six Pamela Anderson, and one with the fleshier – size twelve – Sophie Dahl. Marie Claire then asked readers to choose ‘between the skinny, cosmetically enhanced “perfection”, or a more attainable, but still very beautiful curvy woman’ (2001). There was – literally – no contest; Sophie Dahl clearly won the support of the readers. The reaction that followed the contest was ‘staggering’, Jones noted. A media frenzy ensued; universities wanted to include it in their course curricula; filmmakers made documentaries about it; and, perhaps most tellingly, an unprecedented number of readers reacted – and responded – with enthusiastic and overwhelming support.
However, the one group whose cooperation was most expected and most needed – other members of the industry – refused to rally. Jones found no support from her colleagues; instead, they reacted with a vehemence and aggression that both stunned and saddened her. ‘The very people from whom I had expected the most support – my fellow female editors – were unanimous in their disapproval’, Jones wrote. ‘They were my peers, friends, and colleagues I sat next to in the front row of the fashion shows. They were also the most important, influential group of women in the business, the only people who could change the fashion and beauty industry’ (2001).
Some labeled her a ‘traitor’; others suggested that she was using this campaign as some sort of clever ploy to boost circulation numbers. She was even accused of discrimination against thin models. Model agencies began to blacklist the magazine. Despite this, Jones redoubled her efforts. She even spoke publicly about her own struggles with eating disorders. From the age of eleven, she admitted, she was plagued with the eating disorder anorexia – a disorder that lasted well into her twenties. Because of this, she explained, she was very able to understand how deleterious it was for young women to subsist on ‘a daily diet of unrealistically tiny role models gracing the pages of the magazines’ that they are addicted to, as she was (Jones, 2001). Furthermore, she does not lay blame on the publications exclusively; rather, she points out that they definitely did more harm than good. If they were not the impetus that set off the disorder, the graphics she was so bombarded with seemed to encourage it: ‘the images definitely perpetuated the hatred I had for my own body’ (2001).
To test her theory, the research team at Marie Claire formed a focus group of young, bright, accomplished women. The women were asked a series of questions about their bodies, after which they were free to peruse a selected group of magazines for approximately an hour. When the hour was up, the same questions were asked – this time, the answers were very different. ‘Their self-esteem had plummeted’ Jones writes (2001). As the literature and research to be presented in this paper shows, the results of Ms. Jones informal sociological study was very close to the truth: her instincts were right on the mark. However, in hostile surroundings with little support, she was unable to follow them. It soon became clear that the tide of advertisers was far too strong a force to fight from within the industry, and she reached a point of no return: ‘I refuse to conform with an industry that could, literally, kill’ wrote Jones, a survivor.
A. Predecessors and Successors
Liz Jones was not the first woman to struggle in the name of editorial change. Along with Jones, there were her American predecessors, Grace Mirabella of Vogue, and Gloria Steinem of Ms. In her autobiography, In and Out of Vogue, Mirabella writes about receiving a virtual threat from her publishers, ordering her not to include any articles that criticised cigarette smoking. She was told there should not be even a hint that there might be medical risks associated with nicotine use – despite the fact that evidence had already been made known to the public that such risks existed. The reason for this was advertising, the lifeblood of the magazine. Millions and millions of dollars were poured into magazine advertisements by tobacco giants. This gave tobacco manufacturers a sense of power, a right to have input, or even to dictate, what made up the content of the publications they advertised in. They made it clear that any disparagement of their product – however valid – would result in their immediately pulling their advertisements and discontinuing their sponsorship (Mirabella, 1995). Unable – or unwilling – to risk this, the publishers of Vogue passed on the restrictions to Mirabella. The fact that the health of female readers – who also supported the magazine by purchasing it – might have been compromised was virtually a non-issue.
Another of Jones’ predecessors was American feminist Gloria Steinem, whose magazine Ms. was groundbreaking in a number of ways, and especially in its handling of advertisements. The editors of Ms. Magazine battled constantly with advertisers who contributed to the magazine’s coffers. Noted writer Marilyn French discusses the battles Ms. had with both Clairol and Revlon, two of its major sponsors. Both cases share similarities with the Vogue situation and are worth mentioning. Both companies withdrew their advertisements and cut off funding, each for different – but equally significant reasons.
Clairol did this after Ms. ran text that included information about medical studies that suggested the possibility of there being carcinogens in hair-dye products. Clairol, well known for its hair-care products, had regularly placed advertisements in the magazine – until a disturbing article appeared alongside them, addressing the possibility of carcinogenic content in hair dyes. The topic had already been made public, and was, in fact, the topic of congressional proceedings at the time. In addition, the possibility of cancer-causing agents was widely reported in newspapers and other publications. Still, Clairol was not pleased to have that information appear in the same publication in which it placed advertisements for that very product. The advertisements were removed.
Revlon’s reason for cutting off Ms. was slightly different, and certainly less compelling. Revlon executives were disgruntled with the appearance of a cover photograph which showed faces of women from the Soviet Union – it was the cover story, and one which they had initially supported. The subject area was something rarely written about at that time, about a populist movement in Afghanistan, and was considered quite an achievement by many, both from within and outside the industry. However, the women in the photos were not wearing Revlon products – they were not wearing makeup at all. The company found this objectionable because if the women were not wearing makeup, the cover story was not selling Revlon products(French, 1992: 171). That was enough for Revlon. The advertisements were removed.
Later on came an editor from Australia: Cyndi Tebbel, who headed New Woman Australia in 1996. For a year and a half, Tebbel focused on self-help that could not be equated with self-flagellation: she said “no” to diets, “yes” to relationship and career advice. In 1997, near the end of her leadership, she published a groundbreaking issue embracing the concept of – and featuring – large-size models. Although the original strap was ‘Fat Is Back’, the issue finally ran as ‘The Big Issue’. Sales did not plummet, but neither did they soar. Still ‘The Big Issue’ was perceived as ‘unglamorous’, and did little to win support for Tebbel’s cause. Shortly after its publication, Tebbel resigned.
There are more and more editors like this – as well as writers, designers, photographers, even fashion models themselves – who are ‘coming out’ as true supporters of women ‘as they are’. This is, no doubt, due in good part to the work of those that came before. However, they are still a minority, albeit a strong one.
B. Fashion Victims
What is it that women want? In her book Fashion Victim, editor and writer Michelle Lee raises a number of valid points as she attempts to answer this question.She speculates on what would happen if mainstream magazines began to feature plus-size, or even slightly plump models on their front covers: ‘Even if magazines showed heavier body types on a regular basis, would consumers really respond positively?’ She answers the question by explaining that in theory, we like the idea of showing realistic portrayals of ‘real’ women – but the truth is that we don’t like to see them. ‘We appreciate the idea of magazines that use larger models’ Lee asserts. ‘We’re glad they exist. We like the idea of magazines that show more “realistic” sizes. The only problem is that we don’t buy them, and then they go out of business’ (Lee, 2003: 144). She follows this statement with statistics to underscore her point. The point that truly needs to be addressed here, however, is not the fact that we don’t buy magazines that feature the truest images of our selves: but rather, the reason we don’t we buy them. Why don’t we buy them? What is wrong with these magazines that show us who we really are? Or rather: what is wrong with these images of our less-than-perfect ‘selves’?
‘With all of these studies pointing to the public’s apparent need and desire for more “realistic” body shapes, it would seem likely that magazine publishers would bow to public pressure’, asserts Lee. Apparently, the magazine publishers are one step ahead. They know that what people say is often very different from the ways in which they act. The proof, for them as well as for Lee, is in the numbers. ‘Magazine publishers know that survey respondents are more virtuous on paper than they are at the newsstand’, notes Lee. ‘Top editors and publishers know that thinner cover girls sell more issues’ (Lee, 2003: 139). The noted researcher Angela McRobbie echoes this, asserting that in Britain, ‘winning the hearts and minds of young women has become a social and political priority. There is now a hegemonic effort extended across the social field to win the consent of young women’ (2001: 201). Catering to the desires of these young women, then, means displaying covers that they want to see. The point for them is, after all, to sell – and they sell by doing what works.
What works is staying in business – but to stay in business, magazines rely on their advertisers. Because the advertisers are the ones who foot the bill, they have considerable power when it comes to dictating the content of the articles that appear alongside their ads. As French explains it, ‘makers of products for women require women’s magazines (…) to print recipes and articles on beauty and fashion to highlight their ads, and further, to promote a certain kind of beauty, food, and fashion – the accoutrements of woman-as-commodity’ (1992: 171). Advertisers are also concerned that when their products appear in women’s magazines, they will decrease in value. The association of the product with women is thought to somehow debase it: ‘Many advertisers avoid women’s magazines entirely, fearing that a product that becomes associated with women will be devalued for men. . . .To be assured of advertising revenue, women’s magazines must be vapid, contentless’ (French, 1992: 172).
C. Playing Both Sides
In addition, advertisers seem to want it both ways – they want to sell products to women, and they want to be perceived as supportive of women. Often, these two desires art at odds with each other. On a superficial level, most magazines do a good job of including titles and headlines that, on a cursory reading, appear to do both at the same time. And, as we have seen, ‘real’ women on the cover don’t sell consistently high numbers of magazines for the major publications. As sophisticated as young women may be today, they are still imprisoned in societal expectations. McRobbie asserts that ‘the now normative irony (as knowingness) which pervades the contemporary popular culture and mass media in which young women find themselves accommodated to as post-feminist high achievers, actively disallows such inclinations’ [to be themselves] (2004: 508–509). She also explains that because of their success, these young women are removed from having to face some of the more unpleasant issues that are faced daily by less fortunate female counterparts. What feels like a luxury to them – the avoidance of unpleasant realities – actually strips them of power, unbeknownst to them. ‘Daily discouraged from the requirement to think or act with courage (as a privilege of the good fortune of living in the affluent liberal west)’ she writes ‘is of course an effective means of disempowerment’ (2004: 509).
‘The last thing magazines want to do is shoot themselves in the foot by admitting that they play a role in creating negative body image’ notes Lee (2003: 140). In order to be profitable and keep their public persona intact, they work from different angles: ‘they do their best to help women break out of that mind-set. But at the same time, they can’t ignore that readers do want to lose weight (or, as most magazines now call it, “get fit”), so they’re forced to play both sides’ (Lee, 2003: 140). Hence, a single edition of a magazine – or, as the later analysis of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire will demonstrate, may contain contradictory messages on the cover, in the Table of Contents, in the advertising, and in the articles themselves.
‘All magazines are to some degree controlled by advertisers; even supposedly independent news magazines use “soft” cover stories to sell ads’, asserts French (1992: 171). This control is unavoidable, since advertising is what funds the publications in the first place. Additionally, notes French, all magazines ‘censor articles that might disturb big advertisers or the government (1992: 171). Private backing is an unrealistic solution to this problem because generally, the backers are men: ‘Women’s magazines generally cannot attract such private backing because few women have money’ (French, 1992: 171).
As a result, magazines are heavily pressured to include content that advertisers want. There is little choice in this, because to go against the wishers of those who provide the funds is to risk losing the funds – and perhaps losing the magazine as well. McRobbie underscores this point, explaining that media ‘have long been seen to be embedded in the fabric of society’ What is new about this, she asserts, is that the power exerted by the media has become stronger than ever. ‘What may be constitutively new is the degree to which media have become something with which the social is continuously being defined’ (McRobbie, 2000: 193).
The situation is exacerbated because fashion media cannot lash out against this. ‘Much of the fashion media’s lack of criticism seems to stem from its financial dependence on the industry it covers’ asserts Lee (2003: 100). She notes that ‘fashion magazines have long been among the targets of eating-disorders studies. And many of the results have been damning’ (Lee, 2003: 139). Few would argue the validity of this notion. In fact, most women – and most men as well – would not need to see evidence. The idea that media dictate the mindsets of young people is not new. In Reviving Ophelia, Feminist Mary Pipher points out that ‘the omnipresent media consistently portrays desirable women as thin’, while ‘models and beautiful women are portrayed as thinner’ – even as real women grow heavier. (1994: 216).
‘Underlying advertisers’ constraints is the fear shared by the male establishment generally, that women with a stronger self-image might no longer be willing to remain a servant class, might even unite against exploitation’ notes French (1992: 172–173). She explains that in order to keep a particular segment of the population subordinate, one must first convince the members of that segment that they deserve to be treated this way, usually because of some flaw or inferiority inherent in the group. ‘A person of an inferior group cannot be the author of her or his own life but must center on the superior group’ (French, 1992: 173).
Feminism and the Growth of Women’s Magazines
A. Women: A User’s Guide
In her volume Feminism, Femininity, and Popular Culture, British scholar Joann Hollows points out that ‘for feminist critics, girls’ magazines have been seen as significant because of their power to define and shape teenage femininities (2000: 167). She goes notes that the ways in which magazines have shaped girls’ development has shifted over the years; the impact is just as strong – if not stronger – but the means of wielding that power has been transformed. Until the 1980s and 1990s, girls became ‘hooked’ on the idea of physical seduction. Then the ‘hook’ became another form of seduction – what Hollows, McRobbie and others call ‘the seduction of buying’ (Hollows, 2000: 171). Of course, McRobbie’s extensive studies and analyses of girls’ magazines provide a wealth of material on this subject. But both the development of the magazine format and the topic of femininity are inextricably intertwined. Hollows also explains that ‘feminisms differed in their form and character in different geographical contexts. However, if we take the cases of the UK and US, we can see some similarities in feminist concerns, despite the crucial differences between the forms of feminism which were created’ (2000: 3).
It might be worthwhile, then to look into the history of the magazine itself, and to explore how, though developing in places that were geographically distant from each other, the genre ended up being very similar. American researcher Terry Poulton discusses the early days of women’s magazines as ‘the advent of a means of communication by which women could be taught what was expected of them, beauty-wise’, (1997: 30). It was, in essence, a sort of ‘user’s manual’ for women, teaching them what they wanted (assuming they all wanted the same things), and how to act in socially appropriate ways in order to get these things. There was no choice involved, because expectations at that time were rigidly set. Going against what was socially acceptable simply was not an option, and any leanings in the ‘wrong’ direction would most certainly be met with censure and/or ostracism. What Poulton refers to as an operator’s manual was, of course, the beginning of the woman’s magazine.
Of course, women had been learning these lessons for years, but never before from a standardized source that would keep them updated of changes on a timely and regular basis. The introduction of women’s magazines bestowed upon those who produced them incredible amounts of power – the power to influence women, and in myriad ways. The ways women thought, the way they acted, and of course the way they looked – were largely molded by the words and images that arrived in their monthly ‘users’ guides’. As Poulton puts it, ‘what had been missing for centuries – a way to deliver visual images to masses of potential consumers – had finally arrived’ (1997: 30).
B. From Godey’s Lady’s Book to ‘Scientifically Precise’ Fashion
Among the first women’s magazines were the U.S. publications Ladies Magazine in 1828, followed a short time later by Godey’s Lady’s Book, in the same year. According to Poulton, ‘thin was in for the first time’ with the advent of these publications. In fact, they are commonly thought to be at least partly responsible for precipitating a diet craze in the United States – the first of many (1997: 29). Poulton explains that a foreshadowing of eating disorders also appeared during this time, when an article that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book discussed the tragic story of a woman named Louise. Apparently distraught after being ridiculed for her size, she decided to take action. She embarked on a grueling – and unhealthy – reducing regimen that consisted of a single glass of vinegar each day. Apparently, it worked on one level: she did reduce her size. However, we may ask, at what price? In a matter of months, according to the story, Louise was dead (Poulton, 1997: 29–30).
In Great Britain, a comparable publication came along in 1872. Entitled The Ladies: A Journal of the Court, Fashion and Society, this publication presented fashion tips from a ‘scientifically precise’ perspective. Historian Virginia Cope explains that it also had clear political messages, with overt pieces in which the need for more political rights for women were discussed. The publication catered to upper-class London women, but appealed to middle-class women as well. The way the American publications served as ‘operator’s manuals’ for women in the U.S., so too did The Ladies for British society women. In this case, however, the guide was originally targeted at the higher classes; however, it soon became a primer for those middle-class women who wanted to rise socially. Implicit in the articles about housekeeping and fashion were lessons to the under classes in how to behave like their more elite counterparts. The ultimate hope that perhaps they would one day be accepted by them was, of course, implicit, and dangled like a carrot to keep them purchasing the magazine each month.
However, it seems that The Ladies wasn’t offering quite enough to ladies of either class: the publication did not last long, crumbling after a mere nine months. Even so, it serves as a reflection of British society at the time, which was becoming one of instability and constant flux. Whereas during the days of Queen Victoria’s reign, women’s place was thought to be at home, this gradually began to change and a type of feminism took root. As Britain became more and more industrialised, roles of men and women shifted. Similar changes took place in the United States. Publications of the time from both sides of the ocean – like The Ladies and Godey’s Lady’s Book – bear witness to this.
The power these early publications held over some women is even more significant when one considers that the artistic renderings included in them – the ‘graphics’ – were just drawings. Photography would not become a part of the process for many years: the age of photographic reproduction was still far off, so images included in the magazines were sketches of varying quality and proportion; these drawings were highly exaggerated and understood to be idealized and unrealistic. Even so, the women who read these early publications still felt their impact, and the pressure to conform was felt by many. This influence would greatly increase when actual photographs replaced the drawings as part of the deceptively seductive advertising package.
C. ‘The Camera Doesn’t Lie’
The inclusion of actual photographs in magazines heralded change a dramatic and significant change. No longer were articles accompanied by fanciful renderings of what women should look like – now there were actual, live models against which readers could measure themselves. ‘With the mistaken conviction that cameras cannot lie, it was clear sailing for what came to be called “the tyranny of fashion”’, explains Poulton. ‘From now on, women would feel obliged to remodel their body shape in favor of the prevailing silhouette’ (Poulton, 1997: 30). There was a scientific precision that photography offered, and it wielded much more power than the often whimsical and sometimes anatomically impossible renderings of a human hand. Yet photography was merely the precursor to what would come next, as magazines became inextricably bound to the world of marketing: ‘Poised on the threshold was another kind of tyranny that would be inimical to women’s ability to feel at peace with their bodies: advertising’ (Poulton, 1997: 30).
The setup was ingenious: magazines, through both text and photography, would introduce new ideas to women, particularly about ways in which they failed to meet prevailing standards. At the same time – perhaps even on the same page – would be an advertisement for a product that would help them ‘improve’ what they now knew to be flawed parts of themselves. Cinematic portrayals soon became a part of this complex process. As French points out, ‘the debasement of women in art and advertising is echoed in cinematic images’ (1992: 164). This was true then, and remains true now. Perhaps no one puts this more succinctly than the American feminist Gloria Steinem, founding editor of Ms., who breaks the process into three parts: “to create a desire for products, instruct in the use of products, and make products a crucial part of gaining social approval’ (Steinem, quoted in Poulton, 1997: 30).
D. Twiggy: Thin Becomes ‘In’
Weight-loss issues did not gain true prominence until the years following World War I. At that point, corpulence became another problem that women had to deal with. Women began to get more and more messages that indicated that extra weight was taboo. These messages were often tied in complex ways to issues of ability, intelligence, and even morality For help, Poulton explains, the typical woman would turn to magazines for help: ‘What was a woman to do if she was guilty of the new “crime” of corpulence? Why, just flip the pages of her favourite magazine until she found an article or an ad promoting the very latest in reducing schemes, potion, gimmicks, gadgets, and gizmos’ (Poulton, 1997: 33). This continual reinforcement of the message that being overweight was unacceptable left a comfortable niche for marketers of weight-reducing schemes to claim.
The introduction of Lesley Hornby signified a major change for women on both continents. The British-born Hornby – better known as ‘Twiggy’ – became an overnight international sensation. She is considered by many to be the ‘world’s first supermodel’. Twiggy’s debut onto the New York scene was another turning point. ‘Within a year after Twiggy’s debut, the editorial and advertising cheering sections at women’s magazines had shifted into high gear and added exercising to their lists of must-do’s’ explains Poulton. Thinness – as personified by Twiggy – was an absolute must, and this dictum was treated with stringent rigidity. Poulton uses an excerpt from a Mademoiselle article of the period: ‘“Creampuffs, there’s no escape. Whip yourself into super shape and stay that way”’ (1997: 45). The attitudes taken were both imperative and encouraging – not to mention confusing – and set a tone that in coming years would grow much more severe. McRobbie refers to the ‘boyish femininity of the girls’ of this period as ‘best exemplified in the early fashion shots of Twiggy’ (2000: 20).
The ‘Twiggy’ standard has not really changed much since storming the scene in the 70s. ‘The standard of beauty crystallized into a single dominant body image mandated by those who, knowingly or unwittingly, were doing the bidding of marketers’ notes Poulton (1997: 54). Styles changed radically – hot pants, hip huggers, mini-skirts, maxi-skirts – the list is endless. Throughout all this, the paradigm of thinness has remained the standard towards which women should strive. If thin was in, ‘too thin’ was even more acceptable – and encouraged: ‘In the magazines and on the fashion runways, the twirling girls grew thinner and younger by the year. . . . Meanwhile, real women were getting plumper with every technological advance that made physical labor obsolete, and with every new fat-laden food that came on the market’ (Poulton, 1997: 59–60).
Yet not all women were able to achieve this unrealistic standard, thus beginning a wave
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