The campaign launched by two teenagers to get Teen Vogue to set limits on retouching and photograph a more diverse array of models for its pages was met by the world with a flurry of interest. It was met by Teen Vogue with a cold shoulder and instructions that the girls “do [their] homework.”
While I wholeheartedly admire what these teens, Carina Cruz and Emma Stydahar, are trying to accomplish, I also understand Teen Vogue’s reflexive self defense. They are being singled out in the press for a problem that is not all their fault. The super skinny and evidently pretty retouched models on their pages seem less like the cause of the problem of widespread body-image dissatisfaction among women than a symptom of it. Photoshop has become a scapegoat for — and distraction from — the thin-obsessed culture that’s become part of daily life for millions of women across the country. Instead of fixating on photoshop, we could be having a whole other conversation about the Thin Issue and why women feel so consistently bad about themselves for superficial reasons.
The problem is not just the retouching that makes models look like they have no cellulite (or knee caps or armpit folds, for that matter), like normal humans. The more troubling problem is the burgeoning generation of Skinny Girl margarita- and diet wine-swilling women, who get up early to attend two or three exercise classes in the morning before squeezing into a pair of Spanx and going off to work where they’re juice-fasting with coworkers and avoiding the cupcakes in the kitchen at all costs so that they don’t feel guilty about the whole day! This is what we’re becoming and it needs to stop. One, it’s only fueling the idea that we want to be as thin as all these women whose retouching we protest. And two, it’s fucking exhausting.
Rookie Mag editor Tavi Gevinson recently touched on this larger problem of Thin Culture when she questioned the impact of the ceaseless articles about dieting disguised as “health” tips. “The effects of headlines under the ‘health’ section about your back-to-school body are still there,” she noted in an interview with Racked. “It took me a little bit once middle school started to realize that if I didn’t read Seventeen, I didn’t feel obligated to watch what I eat. Language is powerful, along with photos.” Like, I can’t possibly recall all the times I’ve read in women’s magazines that I should only eat half a banana with my breakfast. What the hell am I supposed to do with the other half? Put it in the refrigerator so that when I return to it for my women’s magazine-approved 50-calorie mid-afternoon snack it’s cold and pasty and gross? It’s not worth the effing 50 calories.
And what about all this diet booze? Why does Bethenny Frankel get a free pass to shill as much Skinnygirl this and that as she can manage to license? That whole brand sends the message that other food and beverage and lifestyle brands are, by default, Fatgirl brands. I went to a Mexican place for dinner recently that had a diet margarita on the cocktail menu. Really? It’s come to this? Some things aren’t meant to be “healthy,” they’re meant to be delicious — and margaritas are one of those things!
Then there are clothing companies like Victoria’s Secret, which hosts a yearly fashion show that drew a staggering 10 million viewers in 2011. The main fascination with this program seems to be how the models look after dieting and exercising in the most intense way possible to land a spot in the show. The big story preceding last year’s show was model Adriana’s Lima’s admission that she goes on a liquid diet nine days before she has to walk the runway, and works out twice a day for a few weeks leading up to it. And then she and her fellow similarly super-exercised models strut out wearing bras and thongs, along with as many bedazzled ornaments as a crane can safely lift onto their shoulders. And we celebrate the whole thing? It baffles me every time.
Also, while fashion magazines shoulder much of the blame for promoting a very thin one-note beauty ideal, let’s not forget their diminishing influence. A lot more people are probably looking at fashion sites that don’t feature models wearing $1200 dresses than are reading the Vogues of the world. You can see normal people wearing much more normal things on sites like XOJane.com, and even “look at me wearing clothes” blogs like Cupcakes and Cashmere. These corners of the Internet have huge audiences, offer something very different from print magazines, and are mounting influence that should not be understated.
Finally can we acknowledge what magazine editors won’t? That EVERYTHING in fashion magazines — ads and editorials, unless otherwise stated — is retouched a LOT nowadays? Many models are so photoshopped they look more like Pixar cartoons than actual humans. Let’s internalize this reality when we look at them. Let’s keep in the back of our brains the gruesome fact that retouching has gotten so out of hand it’s not hard to find images of models with entire limbs mistakenly photoshopped away. But none of us are going and cutting off our arms or legs because of it.
So we can blame all this media for their photo wizardry and denial of said photo wizardry, but at the end of the day messages about thinness are coming from everywhere. Let’s talk about those, too.
And for the record, it’s not a cleanse. It’s a diet.