Glamour’s move to illustrate a feel-good body story with a 3-by-3-inch nude image of 20-year-old Lizzi Miller has received a lot of attention — mainly praise. Miller is a “plus-size” (in the language of the skin-and-bones fashion industry) model, but her body is more representative of the average female reader. Some suggest that this image potentially foreshadows a shift in media representation of women.
Unfortunately, though, the reason it attracted so much attention is because the diverse representation of bodies is an anomaly. Indeed, even the surrounding articles in the magazine are peppered with articles such as “The Do’s and Don’ts of Looking Hot,” and ads with potentially damaging images of heavily airbrushed, unrealistic-looking women.
For years, I have been interested in the impact of fashion and celebrity magazines on the body image of girls and women. One day, I stopped buying magazines suddenly — as if the weight of them broke the camel’s back. I guess I became disgusted by the unrealistic images of women they portrayed, and noticed the negative effects on my own body image. Occasionally, though, a magazine shows a different side to this monotony of stereotypical beauty.
Miller’s photo in Glamour is not the first instance of a magazine making an effort to include “everyday” bodies. Another example is when Jamie Lee Curtis appeared in her underwear, without makeup or airbrushing, in a 2002 issue of More magazine. Juxtaposed with the shot was an image of her “glammed up,” surrounded by a team of stylists and makeup artists. This provocative comparison was intended to show a stark contrast between mundane reality and the hyperreality we see in magazines and advertisements.
Of course, Glamour’s image was more incidental and not the feature of the article, but the questions remain the same: will these gestures change anything in the long term? Are they genuine efforts to challenge the status quo, or merely one-off publicity stunts?
When Cindi Leive (the editor-in-chief of Glamour) was interviewed on the Today Show, she said that the responses to Miller’s image are “a sign of the times that women are really looking for a little bit more authenticity, a little bit less artifice … Will it change our approach? I think it will.”
If this change doesn’t happen, will we continue to be confused and self-doubting? Will we still find it difficult to look with a critical eye at magazines’ impact on our self-esteem? I believe that real diversity of body shapes and sizes in fashion and women’s magazines has the potential to stimulate change, but this needs to be a consistent message. When that happens, I might just start buying magazines again.
Tessa Needham finished her PhD in Performing Arts at the University of Western Sydney (Australia) in 2008. Her thesis explored the potential of performance to provoke change, and part of her research was Bodily, a solo theatrical performance about body image. She loves technology and the creative arts, and is passionate about the different cultural forces affecting the body image of girls and women. She teaches computers and does freelance creative work: www.tessaneedham.com.