Friday, September 17, 2010

To Be Young, Skinny and White - A Comment on Modern Standards of Beauty

One of my favorite popular-culture-meets-gossip-meets-strong-female-voice blogs Jezebel has an on-going, fantastic series they call "Photoshop of Horrors." These pieces - always accompanied by the images being critiqued for going under the Photoshop knife - tend to focus attention to the wildly disproportionate waist-to-hip ratios, wrinkle-free faces, and oddly disembodied legs and arms that grace the pages and covers of fashion magazines and other pop culture images. From brand advertisements to movie posters to fashion features all the way to the front cover of Elle magazine, Jezebel stops at nothing to point out every noticeable (and even not-so-noticeable) instances of airbrushing, cropping, editing, and chest-enlarging that it can scour from the pages of popular culture. Heck, the subtitle of the website is "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing," two sentences that, if a few words were altered, could read as a scathing manifesto about the topic that most commonly graces the pages of their wonderful blog.

When I say that this topic is a prominent feature on the website, I'm not exaggerating - a quick search for the hash tag #photoshopofhorrors yields 214 results ranging from the removal of emotion from Scarlett Johansson's face to Ralph Lauren repeatedly giving the Photoshop stick-figure treatment to their models. Why I love what Jezebel is doing is that - much like the fantastic Sociological Images blog - half of the time the images in the posts are left to speak for themselves. The occasional addition of arrows, brief text, and side-by-side comparisons allow these (at times really disturbing and un-human) figures and faces to be removed from the noisy, cluttered context of a fashion magazine to a space where they can be singled out, scrutinized and studied, calling attention to the little things that we as a society are beginning to take for granted as beautiful, "healthy," and normative body types. But at other times, when the "cease and desist" emails start pouring in from magazine editors, photographers, and talent agents, Jezebel will do more than just show some cringe-worthy images - they'll fight back.

When there's a watchdog like Jezebel out in the neighborhood patrolling for these sorts of transgressions, you would think that magazine editors and talent managers would be a bit more careful when deciding what type of images to print. But it seems that these unfortunate, blatant and sometimes just negligent Photoshop mishaps have been popping up everywhere lately - however, this perceived pervasiveness could just be my recently attuned interest in the topic. The most recent instance of blatant alteration comes in the form of the obvious skin-lightening of actress Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of Precious who now has a recurring role on Showtime's The Big C alongside Laura Linney. This piece was brought to my attention yesterday by my step-brother who, anecdotally, asked me tonight if I "look for sexism in everything." (A comment to which I responded "I don't look for it in everything, I just see it in everything!") I really couldn't go much further without giving full credit to the guy for pointing me in the direction of a Yahoo! piece that positioned the photo of Gabby from the Elle cover next to a red carpet photo to display the drastic difference in her skin tone.

[Credit: Getty Images] There is no doubt in my mind that this photo has been retouched. Even Elle admits that Gabby's photo "was not retouched any more or less than the others." It's no secret that real life skin lightening is a dangerous trend that's received uneven attention in the media, and that aside from all of the lightening cosmetic creams available at the drug store there are Facebook apps that promise to lighten the shade of one's skin in their profile picture. These products and applications are targeted at any community whose skin tone is darker than the average Western European's skin color, hinting that the lighter one's skin, the more beautiful they will look and feel. The reason for the retouching of Sidibe's skin tone on the cover of Elle becomes abundantly clear when you view the other three Elle covers coming out for this 25th anniversary special edition of the magazine (see below):

[Credit: The Daily Mail] Of the four girls that Elle chose to represent the face of young, modern America, three of them are white, thin, and conventionally beautiful. Sidibe is the only woman of color represented, and the only woman who is shot in extreme close-up - presumably in order to hide the truth of her weight and size. As Elle makes an attempt to be inclusive and representative, it ultimately fails by instead making Sidibe's cover so dramatically different than the other three so as to single her out and almost specifically call attention to her differences from the other three actresses gracing the special anniversary cover. In an attempt to represent "what 25 looks like" in America, Elle has fallen back to the reoccurring white and thin beauty standards of yesteryear - and, not to mention, has completely alienated Asian-American, Latino-American, Muslim-American and myriad other ethnic communities in the process.

It's also no secret that black Americans are highly underrepresented in fashion, in film, and on television. The same, interestingly enough, seems to go for full-figured women. Plus-size models generally measure in with waists that are still smaller than that of the average American woman, and, despite what brands like Dove want you to think, the perceived normative beauty standard still lies within the advertisements for high fashion brands. It's applauded when women appear in magazines touting their un-Photoshopped bodies or faces, something that I think should be less of a celebration and more of a common practice. With an attempt to move toward truth in advertising in American media, this is one of the first places we should start, especially when so many women suffer from eating disorders, depression and social anxieties about their weight and appearance, or, in some extreme cases, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

While the causes of BDD are usually psychological or neurological, one of the triggers of BDD is said to be environmental, meaning that the influence of images in the media might cause an individual grappling with the disease to become even more sensitive or self-conscious about their appearance. A recent episode of MTV's True Life titled "I Hate My Face" featured Pamela, a young woman about the same age as the four actresses on the covers of Elle who was suffering greatly from the disease. Pamela is unable to hold down a job or finish dinner with her boyfriend at a restaurant because of her insecurities about her self-perceived "ugliness." In one scene, she compares herself to the blond women she sees out in public and expresses her insecurities that she is not as beautiful as this one woman. In another, Pamela fights with her boyfriend about her disease:

While Pamela may not be Western European-looking or blond, she ultimately upholds these physical features as the ultimate in beauty standards. Where she gets the idea that her Filipino looks and, more specifically, her nose and her chest size, could not possibly be perceived as beautiful is anyone's guess, but I can venture to lay blame on one culprit in particular. I'm not saying that the media or American society instilled in her these negative feelings toward her appearance, but based on what she believes to be "beautiful," the blame also cannot be completely exonerated. While I want to applaud Elle for depicting some semblance of diversity on their anniversary covers, it's difficult for me not to wonder how those who recognize Sidibe's change in skin tone will feel about the alteration. It's possible that women with darker toned skin could be offended that Sidibe is being misrepresented. It's possible that women who have been otherwise marginalized for their weight or body shape could view the cropping of the photo as an attempt to censor the truth of Sidibe's size. It's also possible for anyone to be just downright offended on a purely aesthetic level by the horrible wig that the fashion editor provided for Gabourey to wear.

Of course the wonderful Jezebel has covered this topic, but it seems not to have made as many waves as, say, the afore-linked extreeeeme retouching of Jennifer Aniston's tan and wrinkles. Granted, this year did see the first ever plus-size fashion show at New York Fashion Week, but based on this whole Elle magazine fiasco I'm not about to jump and say that this singular incident represents a change in the tide. In theory, it's totally great a woman of color and of size like Gabourey is being represented on the cover of Elle. In reality, Elle seems to believe that dark skin and anything but a size 6 isn't worth representing - at least, not fully and completely.


deepthiw said...

That picture of Sidibe annoyed me even more for the awful framing that implies that she's too massive to fit on the cover than the lighting. I agree, Jezebel's coverage of body representation is probably the best thing about the blog. I especially liked this piece about Christina Hendricks being reduced to a stand-in for the female body:

Katharine Relth said...

Thanks for the link to that Jezebel piece! It really makes some great points, namely how dangerous it is to have hers be the ONLY body represented when having a conversation about curvy women.