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Category: Girls, Health, International, Media

Women’s Magazines and the Cult of Hypocrisy

| July 5, 2012

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This week, Seventeen magazine promised to publish un-photoshopped images of real girls, finally responding to 14-year-old SPARK activist Julia Bluhm's campaign. Such pressure must continue argues author Laura Bates.

Last week, two editions of Now magazine appeared on newsstands in the UK. The weekly issue featured a dramatic photograph of model Abbey Crouch, emphasizing her prominent collarbones and hollow thighs. The headline read “Oh no! Scary Skinnies,” while a caption warned: “Girls starving to be like her.” Inside, a feature revealed that “worryingly, pro-anorexia sites are using her figure as a skinny role model.” The other magazine was the Now Celebrity Diet Special. Its cover was emblazoned with a photograph of the same model in a glamorous bikini, under the headline: “Bikini body secrets…stars’ diet and fitness tricks REVEALED.”

This is perhaps the most blatant example to date of a disturbing and growing trend of women’s magazines affecting a superficial stance of concern about issues that they themselves are often guilty of causing or exacerbating.

This week, the Women’s Media Center celebrated the success of a campaign by 14-year old SPARK activist Julia Bluhm, whose petition calling upon Seventeen magazine to publish one unaltered photo spread per month attracted over 84,000 signatures. But it was only after Bluhm’s campaign whipped up an international media storm that the magazine finally capitulated. When she visited their New York office in May, Julia's petition already had over 25,000 signatures, yet Seventeen responded with a saccharine statement that neatly sidestepped any commitment, while loudly proclaiming their ethical standpoint on the issue: “Julia left understanding that Seventeen celebrates girls for being their authentic selves, and that's how we present them.”

There is an undeniable disparity between the caring, concerned tone magazines adopt, and the actual pictures and features they continue to publish week-in, week-out. The recent “health initiative” launched by Vogue was much trumpeted by the magazine as its contribution to promoting positive body image. Yet nowhere in the 6-point agreement is there any commitment to promoting healthy physical ideals through the use of unaltered photographs or a greater range of model sizes. In fact, in terms of its impact on the magazines’ pages, the pact boils down to a commitment not to use underage models or those suffering from eating disorders, as the usual reams of endless thin legs and tiny waists in this month’s Vogue testify.

The same mixed messages are barely concealed across the pages of countless magazines. This month alone, New urges women to “show off their curves,” praising “womanly shapes,” whilst Glamour advises readers to “double up your workout,” “transform your body” and “lose 7 lb – instantly!” Last week’s Star praised Billie Faiers for having “boobs and loving her gorgeous curves,” but just seven days later their next issue proclaimed “Billie hates her big boobs” and “feels self-conscious in a bikini.” Star applauds Pink for being “in no rush to lose her baby weight,” but Now brands Abbey Crouch a “star body” because she “weighs less now than she did before she gave birth last March.” More awards Alexandra Burke “multiple medals for showing off her curves,” but Look badgers readers to “get your dream body in no time” with “calorie burning” hot pants and gym kit that “tones you up fast.” Many feature “curvy celebs” specials, raking thinner celebrities like LeAnn Rimes for “bones jutting out” and a “super-skinny figure,” yet many include celeb diet secrets, painstakingly listing entire daily meal plans.

Holli Rubin, a representative of global initiative Endangered Bodies and a psychotherapist specializing in body image, explains: “Once again, girls and women find themselves in a double bind of on the one hand aspiring to what they believe is the perfect body represented by the celebrities but at the same time, more recently, being told that they really should not want those bodies. Visually we are seeing the images of what girls and women think they should be, yet then the content of the articles berates women for aspiring to that. This makes for a very confusing message not only for girls but for all women and society at large.”

A recent UK government report revealed that “between one third and half of young girls fear becoming fat and engage in dieting or binge eating” and “over 60 percent of girls avoid certain activities because they feel bad about their looks.” It specifically cited media criticism of body weight combined with a lack of body diversity as a contributing factor. Helen Sharpe, a London-based researcher investigating eating disorders in secondary schools agrees: “Exposure to these magazines is robustly linked to body dissatisfaction. We also know that those people most unhappy and vulnerable to begin with are likely to be most affected by the images in a damaging way.”

It’s bad enough that the unrealistic, narrow ideals of female beauty and body prescribed by women’s magazines are so damaging to women’s body confidence and self-esteem. But when “3 out of 4 teenage girls feel depressed, guilty and shameful after spending three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine”; when a coroner last month held the fashion industry and “photographs of wafer thin girls” “directly responsible” for the death of 14-year old schoolgirl Fiona Geraghty; when “80% of 10 year old American girls have been on a diet,” it is time for women’s magazines to stop pretending to advocate for solutions and admit they are part of the problem.

Consider Julia Bluhm and Fiona Geraghty: both 14-year old girls, both already deeply affected by the fashion and magazine industry. Women’s magazines must pay attention to their legacy.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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