Body Image, Fashion, Feminist/Gender Theory, Identity, Pop Culture, Society and Politics

There’s Nothing Empowering About Those ‘Body Positive’ Sports Illustrated Covers

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog on February 23rd 2016


Last week the 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue released no less than three different covers featuring three different body types: American model Hailey Clauson, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey (who appears in a body-painted swimsuit), and plus-size model and body image activist Ashley Graham.

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ashley Graham, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Hailey Clauson, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

Ronda Rousey, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016

It marks the first time a size 16 model has graced its cover and needless to say, the Internet went crazy. “Wow. Just, wow,” gushed The Huffington Post. “The body positivity movement is booming,” proclaimed Shape magazine. “And we couldn’t be more excited that SI picked women who add fuel to the fire.” Exactly the kind of responses that SI had been hoping to create as Assistant Managing Editor MJ Day made clear at their unveiling event:

“All three women are beautiful, sexy and strong. Beauty is not cookie cutter. Beauty is not ‘one size fits all.’ Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year’s issue.”

 She’s right, of course. Beauty certainly isn’t “cookie cutter” or “one size fits all” and seeing this (not so) ground-breaking idea finally appearing on the covers of an iconic beauty magazine gives it even more commercial validation for all those women out there who have never considered themselves to be ‘conventionally’ beautiful. And yet, as I looked at these uniquely beautiful cover girls in their swimsuits, all I felt was unease. There was just something about all this self-congratulation and buzzworthy empowerment that didn’t sit right with me.

Let’s break it down.

The pros are obvious. Women of all shapes and sizes deserve to feel loved, sexy, and beautiful, and celebrating that breaks down the harmful monotony of the ‘one-size’ beauty culture. A lot of women feel undervalued and invisible when they can’t see themselves on a cinema screen, or a catwalk runway, or a shop window, or a magazine cover, and so the more the body positive movement is allowed to infiltrate all of these fiercely image-conscious industries, the more women will feel healthier and happier in their own skin without the crushing pressure to constantly change themselves.

Let’s also not forget SI’s clear target demographic: heterosexual men. Another misconception that the ‘one size’ culture helps to wrongfully prevail is the idea that there is similarly a singular type of woman that all straight men find attractive. But from my research of actually, y’know, talking to straight men about their tastes in women this just simply isn’t true. Men have a very diverse range of sexual tastes and desires that different kinds of women can easily fulfil. Sometimes they can even open them up to new fantasies they didn’t even know they had.

'Not Models' photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use "real women", from Stylehasnosize.com

‘Not Models’ photo shoot calling out an M&S campaign for claiming to use “real women”, from Stylehasnosize.com

Speaking of the straight male demographic, let’s get into the cons. There is always a fine line to tread between owning your sexuality and allowing it to be owned by others. This is something that has plagued feminist debate for decades, especially when feminist artists and performers use nudity or provocative imagery as a means of self-expression. Whenever I think about this debate, I am always reminded of a particular section from art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1975):

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. […] She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

 “One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

As inspiring as the body positive movement is, you can’t escape from the fact that these covers are sexualised female bodies for the approval, delight, and consumption of male eyes specifically. They still place sexuality and image as the most valuable trait for any women of any visible description. Ashley Graham is a role model for plus size women. But who cares about that unless she also looks great in a bikini! Ronda Rousey is a successful and respected female athlete. Yeah, but is she hot though? Any way you slice it, it’s the same old objectification but with a ‘body positive’ Get Out Of Jail Free card attached.

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated May 2015)

Now THIS is an empowering cover. (Ronda Rousey on the cover of Sports Illustrated, May 2015)

It’s also worth noting that out of the three covers released, not one single woman of colour has been featured. I guess racial inclusivity and body inclusivity are two completely separate things to SI. 

In fact, I think I’ve finally worked out what that feeling of unease is that I just couldn’t find the reason for earlier. It’s exactly the same feeling I get from all those “real beauty” Dove adverts. For years, the personal care brand Dove has – in the brilliant words of Mark Duffy – “passive-aggressively assaulted women’s physical insecurities to sell beauty products.” Think about every Dove TV advert you’ve ever seen. Did you ever worry about not having soft enough underarms, firmer skin, or more radiant under-eyes before watching it? Nope, me neither. But apparently Dove thinks these are pressing issues to further women’s empowerment. Who cares about the patriarchy when you have a natural-looking glow!

Dove's 'Campaign For Real Beauty' Ads revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Dove’s ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ Ads in 2008 were revealed to have been Photoshopped.

Hijacking an aspirational movement or trend like body positivity to use as an empty marketing ploy for easy headlines is certainly nothing new, but judging from the trend-worthy hype those SI covers have generated it’s effectiveness clearly hasn’t diminished either.

I’m not saying that Ashley Graham and Ronda Rousey aren’t empowering women. I’m just saying these particular photos of them aren’t. And incidentally, if you want to see some real body positive photos of women (and men) that don’t reduce their models to sex objects, then take a look through this great collection on Bustle.

Although I can see some of the positive benefits of using models of different sizes, when you break it down SI is still a magazine that pedals eroticised photos of swimsuit models to cater to straight male sexual fantasies and little else. The only difference here is that the editors have found a way to trick people into applauding that.


 

IMAGE CREDITS

1 – 3: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Annual 2016 featuring Ashley Graham, Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson.

4. ‘Models vs. Not Models’ photoshoot campaign from Stylehasnosize.com

5. Sports Illustrated cover featuring Ronda Rousey, May 2015

6. Hacktivist photo from Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ advert campaign, 2008

Advertisements
Standard
Wonder Woman
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

A Female Character’s Waistline Should be as Realistic as Her Job Description

Originally published on the Fanny Pack Blog.


There’s no denying that body image is a prickly issue within Feminism and our cultural landscape in general. As women, we live in a confusing world in which certain cosmetic companies *cough Dove cough* tell us to love our imperfections whilst simultaneously selling us products to fix imperfections we never realised we had (dry underarms, anybody?); in which we are apparently dicing with death when we order diet pills from the Internet; and in which our most shamed body parts one month could become our most fantasised about the next, depending on which female celebrity ranks highest on Google.

Dove Advert

Dove ‘Beautiful Underarms’ Campaign

It is no surprise then that our precious imaginary worlds, both on page and on screen also suffer from the same real-world problems. A recent trend happening online that has caught my attention has been identifying and even ‘fixing’ the unrealistic proportions of our favourite super heroines and Disney princesses. From hair, to historical accuracy, to waistlines – if there’s something to be changed, there’s someone with a Photoshop brush poised to change it.

Disney princesses with realistic waistlines

Disney Princesses with ‘Realistic’ Waistlines

The reason is certainly well-intentioned. These fictional characters – however much we kid ourselves – are intended for the consumption of younger audiences, and as such, impractical standards of beauty can have a negative impact on their perception of it and their sensitive self-confidence. But, does that mean that every ridiculously proportioned female character rendered in ink or animation is a problem waiting to be fixed? I would argue no, or at least, not in certain circumstances.

This thought struck me after I came across this particular image of Wonder Woman from Bulimia.com, whose creative team came up with the idea of giving superheroes ‘realistic waistlines’ after seeing people do the same for Disney princesses.

Wonder Woman Parody Bulimia

Wonder Woman Parody from Bulimia.com

The incentive was completely worthy: highlighting to young people that these fictional characters sport similarly fictional body shapes. Whilst it’s pleasing to see that adding a few extra pounds has certainly not lessened these super heroines’ appeal in the slightest, I did take issue with this treatment being performed on Wonder Woman specifically, and let me explain why.

I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s glued to the exploits of small-screen action heroines like Buffy and Xena as they high-kicked and shrieked their way through their improbable lives. They may have worn short skirts and metallic bras, but they were, and still are, hugely empowering to me, and their athletic physiques were a big part of that.

Xena Warrior Princess

“‘Sup, Bro?”

As the grand matriarch of all our pop cultural warrior women like Buffy and Xena, Wonder Woman still looms large today as the physical embodiment of female strength; the kind of strength that enables her to go toe-to-toe fearlessly with her muscular male equivalents. She is a warrior, a Goddess, and a champion of women’s rights. She’s the comic book answer to Rosie the Riveter.

The crux of what I’m saying is thisA female character’s waistline has to be as realistic as her job description.

If she was raised on an all-female island of warrior women, then she should have a warrior’s body. However, if she was raised in a fairy tale castle where her only physical activity was to sweep the floor and cook dinner for an ungrateful and demanding surrogate family then there is no logical necessity for her to sport a 24” waist and tiny slipper-sized feet. The same goes for nearly every princess in the Disney school of character design, in which being impossibly slim is as requisite as singing to birds and having at least one dead parent.

Not only can excessively small waistlines be a problem, but excessively sexualised ones too. And whilst exaggerated idealisation can be acceptable for certain characters as I’ve discussed, exaggerated sexualisation is often totally unnecessary and voyeuristic. This usually comes through not in the way that certain female characters are built, but how they are clothed and posed, and one that has attracted a lot of scrutiny recently is Starfire from DC’s Teen Titans.

Starfire Bikini

Starfire, from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, 2011

Like Wonder Woman, Starfire is a warrior princess from a faraway fantastical place and as such she is pretty darn ripped. Her idealised toned body poses no problem to me, and her hyper-positive personality makes Starfire one of my favourite members of the Titans. However, her wrestling-inspired barely-there costume and the leering angles artists often choose to draw her at distract from her ungendered qualities as a powerful crime-fighter to make you constantly aware that she is a woman with very womanly parts.

There is of course nothing wrong with female characters utilising their feminine wiles. Poison Ivy and Catwoman, for example, use the femme fatale shtick as part of their villainous arsenal, and Starfire is in fact a very playful and flirtatious character – she even worked as a model at one point in the 80s. But I refuse to believe that even such a body-confident beauty like Starfire would decide that an outfit that risked her boobs popping out every time she threw a punch.

The Bulimia.com parody artwork was of course not intended to criticise comic book art as a whole, but it did unintentionally hit upon the solution to the problem of unrealistic proportions in fictional characters: Diversity. As I said earlier, if we want our heroines to look more positively ‘realistic’ then the parameters of their realism need to be defined by their individual lifestyles just as we real women are defined by ours. If a female character is a brawler that spends every night kickboxing street thugs, give her a six-pack and killer thighs. But if she’s just rocked up as a new student at the Xavier institute with the power of telekinesis then she could be either over, under, or of an average body weight and it wouldn’t make any difference to her abilities or our ability to connect with her as a character.

Thankfully this positive change towards body diversity is already alive and well in pop culture as exemplified by excellent comics such as Rat Queens and excellent cartoons such as Steven Universe, which both feature refreshingly female-orientated super-powered teams of diversely powered and sized heroines to love and relate to.

Rat Queen

Rat Queens

Steven Universe

Steven Universe

In terms of costume, it’s also pleasing to see the small but significant changes made to powerhouse heroines recently like Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, and (yay!) Starfire, whose idealised but practical bodies are finally matched by practical clothing.

Wonder Woman, Starfire, and Ms Marvel Costume Re Design

(From left to right, clockwise) Wonder Woman (2015), Starfire (2015), and Kamala Khan, aka the new Ms. Marvel (2014)

We still need our Goddesses, warriors, and sirens, but there’s more than enough room for our chunky, scrawny, or just plain averagely shaped heroines to inspire us as well.

Standard