Vile Bodies June 21, 2007Posted by Winter in beauty myths, body politics, media.
The images in these magazines prompted a strong emotional response in the group and we tried to figure out what bothered us so much about what could be dismissed as a silly, inconsequential form of media. Working to a simple formula, what they do, for the most part, is judge the appearance of celebrities. They confront the reader with a barrage of images of women and tell her which ones are amusing, repulsive or sad, which will be most of them, and which ones are acceptable or to be applauded, the grounds for praise always being subject to seemingly arbitrary change.
They are very much about reiterating “the rules” of appearance for women (Edit: Or, rather, a certain group of women in rich western countries. I don’t want to imply that I think all women on the planet are held to the same beauty standards). Just a cursory glance at a few issues tells me the following. The women with whom the magaziens are concerned are expected to be obsessed with their weight. It’s bad to be too thin or apparently anorexic (naughty Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss), but other women are applauded for losing weight (well done Geri Halliwell) because it’s bad to be too fat. Of course what counts as “too thin” and “too fat” changes from page to page and depends on various factors, such as the celebrity in question’s popularity at this moment. Some women are applauded for being “curvy,” but this is almost always followed quickly by a story that they are now worried about their weight and considering a drastic diet or surgery (Charlotte Church is pregnant and “ballooning,” Lily Allen has gone from proud to considering plastic surgery for her size 12 body). Cue a little bit of sighing over the pressures on women, which comes across as rather dissonant in magazines devoted to maintaining those pressures. Appearing with any evidence of pregnancy on your body (naughty Mel B) is repulsive and losing your baby weight is an absolute imperative. Women who lose their baby weight quickly are applauded, as long as they don’t lose it “too fast” and appear “too thin.” Losing your baby weight quickly is obviously not possible for most women, being as most women don’t have access to elective c-sections, nannies and personal trainers. Appearing to be ageing (bad Kate Moss) or being photographed without makeup (bad any famous woman caught on camera while popping out for a pint of milk) is a big no. You are only allowed to appear without makeup if you’re someone designated the status of a “natural beauty,” whatever that is. Plastic surgery is deemed good or bad depending on whether the woman in question is considered acceptable and what she’s had done, but anyone who has the awful experience of plastic surgery going wrong will be roundly mocked. Sweating is horrid (naughty America Ferreira) as is appearing with any sign of body hair. Wearing the wrong clothes is bad, but again what counts as wrong changes from page to page and woman to woman. And so it goes on. You must not be too fat, too thin, look your age if older than 29 after which you must appear younger than whatever your age is supposed to look like; you must not sweat, have visible body hair, go out without makeup unless you are “naturally beautiful,” wear the wrong clothes, show any physical evidence of having had children, etc. Oh, and no matter how beautiful and sexy you are, he’ll probably leave you for someone else anyway.
Interestingly, the only women I found given almost unqualified approval were “real life” extremes, a woman who was still a size zero after having had 13 children and a woman who was still a size 12 with naturally “perky firm breasts” at the age of 55. Clearly these are not bodies your average working woman could aspire to.
The magazines also treated Beth Ditto and Amy Winehouse as alien life forms, women whose appearance is so far beyond acceptable that they’re offered as exceptions that prove the rule – freaks, basically.
Clearly, the content of the magazines has as much to do with the current state of capitalism and consumerism as it does sexism, for this media is largely about selling stuff to women. What’s interesting, from a feminist perspective, is how they use longstanding oppressive narratives about women to try and achieve this.
Probably the most important message here is not only that women should place most of their sense of self worth and esteem in their physical appearance but that, crucially, they must not be able to win in this respect. As Marilyn Frye writes in her essay “Oppression” that, “One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind – situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation.” The women’s magazines illustrate one double bind, definitely not the worst or most importnat one by a long shot, but one that does cause a lot of misery. No matter how hard you try to follow the rules and embody the ideal in terms of physical appearance, you will never really succeed because the doorposts constantly shift and, no matter what you do, you will always be exposed to penalty and censure. The apparent contradictions are therefore essential to the narrative because it is essential that women must always be fair game for criticism if a state of female anxiety, despondency and intense self-scrutiny is to be produced.
Some might argue that these magazines are meant to be reassuring, letting women know that even Kate Moss can’t escape the ageing disease, but the fact that the images are surrounded by advertisements for diets, makeup and beauty products, suggests that they’re about undermining women’s confidence. After all, if Kate Moss is really a plain woman, what hope do you, 40 year old mother of three working in Marks and Spencer, have of ever being considered attractive by anyone? You’d better get shopping fast if you don’t want people to be sick at the very sight of you.
I think my own rather visceral reaction to these magazines comes from my feeling that they’re underlined by a palpable loathing of the female body put across through a stream of images which reiterate a sense that women’s bodies are, at best, deficient and, at worst, disgusting. Over and again they suggest that there is something deeply wrong about being a woman, something potentially horrible, which always threatens to make its appearance, no matter how good you think you look, this inherent repulsiveness always lurks beneath the surface. It is your job as a woman to try and prevent it from becoming visible.
Some members of the group put forward the suggestion that the women’s mags are as bad, if not worse, than the men’s magazines, a view which might inspire a collective sharp intake of breath, but this feeling may have its root in a sense that the women’s media is more insidious. Whereas lads’ mags have an obvious shouty “Hurrah for sexism, Yay for objectification, in your face feminism, In. Your. Face” tone, the women’s magazines have a sly “This is for your own good, this is what women are like, this is what women think” tone. Whereas lads’ mags present one type of woman as attractive, the women’s magazines seem to conclude that no woman is really attractive: all women are potentially, if not actually, disgusting. In any case, we generally agreed that you need to look at the women’s mags alongside men’s mags and that the women’s mags are objectifying in their presentation of women’s bodies as things to be judged.