FEMALE MODELS ALLOWING THEMSELVES TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED IN WAYS THAT ARE ANYTHING BUT FEMININE, FLATTERINGLY FASHIONABLE, HAPPY OR
Posted Aug 22 2010 4:56am
In response to an article I’d read in the Sunday Fashion section of the NY Times in August 2008, I devoted an entire blog - ABUSE COMES IN MANY GUISES - reflecting upon how that industry portrays women and the message we are given about ourselves and our culture.
I find it ironic that as I was thinking about what to write about today, I was struck yet again by the August 2010Women’s Fashion section of the Times, exactly 2 years later. So, true to who I am, I shall rant again about the very same topic.
Before I go on to quote Daphne Merkin’s powerful essay, which addresses “why we yearn to be thin and our consuming fear of flesh,” I will quote myself (please excuse this indulgence), but I am doing so because I feel today exactly as I felt 2 years ago, if not more so.
In 2008 I wrote: “... I find myself wondering why so many of us question the fact that seemingly reasonable – albeit impressionable – female teenagers and young adults are obediently parading about attempting to replicate what the fashion industry insidiously dictates.” I then went on to add that: “.... fashion photographers – more often than not – dress and pose male models as up-scale businessmen at work, dining, sailing or golfing, always appearing handsome, pleasant, and appealing, while female models are posed/dressed to look afflicted: facial expressions pained, bodies anorectic and cloaked in anything but flattering apparel and, always, always, with a subliminal sexuality that speaks of rage rather than a full range of emotions which would more readily be recognized as reality.”
I went on to conclude that: “None of this helps to promote the health or beauty of female sexuality and we, their elders, should not be surprised when we then see how an industry is able to influence not merely how our girls and young women dress but how they then behave.”
At the end, I challenged the fashion industry (though it is clear now that no one accepted my challenge): “to photograph women as wives, significant others, stay–at-home or working mothers, secretaries, executives, physicians, plumbers, politicians, educators, astronauts – the many and varied roles in which women of the 21st century are proving their strengths and sensibilities! We have never been – and hopefully never will be – the stick-figure mannequins created by the perverted eyes of a confused culture.”
Yet, addressing or even displaying perversions of all sorts makes money. And the fashion industry is, I suppose, no different than other industries where money, in fact, may well be the root of evil. With those who have the power to make the decisions regarding fashion their power is in the lens of a camera. How they dress a model and what contorted positions they direct her to twist her body into is how the photographer captures what we then see.
Yet, in their attempt to have us accept as an ideal and a desirable goal, they are creating an illusion, a distorted image of reality, where skinny, dramatically and intensely posed women appear waxen and wanting instead of what I certainly would prefer, which would be fleshy and flirtatious.
In today’s Fashion section, Daphne Merkin ( literary critic, essayist, novelist) writes: ”Our collective fear of fat and idealization of thinness has resulted in a seriously askew notion of the physical self that has produced an epidemic of body-dysmorphic illnesses like anorexia and bulimia.” She goes on to quote Kathleen Lebesco, author of “Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity,” stating that: “fat is seen as repulsive, funny, ugly, unclean, obscene, and above all, as something to lose.”
Quite honestly, my only concern regarding obesity (a word I prefer to "fat") is that we now know that it causes or certainly contributes to physical diseases, heart disease and diabetes to mention only two. And though there were times when voluptuous women were considered most desirable, it is also true that those times were long ago.
What Merkin questions is: "How, in an age that seeks to empower women’s standing, has the female image become honored mainly in its diminution?" And while she reminds us that "Judeo-Christian tradition has always had its own problems with the flesh, of course, evocative as it is of the carnal and thus sinful (and by further implication, slothful and unclean),” the core of her argument, however, is that “it is hard to imagine that flesh in all its ungainly specificity will ever be given its due so long as woman’s power continues to hinge more often than not on her beauty, and so long as beauty equals thin. Harder yet to imagine that young girls who are overweight or who deviate from the cultural norm of extreme thinness will ever feel significantly better about themselves ... there is something in us that doesn’t like fat, something deeply ingrained in us that draws us to thin. Female consumers of all kinds, according to a recent study, seem to prefer looking at ads with thin rather than over-plus size models. The origins of this preference are complex, having to do with tangled notions about purity versus contamination, self-indulgence versus self-control, and the ambivalence with which we regard our own appetites. In some sense,” Merkin concludes, “fashion designers are merely messengers, delivering up to us our own grotesque parody of religious grace, in which food substitutes for sex and the sinful pleasures of the flesh lead only to the purgatory of size 14.”
While I agree with much of what Merkin says, from a health provider’s point of view I find it necessary to focus not on imagined symbolic representations of the female body but rather on how the health of that body - female or male - is effected by such representations.
The question that should be asked is why we allow the fashion industry to focus on the extremes of skinny to the point of anorexia or "fat" to the point of unattractive obesity to gain our attention? Surely, we should know that either end of that spectrum is never healthy and always speaks of a life that is totally out of balance! Perhaps, if we learn to place our values where they belong, those so-called "messengers" will devote themselves to delivering different images (e.g. different messages).
Here’s where I submit to the old axiom that all things in moderation is what should be the goal. What we need are new definitions for what is beautiful and new people in the fashion industry who won’t insist on starving their models, but will focus instead on the value of health and its importance in our lives.
Not being restrictive or excessive in what they present as being fashionably preferable, coupled with an admiration for beauty that is real and attainable, will offer more of us a self-image which will allow for greater emotional and physical health and far greater respect for our own bodies.