The thin and the dead

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I bought an Autumn issue of a glossy fashion magazine. I can count the number of times I’ve spent £4.10 on such an article; they always have the same effect, and this was no exception. There is an initial, guilty excitement. As I begin to flick through this is quickly succeeded by a glassy, dead-eyed boredom, much like the feeling most of the models seem to be portraying. After a little time – a very little, perhaps £1-per-five-minutes-worth – I’m done, and I’m left with a feeling that is half feminist anger and half a stirred-up, mixed-up sense of insecurity. It is clever, this feeling; it shape-shifts, and is difficult to describe. It whispers: “You should try to be that – you will never be that, and should not want it – you must try – you have already failed.”

We know, now, that fashion models are not good role models. They are 23% thinner than the average woman, down from 8% thinner 20 years ago. Many lack muscle and don’t eat enough to be healthy. Even if we do aspire to look like them most women are not over 5’8’’ tall and so can’t.

We know this; but we do nothing to change the conversation (This is from Mad Men, Season 4, which I’ve just been watching – and don’t think the irony escapes me).

Being a relative stranger to these magazines – I sit down look at one every few months, though similar images are everywhere – this shocked me all over again. It’s all women. Men’s magazines are also full of women. Where are the beautiful men to look at? Why do all the women on the pages that are meant to inspire make me feel so damn sad?

On every page a woman seemed to be trying to seduce me, dying, or experiencing a debilitating kind of intellect freeze – with a vacant, empty-eyed look such as is never seen in real life, as though aliens had caught her in some sort of ray and beamed up her brain. Or was I just being – god forbid – over-sensitive?

I did some counting.

Of a total 309 pictures of women, 126 or 60% were in the glassy/expressionless category. Far behind, the next highest was pouting/vampish with 46 (some, to be honest, borderline with the aforementioned alien-brain-abduction), and then almost smiling, with 40. Serious got 37, and very serious (like, scowling), 11. There were 18 actual smiles, two silly faces, eight faces too obscured to judge the expression (for example, by an owl), and one kiss.

At the least nice end of an un-fun spectrum, there were 20 images of women who fell into what I called the dead/comatose/drugged bracket. They fell there and they stayed, without will or capacity to move, waiting to be dragged away and buried. Or, for the lucky ones, given a sandwich.

In the entire magazine, there were 25 pictures of men, none of which were the main event on the page, and definitely none of them topless. Thanks, Vogue.

Now, a magazine editor might find this all a bit po-faced, and by god they’d be qualified to judge. It’s aesthetically pleasing, they might say, and we all know it’s fantasy.

The gym chain Fitness First recently sent me an email, though, with some food for thought on that score. Entitled ‘Fitness First Create The Ultimate Model Workout For LFW’, it said:

“With London Fashion Week only a few days away, it won’t be long until the world’s most beautiful people are strutting their stuff along our cobbled streets. Fitness First have created the ultimate full body workout inspired by models, so you too can achieve the model physique. Dave Petersen recommends combining this workout with a cardio session three times a week, alongside a healthy and sensible eating plan. Stick to this and you will be model-ready in time for Spring/Summer 2013!”

(I tried to find a link to this press release online, but it isn’t on the Fitness First PR site. If you think I’m making it up, write and I’ll forward it to you.)

A workout that will make women taller and 23% thinner in – the release seems to imply – “only a few days”! Lucky women.

[As an aside, there’s also Photoshop, of course. Working at a newspaper, I’m aware of the need to credit images when we use them. Photographers should get recognition for their work; but I wonder if this is increasingly because any image can now be created – anyone can be made to appear as if they look like or are doing anything – and we’re trying to keep a hold somehow on reality. Years ago I met a really nice man at a party. We talked about work; his was airbrushing models to make them look better. Wow, was my response. That’s kind of awful. He smiled, blushingly, and looked down. Yeah, he said. It is kind of awful.]

So why does the magazine industry continue to make me angry, when I can cope with other bad industries like tobacco (Mad Men again)?

Another story from a party, this one much more recent:

On Saturday night, late and in a warehouse, I met a woman who I thought was nice. We talked, ultimately, about some fairly intimate things. Later, I found out that she had lied to me – completely, manipulatively, and for her own benefit. I still feel a little sick at the memory.

Why do we hate being lied to so very much? Because it unglues our hold on the world.

The mad perpetuation of fantasy female images isn’t just a game, and doesn’t make us feel bad simply because we’re not as thin or groomed or long-limbed as them. It’s a huge, smooth-skinned, dead-eyed lie, and that, in itself, is terrifying.

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