Don’t ban photos of skinny models
It’s been another big month for talking about women’s bodies.
Just as the White House hosted the first United States of Women summit meeting, which culminated in Oprah Winfrey’s noting, in conversation with Michelle Obama, “We live in a world where you are constantly being bombarded by images,” across the ocean the new mayor of London was announcing a policy that would ban ads on public transport that might cause women to feel pressured “into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies”.
Mayor Sadiq Khan’s policy sounds, on the surface, like a big step forward. Down with fat-shaming! But it is, rather, an old idea, and one that reinforces stereotypes instead of grappling with the real issue: How do we change the paradigm altogether?
The immediate impetus for the ban, which will be carried out by the London transit authority via a steering committee that will rule on ads case by case, was a 2015 diet pill ad depicting a very tan, very curvy woman (the kind who is a staple of lad mags) in a bright yellow bikini alongside the words, “Are you beach body ready?” The implication was that if you had not achieved the unrealistic proportions of a Barbie, you were not. The public protested (a petition on change.org received more than 70,000 signatures), and Khan made it part of his election campaign.
The regulation follows decisions by the Advertising Standards Authority of Britain to ban certain ads, such as a Gucci shot that depicted what was deemed an “unhealthily thin” young woman. Although often conflated with the movement to protect models, which resulted in legislation in France in 2015 requiring models to produce a doctor’s note attesting to their health, and digital alteration of photographs to be disclosed, banning is a separate issue. It doesn’t involve working conditions (which can and should be legislated), but subjective, and ultimately regressive, assumptions about what constitutes a positive female image.
While I have no doubt that Khan had the best intentions (he made a reference to his desire to protect his daughters), and there is no question that studies have shown that depictions of thin women in idealised or overly airbrushed photographs can be an important factor in eating disorders and other types of body dysmorphia, I do not believe banning is the answer. And I say that as someone with two daughters (and a son) who is acutely aware of the distortions of the fashion world and their dangers.
It’s not just because, as Khan or any other parent well knows, banning something simply makes it much more intriguing. Indeed, when the Gucci ad was banned, it immediately resulted in a torrent of new articles and social media posts prominently featuring said ad.
It’s also because to judge a body healthy or unhealthy is still to judge it. The notion of creating a committee qualified to rule for the public simply reinforces the message that such judgments by those in power are acceptable and necessary. What’s more, it’s unclear who will even be on the British committee – a spokeswoman said it was “under discussion.” (Here’s an idea: Include some teenage girls.)
Just because a judgment is supposedly coming from a good place does not obviate the fact that it’s a personal judgment, handed down from afar by a third party, bringing another set of prejudices and preconceptions to bear.
Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated. These are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have. Anyone who knows who I am knows I stand for honest and pure self love. So I took it upon myself to release the real pic (right side) and I love it😍😘 Thank you @modelistemagazine for pulling down the images and fixing this retouch issue.
The message in this case is that women, and young people, are not able to make such distinctions on their own. Yet that power – the ability of each individual to decide on her body for herself – is one we should be cultivating, not relinquishing.
To ban an ad depicting a specific body type is to demonise that type, labeling it publicly as bad. It also suggests that it is even possible to look at a woman, or a photo of a woman, and know whether she is healthy or unhealthy. That’s a misguided idea, as Claire Mysko, chief executive of the National Eating Disorders Association, acknowledges: One individual can have a seemingly normal body mass index and still have a tortured relationship with food and her physical self; another can look almost bony and be fine. You can’t tell from the outside.
“The solution to body-shaming isn’t to limit the number and kinds of bodies we are exposed to,” said Peggy Drexler, assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University and the author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers and the Changing American Family.”The more sorts of bodies young women see – fat, thin, short, tall – the better they understand that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that theirs fits in somewhere.”
Drexler is not the only one who thinks so. There’s a growing movement on social media among a broad range of women to reject the marketing of anxiety and to embrace physical authenticity.
Last month, comedian Amy Schumer posted a photograph of herself in a bathing suit on Instagram with the caption: “This is how I look. I feel happy. I think I look strong and healthy and also like Miss Trunchbull from ‘Matilda.’ Kisses!” Then she tweeted, “Bottom line seems to be we are done with these unnecessary labels which seem to be reserved for women.”
I meant to write "good morning trolls!" I hope you find some joy in your lives today in a human interaction and not just in writing unkind things to a stranger you've never met who triggers something in you that makes you feel powerless and alone. This is how I look. I feel happy. I think I look strong and healthy and also like miss trunchbull from Matilda. Kisses!
Singer and former Disney star Demi Lovato has also been vocal about herself, recently featuring a photograph from a magazine shoot with the words, “Posting a #nophotoshop pic because I’m proud to show my body the way it naturally is. (And there was great lighting…).” Ditto actress and singer Zendaya Coleman, who wrote on Instagram last year: “Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19-year-old hips and torso quite manipulated. These are the things that make women self-conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have.”
Increasingly, the conversation is moving from fat-shaming to fat-shamer-shaming, and it seems to be working. “Fashion is acutely aware of the changing notion of the body and the changing notion of beauty, and the need to represent that in a way that feels current,” said Ian Schatzberg, president of Wednesday, a creative agency that works with such brands as H&M and Polo Ralph Lauren. It is in their self-interest, after all.
So last week Amazon Fashion Europe released a video campaign on its social channels titled, “Say something nice,” in which high-profile fashion bloggers talk about being judged on their size and style. Apparel company Under Armour has been featuring as a brand ambassador Misty Copeland, who is famous not only for being the first African-American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater but also for not adhering to the ballerina body stereotype. Vogue put Schumer on its current cover – and not in its “size” or “age ” or “power” issues, where the magazine has typically featured non-sample-size women. And then there’s the 2016 Pirelli calendar, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, which broke with tradition by showcasing a dozen women of different ages and body types, most of them clothed.
Change may be happening more slowly than many, including Khan, would like, but we should not ignore the fact that it is happening. Nor the fact that it is being powered by demand from women themselves. This is not a battle fought by saying no to the one but by applauding the many.
Whose body image is it anyway? It should be ours.
New York Times
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