The Instagram photo (Right) at the centre of the 'Photoshop' accusation storm.
As tempting as it is to daydream about rolling around in mountains of money and snorting Valium in your own private jet, I don’t think I’d really want to be a female celebrity for anything in the world. Maybe not even if it meant I could have Ryan Gosling’s baby. Because for all their money and privilege, female celebrities are treated like trash. It must be so confusing to live in a world where your behaviour and bodies are policed so rigorously and yet where you can also expect punishment whenever you play exactly by the rules as they’ve been laid out.
Oh wait, we already live in that world. The only difference is that when famous women stray from the strictly defined roles prescribed to them, their humiliation comes less in waves and more in a giant tsunami.
Recently, Beyonce Knowles uploaded some photographs of herself enjoying a relaxed birthday on a yacht. But lo! Was there TREACHERY afoot? Eagle eyed social media users, intent as they were on liberating the TRUTH from the dark and hostile wasteland Beyonce had buried it in, wasted no time in pointing out some of the virtual nip/tuck the musician had undergone. Tabloid websites latched on to the images feverishly, appearing to enjoy enormously being able to once again humiliate and mock the women whose images are ritually exploited to gain them market share profits.
(Above: The Instagram photo at the centre of the controversy)
In a disappointing twist, one of these websites happened to be Buzzfeed. Leading with the headline, HERE IS MORE EVIDENCE THAT BEYONCE IS PHOTOSHOPPING HER INSTAGRAM PHOTOS, one could be forgiven for thinking the article itself had been puked onto a keyboard somewhere deep in the bowels of the Daily Mail’s orifice. Sadly, no. This is really happening - Buzzfeed, with all its pro-feminist tributes, combing through a famous woman’s photographs and obnoxiously circling all the times she’s ‘lied’ about what her body really looks like.
It’s not the first time a generally pro-woman website has leapt at the chance to reduce women to their body parts and throw them to the internet wolves. Heck, it’s not even the first time Buzzfeed has done it. When Jezebel offered a $10,000 bounty for unphotoshopped stills from Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot, their readers were rightly disgusted by what was seen to be a blatant attack on Dunham. No one truly believed that Jezebel was interested in using the photos to make a positive statement about Dunham or women’s bodies. Instead, it was widely regarded as a grim move designed to add to the persistent and unnecessary scrutiny inflicted on a woman whose body does not conform to the general Hollywood ideal of acceptable femininity.
Knowles’ body is more representative of that ideal than Dunham’s might be, but it’s no less scrutinised and picked apart. Nor is she absolved of the so-called ‘responsibility’ to constantly role model exemplary behaviour to young girls and women (an expectation notably not applied to famous men, even ones who beat their partners). Beyonce has an enormous amount of power (she topped Forbes rich list in June, with an estimated worth of $115 million) and society has an unfortunate problem with powerful women behaving in ways that are anything less than supportive of the status quo.
In Knowles’ case, that status quo carries a double whammy. She must represent and conform to everything that is beautiful and desirable about mainstream femininity - and do not underestimate how much of this is related to having a ‘perfect’ body - but she must also, crucially, never appear to be complicit in misrepresenting that.
The overwhelming (and necessary) focus on body image and self esteem has never quite made the transition into real social change, delivered across all platforms and instigated by the people and corporations who benefit from women’s insecurities. And so while women like Knowles are still subjected to the rules of patriarchy and capitalism, they’re also expected to channel authenticity and ‘honesty’ - to single-handedly change the world for women by refusing to conform to the very pressures and ideals we’re all subjected to.
We know that women lack power in this world, and we are reminded of it daily in various ways. So why is it not only always considered our responsibility to change deeply embedded social practices which many people refuse to acknowledge even exist, but also treated like something we have any chance of achieving just by ourselves?
The cornucopia of body image related issues are not going to be solved by mocking and pointing fingers at the female celebrities who, despite their power, still feel obliged to follow the rules as they've been forced to learn them.Beyonce didn't create the system. And as affirming as it might be to see her openly challenging it, doesn't the fact that even she can’t escape the ever present, ever controlling presence of it indicate that maybe, just maybe, we might have a much bigger problem than we thought?
We should be focusing our criticism on the capitalist power structures which turn women's bodies into forms of currency, instead of ‘shaming them for doing exactly what they’ve been told they have to do in order to be worth anything at all. Perhaps it’s time we stopped fixating on photographs and started looking at the bigger picture.