Is this progress? Earlier this month the Miss Italy competition announced they would be disallowing bikinis in the swimsuit segment of their competition. Photo: AP
Last week, a young woman in Melbourne launched an interesting online petition calling for the folk behind CLEO magazine to commit to some realism within their pages.
I’m not referring to content that realistically reflects the intelligence levels of the average woman - for a magazine that offers tips on how to become an 'iWag' and every month seems to find something new to write about blow jobs, chance would be a fine thing. Instead, Jessica Barlow is calling on CLEO to take the lead on changing the culture of women's magazines in Australia by acknowledging when their models have been digitally altered and publishing one unaltered photographic spread per month. At the time of writing, more than 13,000 people had registered their support.
It seems like a no-brainer. Magazines like CLEO are stuffed to the brim with digitally altered images of women, their shadows and lumps smoothed out, literal inches sliced from their already small frames. Yet despite knowing that to be true, it can still be difficult for an impressionable reader to ignore the illusion of perfection, particularly against the mixed messages of body love and body punishment that these publications frequently pit against each other. If these images contribute to poor self esteem, disordered eating and dysmorphic body image - and there’s vast swathes of evidence that they do - then they should be held to account for it.
Barlow’s passion for her cause is evident, and it’s hard not admire her determination to try and inspire some change in the industry. But there’s an undercurrent to this and campaigns similar to it that I find troubling. In a frustrating culture that rewards women for meeting certain beauty standards, measures like this feel like band-aid solutions. Well intentioned, certainly, but unable to see beyond the immediacy of a threat to the deeply entrenched roots holding it firmly in place. In trying to fell only the parts of the tree that we can see, are we falling prey to a clever campaign of distractivism by industry players keen to keep things as they are while appearing to support progressive policies?
Consider the modelling industry. Earlier this year, Israel announced it would have a blanket ban on the use of models whose BMIs fell below 18.5. It resembles similar approaches that have been instituted elsewhere; Milan Fashion Week bans the use of models with a BMI less than 18.5 while the Madrid Fashion Show won’t use models whose BMIs are less than 18. Moves like this are generally applauded within the wider community - the 2006 death of Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, reportedly from anorexia-linked heart failure, placed the industry under a giant magnifying glass. Fashion moguls and magazines are corporations like any other, and no one wants to claim responsibility for encouraging a young woman to literally starve herself to death.
But even leaving aside the unreliability of BMI testing as a measure of health, what’s really being achieved here other than a bait-and-switch? It’s not as if the modelling industry’s making a concerted effort to reflect diverse body shapes. There’s no accounting for their culpability in creating a culture that favours and rewards thinness by granting social power. All they’re really saying is that, to placate their critics, they’ll see to it that the women they employ - all of whom are naturally thin already, and blessed by particular genetic cocktails - can’t be as thin as before. By placing the responsibility and blame on underweight models, they manage to neatly sidestep any discussion of their own ability to direct change from within. As far as feminist activism goes, it’s about as useless as a dildo made out of playdoh. It is a literal dildoh of a policy, and celebrating it as anything other than that will only result in disappointment and a possible yeast infection.
In a similar example of distractivism, the organisers of Miss Italy last week revealed that they would be disallowing bikinis in the swimsuit segment of their little puff contest and replacing them with demure vintage one-pieces. While this was done ostensibly in accord with anti-nudity views from Anna Maria Tarantola, the newly appointed director of Italian State TV, organiser Patrizia Mirigliani also announced contestants would be meeting with the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi to “learn about the concept of interior [beauty], as well as exterior”. Riiiiight. Because a pageant in which only conventionally beautiful childless women are allowed to enter and certainly only the most beautiful of them ever wins is ultimately concerned with the importance of ‘interior beauty’. I think this quote from Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by noted sexcreep Silvio Berlusconi’s brother sums it up: "If we cover the bottom, the object of male fantasy, with centimetres of cloth, what sense does the competition have?"
It reminds me of the ‘real woman’ nonsense that is trotted out so often. To counter negative body image and poor self esteem, the beauty industry is expected to celebrate diversity in women - to reassure women of all shapes, sizes, colours and levels of conventional attractiveness that they are ALL beautiful, and none of them should be excluded from the privilege of being hailed as such.
But is this really what we should be advocating for? The right for a more diverse selection of women to be positively objectified for their looks? Let’s get one thing straight - the only reason advertisers and corporations cater to this kind of thinking is because they want to make money. If a corporation like Dove really cared about women, its parent group Unilever wouldn’t be shitting on them to sell Axe products to dudebros.
Surely we should be trying to establish a culture in which being beautiful isn’t the primary currency of value? By trying to secure the ‘right’ for all women to be praised as beautiful rather than dismantling the value attached to that, it reinforces rather than challenges the superficiality of the beauty industry and by extension women’s reliance upon it.
I admire Jessica Barlow for trying to make a difference, and I’ve signed her petition. Perhaps it’s a good first step. But I don’t believe that forcing the beauty industry to gratify the vanity needs of everyone is a fight worth having. As women, I think we’d gain far more if we could finally put to rest our need to be thought of as beautiful. Regardless of their size, some women are naturally more beautiful than others. That’s life. It seems to me awfully redundant (not to mention juvenile) to try and pretend that this isn’t the case. We shouldn’t be arguing for magazines to cater to our feelings of self worth by merely including us in their spectrum of objectification - we should be working to destroy the objectification full stop.