Monday, September 10, 2007

Beauty Standards in Magazines and Advertisements

Here are some random thoughts I've had recently about some of the photos I've been seeing in magazines.

I have the following problems with the pictures of women in magazines (both advertisements and editorial spreads):

First, these images are extremely powerful, setting the beauty standards of our society, yet the women featured very rarely reflect the looks of real women. Part of this is genetic (being naturally tall and skinny with large breasts makes you a genetic oddity), but I don't think anyone can deny the huge influence of plastic surgery on beauty standards. These days, starlets with small/normal breasts are the norm, while it's hard to find an actress over 40 with laugh lines and a full range of expressions.

Second, only certain types of beauty are considered acceptable. I wrote about this in an earlier post on women of color adopting traditionally white features through hair and skin processes (straightening and whitening) and plastic surgery. In a society as diverse as ours, it's still not common to see Asian or Middle Eastern models or spokeswomen.

And of course, plus-sized women are viewed in a totally separate category, relegated to the Lane Bryant ads stuffed in the center of the book, despite the fact that most American women are plus-size. There's no doubt that America Ferrera is a gorgeous woman, but Glamour felt compelled to airbrush 24 lbs off of her figure for a recent cover photo.

Third, corporations and magazine editors take already unrealistically beautiful bodies and make them impossibly perfect with a heavy dose of photoshopping. By this point, they become almost totally unrecognizable in comparison to their un-madeup selves.

And people wonder why women have warped body images?

You can imagine my delight last week to come across the following ad for Agent Provocateur, featuring one of my favorite actresses, Maggie Gyllenhaal (you can see the full series here):

What? A waist that hasn't been whittled down to 14 inches? Thighs that look like they could actually support a body? Smallish breasts on a non-anorexic frame? A woman with more than 3% body fat? I imagine it would be pretty shocking to flip through an issue of Vogue and come across this photo, as her realistic (and totally beautiful) body is such a stark contrast against the stick-thin models and plasticized starlets featured on every other page.

While I'm sure that they airbrushed her skin and took out cellulite (Maggie just had a baby last year, after all), I love that she still looks like herself, a real woman who hasn't succumbed to the Hollywood pressure to stay unhealthily thin. She has a very distinctive look, with her heart-shaped face and dark features, and she resembles no one but herself. Kudos to Agent Provacateur for recognizing Maggie's beauty and choosing a non-traditional spokeswoman for their brand.

While this is a good step forward, I think the America Ferrera cover proves that advertisers and editors still aren't ready to embrace a wider range of beauty, and that "natural" is still a frightening concept. Will non-traditional beauty types still sell issues and products as successfully as the flawless, airbrushed women we're used to seeing? It all comes down to the bottom line, and unless marketers believe they can improve their brand image and move merchandise with different models and spokeswomen, we won't see any large-scale shifts in beauty standards. Still, I do believe that women around the world are longing to see more images that reflect their own appearance, and that consumers will respond positively to brands that use more realistic models.


Deja Pseu said...

Hi Meg, are you defining "plus sized" by the fashion industry standard (over size 8) or the clothing industry standard (over size 14)? I think it's ridiculous that what is a *normal* size range for real women is considered "plus sizes." And as a fifty year old woman, I agree that the images of older woman a) are few and far between and b) don't look like most of us in that age group.

Meg said...

Deja Pesu- I'm defining plus sized in terms of the clothing industry standard. But I also think that there is far too little representation of anyone over a size 6, and while I don't know that there's a proper term for anyone who's not plus sized or skinny (the in-betweeners), I'd place Maggie Gyllenhaal in that group.

Hope that helps!

Deja Pseu said...

Thanks for clarifying. I doubt MG is much above a size 6, though. I think I read somewhere that "curvy" Jennifer Lopez is a size 4, and America Ferrera is size 8.

ambika said...

As a fan of Maggie G., I was so pleased to see her in a campaign that could have easily chosen Carmen Electra or Christina Aguilera instead. And yes, though she looks stylized, she still looks like herself (and human!)

Kelly Mahoney said...

Hey, she looks damn good, regardless of if she's plus sized or just average. There are so few images of average women out there. Kids are getting a grossly mixed message too -- they see the fashion magazines telling them to be skinny, their parents and talk shows or whatever say love yourself the way you are and the schools are sending home "fat letters" to their parents starting sometimes as young as 8 years old warning their families that they are on the brink of being fat. It's really shrinking childhood.

judyo423 said...

Beauty standards of any age have always been set by someone other than real women themselves(usually male artists)...I have been reminded of that as I have been looking at the art of Rubens, Van Dyck, and Peter Lely and you can see that there was a "type" of beauty that was ideal during different time periods. The voluptuous Rubens type, the romantic Rosetti femme al. OK...OK enough of the art history rant...what we are talking about here is the effect that commercial images have in setting standards of beauty.

I have to give Eileen Fisher kudos for always using a variety of models in her adverts. Recently Dove too has tried its own pro-age/real woman campaign which I must admit I like even though I know that it too is kind of manipulative.

It is easier for ME to dismiss clothing ads for clothes I probably wouldn't wear anyway than for me to not be sucked in by anti-aging wrinkle cream adverts where models are...uh...30 years of age at most or airbrushed celebrities like Diane Keaton. Sigh...I must admit I do keep looking for that elusive "hope in a jar".

I have mixed feelings about childrens body image and self-esteem. I don't think health warnings about childhood obesity should be misconstrued as being prejudicial against kids who need to eat fewer snacks and get outside more. But I am NOT a parent so I can't really know what effect that has upon the parents and kids involved.

lisa said...

America Ferrera has been airbrushed almost beyond recognition in that Glamour cover; it's actually kind of scary.

As a Chinese-Canadian, I'm going to throw in my two cents on representations of Asian women in Western media:

1. In some ways, I actually find Western media representations of Asian women to be more forgiving than representations of Asian women in Asian media outlets. Granted, there aren't a lot of Asian women who have achieved widespread fame in North America. But the trend in Chinese media veers toward tall, waif-like girls with pearly skin and large eyes and more "Western" facial features. Someone like Lucy Liu, while gorgeous and striking, is not the prototypical new starlet that Hong Kong likes.

Also, if you think the pressure to be thin is tough in Western media, it's far tougher in Chinese media. A lot of Chinese girls are on the thin side, so there is pressure on young girls entering the entertainment industry to be superlatively thin. The popular body type is thin but not muscular with a concave stomach. It's not uncommon to see ribs poking out during the swimsuit portion of Chinese beauty pageants. :S

2. I agree that the use of multi-ethnic models in ads is all about the bottom line for marketers, Meg. One of the ads that features an Asian woman I see most often is the one for Pantene Midnight Expressions,a haircare line for black hair.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, there was an entire Ugly Betty episode with a story line about a popular actress being photo shopped (to look skinnier) for both the cover and inside photos of her Mode photo shoot. It's kind of sad and hypocritical that America allowed Glamour to do the same to her.

Raven said...

I agree with the above anonymous post. Mostly.

America's roles in Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty are pretty great, and pretty genuine, and I'm sure she had no control over her airbrushed cover.

But if she's intersted in promoting a realistic image of women, posing for Glamour was an awful idea -- it's one of the most degrading women's magazines available, a how-to guide for attracting and pleasing men. I'd even prefer Maxim for being up-front about its sexism, and I'll take Vogue anyday for using interesting models and intelligent writing.

Maybe America has no control over for whom she poses -- or thinks she can infiltrate the misogynist establishment through sexy covers as a guise for smart, semi-feminist interviews. Or maybe she's just not as genuine as her characters.

Anonymous said...

"Still, I do believe that women around the world are longing to see more images that reflect their own appearance, and that consumers will respond positively to brands that use more realistic models."

It is sad but judging from most of the comments on the article, most women+men didn't react positively at all to Agent Provacateurs choice. I guess most people just prefer the unrealistic plastic models over genuinely beautiful women.