Image and Perception

The previous tenant of our current home in St. Thomas Ontario has not yet changed her address with everyone. Occasionally, mail used to arrive here. The only thing still coming (7 months after they moved out) is the occasional women’s magazine. This woman had subscriptions to Cosmopolitan, Chatelaine & Elle. Last week, the new issue of Elle arrived. I flipped through it out of sheer morbid curiousity, and regret it. It’s depressing actually. In spite of the various campaigns to end the advertising techniques which cause a mess of self-esteem and image issues in women, the advertisers (which take up most of the magazine; it was tough to find an actual article in there) still present airbrushed, size 0, touched up flawless women, to advertise perfume. Yet, there is no sign of perfume anywhere in the add. I don’t get it on several different levels.

Now I get that as a male I may not be the place to turn to on “women’s issues”. And this post isn’t meant to be a rant against the advertisers, or an advice to women type thing. But I want to simply think out loud about the stupidity of advertising, aesthetics, and the proper, critical thinking response to this problem.

Advertisers seem to be drawing attention away from the product. Often the brand means more than the product. Image is everything. I came across an add which I wasn’t even sure what they were selling. The company has lines of fashion for men and women, as well as accessories and scents. The ad was a angry/pouty supermodel posed in an unnatural body position, with circus clown style make up, with the brand name in the bottom corner. Certainly didn’t make me want to buy anything. And I shudder to think what was spent to get this ad on paper. Who falls for this kind of advertising? Are people so mindless as to say “ooh, that looks hip”? Are we that dumb as a species?

Most of the world knows that the fashion industry uses the skinniest 0.1% of women in their ads, and that this impacts self-esteem and all that. We know this. Most are repulsed by the fact that young women are made to feel less about themselves because they don’t fit this mold. Any woman over a size 4 in the industry is a “plus size” model. We cringe.

But they still do it.

Why?

Because we keep on shopping.

It’s tough to buy products which aren’t connected to this kind of advertising. They pretty much all do it… as far as I know. I don’t think I’ve seen much advertising for women’s products featuring healthy looking women. It’s sad really.

If you’re on facebook, you’ve probably been inflicted with the stream of memes circulating, and one in particular caught me by surprise (I am not going to post it here, because it is visually unpleasant and inappropriate). It featured females from the pin up era (Marilyn Monroe featuring prominently), contrasted against current size 0 “beauties” in bikinis. These women who starve themselves to mantain this super thin appearance are called “models”- the implication is not so subtle; “this is the ideal; what you should ‘model’ your own appearance on”. This meme asked when did this (the contemporary women) become hotter than this? (the 50s/60s pinups) It’s a poignant question. When did size 0 become the ideal of beauty? Marilyn Monroe’s dress size, I just found out, is a bit of a controversy, but the it seems to have been around an 8 (35-36 inches) and she was only 5′ 5.5″ (therefore couldn’t be a supermodel!). My wife is a 6 (just so you know, she’s ok with me publicizing that) and petite by most people’s standard. When we met, she was 2 (10 years and two kids will do that). Point is, zero is not “normal”. Apparently the waist requirement for a size 0 (24 inches) is about what you’d expect on an 8 year old girl. Oh, the things you can learn on the internet! There are still women who wear a 0, without any sort of eating disorder contributing to it. Most of them are not the height of a supermodel. Size 0 is still available in stores because there are women who are simply petite. My point isn’t that women who are small should “plump up” by eating poorly and living a sedentary lifestyle. My point is that no one should present a “universal ideal” for women. Advertising should show the variety, and a woman who wears a 8 should not be called “plus size”.

Why the shift? That I can’t say.

Do we blame Barbie? The advertisers?

I don’t know the answer. Again I just want to think critically about what people are being exposed to. We all know there’s something wrong, but it keeps on going. We abhor the phenomena, but it goes nowhere.

All signs point to an understanding that the supermodel proportions is not what men want. This Aussie survey of 60 000 men presented with a photo of 3 women, a size 8, 12, 14 (US sizes 4, 8, 10) found that men 41% chose the size 12/8 as the “ideal” for a figure (again, there is no ideal to set for all women, but this shows that most men want curves). The size 14/10 came in close second (39%) and the smallest woman scored a mere 20%. In other words, men’s perceptions are not as big a contributor to this as some might suppose. Most men aren’t saying they want their women to be super-skinny. Women are looking at female celebs who the majority of men reject as “ideal” size.

The fashion industry is out of touch with reality. Probably not a shocking revelation to anyone. So how are they making money? Why are they not responding to the call to adjust to present women closer to the norm and closer to what men view as ideal? Out of touch industries and organizations fizzle out, generally. Being irrelevant and disconnected is a guaranteed fail. But this seems to be one of the exceptions. They are intentionally out of touch, and succeed anyway. Is it an element of fantasy/escapism? Are those unhappy with the way things are linking into a world of make believe in high fashion? It seems that way. But it’s a dangerous escape, because the effects often impact reality. Other escapes don’t do this. Sci-fi geeks may wish, but surely understand that space travel and alternative universes are not part of their everyday life. Comic book readers know that humans don’t get superpowers when exposed to radiation. But somehow there are people who escape to a world where size 0 is the ideal for all women carry that false reality with them, and aspire to it. Unless you’re like 5’3″ or less, a size 0 is unrealistic, and likely unhealthy. For some women a size 0 comes naturally because they simply have a smaller skeleton. Aiming for a 0 is going to cause problems for most. According to the BBC (Is Our Obsession With Size 0 Damaging Health?), 1.1 million people (majority being women aged 12-24) dealing with eating disoders (as of Feb. 2010). The obsession is the issue, not the size itself.

As a father of two girls, I wonder what they’ll be exposed to in their formative years. I can try to keep this away from their eyes, or help them think through what they see and hear, but there’s no guarantees either way. I certainly don’t want my girls thinking 0 is “best”, or that they should be able to count ribs. My hope is that my girls will grow up to be women who not only navigate through the mire of cultural influences to have a positive sense of who they are, whether a size 0 (not likely for my girls who are already showing signs they’ve inherited their father’s height) 8, or 20, but also that they can be a positive influence on the culture around them.

The big question for me is, how can I, as man, impact the lives of females? How can I steer my daughters and the other young women I come in contact with in the right direction? How do I articulate the pursuit of the image of God in a culture still selling the image (idol) of the size 0.

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6 Responses to Image and Perception

  1. Chris Stire says:

    Right there with you Pastor!

  2. I wonder whether you are looking in the wrong place for an explanation here. It seems to me that the size of models has hardly anything to do with the heterosexual male gaze (high fashion has a lot more to do with the homosexual male gaze, for reasons that might become apparent here), nor is designed to capture that gaze (in sexual desire, at least). Rather, it is about the supposed demands of fashion as art.

    I suspect that a root issue (though not the only one) here is an ‘art for art’s sake’ aestheticization of bodies. To be a body fit for fashion, it must be torn free of the order of nature, stripped of the generous gifts of flesh, removed from its fecundity, presented as sterile and aseptic, and rendered indifferent to the order of desire. Anything that might suggest that the body may have a utilitarian value or be related to ends other than those of the high art of fashion detracts from the particular aesthetic that dominates many forms of artistic endeavour. A peculiar attitude of art for art’s sake that infects many of the arts, including high fashion may be the issue here, rather than some direct attempt to control women’s bodies. The roots of autotelic art run deep in our society and are related, among other things, to commercialization and mass production as a reactionary response to them.

    With her size 0 body and her pout or expression of indifference to the viewer, the skinny model frames the clothing being worn, or the item being advertised as something belonging to the sublime order of art, and not just one of regular utility, functionality, or natural desire. Compare the facial expressions, bodily postures, and body sizes of the models for different levels of fashion and the clothing industry and I think that it will reveal some interesting and significant patterns.

    I suspect that the historical relationship between the concept of art for art’s sake, pure aestheticism, artifice and the anti-natural, and high fashion is responsible for a lot more than we think in this area. These artistic sensibilities have a history and a provenance, which need to be explored and critiqued carefully.

  3. On the more general subject, you might be interested in this recent article.

  4. There is much truth there Alastair, however it raises another series of questions:
    1. Advertising as “art”? What’s the function of art then?
    2. Should art distance itself from humanness? The portrayals of women by Rembrandt or Raphael are far more beautiful as far as I’m concerned. Distorting or stripping away humanity as art is just as disturbing.
    3. Portraying objects as “something belonging to the sublime order of art” as a means to “sell” it seems counter-productive.

    I’m sure I’d have more, but my mind is winding down, and I have a baby requesting my attention.

  5. Quickly addressing some of your questions:

    1. In the context of advertising, the purpose of art is to represent the possibility of participating in the ‘aura’ of the sublime. It offers the possibility of the realization of self as art, which is one of the greatest means of ‘transcendence’ our society leaves open to us. The high fashion object or art work functions for us in much the same way as the possession of the icon or relic would have functioned for a past generation. It transcends the order of use and exchange value, and transforms us by our possession of it.

    2. No. I am diagnosing what I regard as an unhealthy tendency in art here. While art has a gratuitous character and an excess that means that it cannot be reduced to use and functionality, it shouldn’t be abstracted from these either. I believe that truly Christian art is a re-gifting of the given, and a genuine reception of the ‘given’ is thus constitutive of it. In the case of fashion, this ‘given’ includes the human body, with all of its glorious natural lumps and bumps.

    3. Returning to my first point, I think that it can work. Art and high fashion sells for ridiculous prices, precisely because it exceeds exchange and use value (much as relics once passed hands for immense sums of money), representing something that exceeds the regular economic and utilitarian order.

  6. Some extra remarks on point 3:

    Ask an art collector why he would consider paying millions of dollars for a particular piece, and he will point out that it is precisely because it is art that the money paid for it reaches astronomical proportions. The excessive amount paid is an expression of the fact that the value of the piece cannot be measured by money. Argue that such prices are iniquitous in the current economic climate, and he would probably suggest that true art transcends the order of morality. When an object is constituted as art (and objet trouvé art is the perfect example of this effect), its materials, the effort of the artist, its utility, even its beauty, etc. can all become irrelevant to its value, which is dependent upon the place of the sublime that it now occupies.

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