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Mags’ flawed obsession with body perfect

MTR-193x300Guest blog post by Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra based author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls.

SHOCK horror: nude supermodel has dimple on thigh. In a move labelled daring and revolutionary, this month’s edition of Marie Claire features nude photos of Australian model Jennifer Hawkins airbrush-free. The shoot reveals “brave” Jen with all her flaws.

And what exactly are these impediments? A tiny crease in Hawkins’s waist, a slightly dimpled thigh and
“uneven skin tones”.

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Quelle horreur. As if this isn’t enough, Hawkins notes an additional flaw: her hips. She has them. Miss Universe 2004 is really the Elephant Woman.

According to Marie Claire editor Jackie Frank, the Hawkins images were inspired by a survey of 5500 readers that found only 12 per cent of women were happy with their bodies. That’s right, nude pics of a woman considered one of the world’s rarest beauties are supposed to cheer the rest of us up. The pictures will be auctioned this month, with proceeds going to eating disorders support group the Butterfly Foundation.

That Hawkins has been enlisted in the cause of girls who hate their bodies and are, in many ways, victims of the dominant ideal of female beauty kind of messes with my head. How can these pictures possibly help women feel good about themselves?

Labelling hips, a little dimpling on the thigh, a small waist crease (which looks like what happens when any woman sits down) and supposedly uneven skin tone as flaws is already problematic. Who decided these were flaws and not part of being a woman? And if these are flaws, then how are other women supposed to feel feel?

And what about all the other flaws Hawkins, 26, will accrue if she has kids and when she ages?

The problem is the emphasis on physical attributes over any other qualities a woman might possess. And a freak-of-nature body that gets 24-hour-a-day attention and the best of care to earn its owner an income. Most women will never have a body like this.

Why would an editor and an organisation concerned about body image choose a Miss Universe title holder as the pin-up for the love-yourself-just-as-you-are campaign? The images attract comparisons and judgment, and provide more opportunity for objectification. They have already prompted a rash of emails from self-appointed male judges who said Hawkins was pear shaped, that her bum was unappealing, that her breasts were too small, that she should have kept her clothes on.

More worryingly, the images have prompted women to compare themselves with Hawkins. “She wants to make [women] feel more comfortable about how they look, gee thanks, I now feel worse! I’m a size 10 and I still have more rolls than her!” wrote one.

Another email included a bulimia reference: “If anything is going to have me running to the toilet with my finger down my throat it’s a picture of Jennifer Hawkins naked.”

And who exactly is going to bid for the photos, you wonder.

Perhaps the Melbourne man who posted this comment on the Herald Sun website : “*Pant pant pant* OF COURSE Jen should’ve stripped, what a silly question to ask!”. Or Kit Walker of Geelong, who asked: “Where and how many of these magazines can I get!!!”Or perhaps the charming Darren of South Morang, who referred to his imminent Hawkins-inspired sexual arousal: “It’s likely to have a very positive effect on my body, that’s for sure.”

The whole PC beauty shift is for so many just a hilarious bit of theatre. But there is nothing amusing in mocking or encouraging the anxieties that cause untold misery and suffering to so many women. And the hypocrisy is everywhere, rising up to hit you in your flawed face. In the same newspaper promoting Jen “flaws and all” in a banner headline on its front page were three full pages of “Best bikini bodies: How 10 celebs got the perfect figure”. And who is featured there? Hawkins for “best overall body”.

“Our former Miss Universe easily has one of the most envied bikini bodies in the world,” it says, and Hawkins provides advice on how to “get a bikini body quickly”. (Other celebs are given accolades for “best bottom”, “best post-baby body”, “best tummy”, “best thighs”, “best boobs and abs”, and so on.)

Women are expected to believe that enlightened advances are being made in this quite monotonous and unimaginative regime.

This has been identified elsewhere, in regard to the tobacco and alcohol industries, as air cover: giving the appearance of social responsibility while really not doing much at all.

Marie Claire and Hawkins and her flaws, which aren’t really, will do nothing to lessen body dissatisfaction. Because it’s not really about celebrating a diversity of women’s bodies, as advertisers in the magazines spruiking body improvement products well know.

If Frank and fellow editors are serious about the body image problems their magazines have helped to create, will we see less airbrushing, less attention to the “thin, hot, sexy” cult and more real women, rather than insulting and meaningless token gestures?

See Melinda’s article as published in The Australian.

Published inBlogsBody ImageFashion IndustryMagazines

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