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

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Fashion, Feminist/Gender Theory, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory

The Lumbersexual Proves That Masculinity Is In Crisis – And It’s a Good Thing.

First published on Fanny Pack.


What’s happened to the metrosexual man?

At the advent of the new millennium it seemed as though the laddish, matching-tracksuit-wearing man of the ’90s was becoming deeply unfashionable, replaced by an all-new slicker, cleaner, prettier model. The metrosexual man wore chinos and tight jeans. He wasn’t afraid to use moisturiser. He wore expensive underwear. His chin was stubble-free and his trainers were designer. His bed-head hair was quiffed to perfection. He worshipped at the altar of Beckham.

Lad and Metrosexual

(From left to right) Lad’s fashion and Metrosexual icon David Beckham. (Sources: The Guardian & Irish Central)

But now, like the ‘lad’s lad’, the metrosexual man is a dying breed: hunted out of high-fashion by a strange new type of man that emerged out of the wilderness late last year. He’s grown his moussed-quiff out into a top-knot and thrown out his over-priced razor to let his facial hair grown wild like a sexy lawn. He has tattoos of Mexican skulls and ’40s pin-up girls on his arms. He wears flannel, wife-beater vests, and American Apparel hoodies. His glasses make Christopher Reeves’s ’70s frames look embarrassingly undersized.

You know this man. You’ve probably seen him drinking imported beer outside of a bar decorated with sheet metal and taxidermy. Or maybe you’ve seen him rifling through a rack of over-sized denim jackets at a thrift store. This man is the lumbersexual.

Lumbersexual styled model

A Lumbersexual-styled model. (Source: neverlikeditanyway.com)

But is the lumbersexual just another fad of the past year, or does he represent something deeper about the current ‘crisis of masculinity’? In a world in which the male suicide rate is climbing at an alarming rate, could something as superficial as a fashion statement really help stabilise this crisis? Should we even be calling it a ‘crisis’ in the first place?

The lad and the metrosexual may be two opposite ends on a spectrum of conventional (and broadly heterosexual) masculine behaviour and fashion, but what they share is authenticity. The men subscribing themselves to them are subscribing to forms of masculinity that they recognise within themselves – either careless or aspirational.

The lumbersexual is purposefully inauthentic, and could only exist now. Since the start of the new millennium, we’ve been sliding into a cultural zeitgeist in which irony and recycling has become the widest accepted currency in pop culture and fashion. A zeitgeist in which tackiness is the new chic and new ideas are old ones in disguise. Trends like the lumbersexual are a perfect culmination of this ironic re-appropriation: a delicately mixed recipe of romanticised blue-collar Americana, a vague sense of tribalism, and a dash of punk for good measure. An on-point lumbersexual has got his keys to his vintage truck in one hand and his brand new iPhone in the other. The perfect hyper-masculine costume for the 21st century. A parody – not an homage – of masculinity.

Even the Metrosexual King has succumbed to Metrosexuality

Even the Metrosexual King has converted to Lumbersexuality. (Source: blogspot.com)

This trend could be seen as either a new wave of broad exploration of what it means to be a man in our society today, or symptomatic of a deep-seated ‘crisis’ of masculinity that so many have speculated about in the last year. Columnist Katie Glass certainly seemed to indorse the latter in her article for September’s Sunday Times magazine, in which she voiced her concern for the increasing male suicide rate in the UK (which is currently a bigger killer than murder, road accidents, and HIV/AIDS combined) in relation to women’s progress:

“It’s hard not to see male suicide in the context of feminism. That while young women grow in confidence as feminism has evolved from dry academic discussion to being featured in Vogue, as women come together on social media […] nobody gives the same empowering message to young men. […] Young men are victims of patriarchy too.”

To assert that the empowerment of women has lead to the disillusionment of men to me is a patriarchal statement in itself, but I do agree with her that the patriarchy is also the culprit in this case. And it seems that most of the data on the gender divide concerning suicide rates supports this idea. Professor Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman noted in another similar article for the Guardian last January that:

“Even in their choice of suicide method, males and females act out culturally prescribed gender roles.”

Despite more women being diagnosed with depression and attempting suicide than men, women tend to opt for less violent means such as over-dosing, whereas men more often choose firearms or hanging and therefore have a much higher suicide success rate.

So, how exactly does donning a plaid shirt and buying beard oil combat suicidal thoughts? How do we help men fight the crisis of masculinity? Well, for starters, what if we thought of it as less of a ‘crisis’, and more of a deconstruction? Think of previous iconic trends that have briefly torn up the rulebook for men’s fashion: from the longhaired hippies of the ’60s, to the glam rockers of the ’70s, to the new romantics of the ’80s. Or what about looking outside of conventional heterosexual masculinity altogether? Think of drag queenscross-dressers, and ‘gender-fucks’ like Conchita Wurst. Whilst feminine fashion and behaviour has allowed for fluidity, mainstream masculinity – although fluctuating occasionally – has generally remained stubbornly rigid, and the men who challenge it always perceived as more scandalous than women who do the same.

Conchita Wurst redefining masculinity

Conchita Wurst: redefining masculinity. (Source: ibtimes.com)

This is why trends like the lumbersexual matter. Not as a genuine expression of ‘back to the good old days’ grunting and unwashed hyper-manliness, but as an ironic costume. Men dressing up as men like some kind of weird reverse drag act. Fashion – as ephemeral as it may seem to some – matters. The way we dress and project ourselves matters. Masculinity doesn’t need to be saved or preserved; it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. It needs expanding and exploring. It needs redefinition. If our construction of gender runs so deeply through our psychological governing that it even affects how we choose to kill ourselves – and how ‘successful’ we are at it – then surely that alone is proof of how urgently we need to change this construction – for both genders.

If we want to save generations of young boys from feeling helpless enough to take their own lives we need to stop telling them to ‘man up’, or even ‘woman up’; we need to tell them to shirk oppressive gendered expectations in favour of simply being more comfortable in their own skin. To explore their own sense of what it means to be a man, just like Caiden Henson and his proud lumbersexual father, Paul:

Caiden Henson dressed in his choice of Hallowe'en costume - Disney's Princess Elsa.

Caiden Henson (3-years-old) dressed in his choice of Halloween costume – Disney’s Princess Elsa. (Source: dailymail.co.uk)

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Selfies – “Electronic Masturbation?”

Written and posted for new blog, Fanny Pack, on 19th November 2014. Please head over there and follow them for more of the same Feminist articles written by myself and others!

Today’s technological advances have made it possible for us to make as many self-portraits as many times a day, hour, or even minute, in any place, and then exhibit them instantly for public exhibition and judgement on the Internet. For women, who have long been models on which to project fantasies of the ideal rather than the real, the significance of this has perhaps been undervalued. Gaining full control over the capturing and displaying of one’s own image today – especially in an image-obsessed digitalised culture – is no small achievement or freedom. Prior to this, the portrayal of the female form as a passive image rather than active participant has been an enduring cultural tradition. Instead of being directed, caught, degraded, positioned, posed, or manipulated by someone else with or without your own permission, the Selfie truly reclaims the autonomy to take a picture on your own terms and decide who your audience is.

“Electronic masturbation” – Karl Lagerfeld’s provocative dubbing of the Selfie – was clearly intended as a slur. After all, the solitary act of masturbation is for self-gratification only, and there is nothing more self-gratifying than a self-portrait, right? Of course it makes perfect sense that an icon of the fashion industry – an industry that makes it’s money telling us what to wear and how to look – would disapprove of a medium that undermines this power. Lagerfeld is right – the Selfie is “electronic masturbation” – and just what’s so wrong with a little self-gratification?

The backlash against Selfie ‘culture’ boils down to this:

We question why the taker of the portrait has chosen to take a flattering picture of themselves. We question why their self-gratification has to be acknowledged in a public forum. We question why women continue to present an image of themselves that they have been culturally conditioned to present – idealised, sexualised, and for the viewing pleasure of others.

If all women went against this idealism in their Selfies, would we applaud their honesty, though? In a culture we have constructed for ourselves that continually over-values physical appearance, why are we so irritated and surprised that the majority of women are still more comfortable covering their faces in layers of foundation and mascara, taking a self-portrait from a flattering angle, and then distorting it with an Instagram filter rather than share a brutally honest one and risk attracting negative judgement?

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Idealising beauty is certainly damaging, but that doesn’t mean we should always demonise vanity. In every image we create or capture there is an automatic disconnect between the person and the portrait of the person. In a sense, we create an alter ego of ourselves in every one of these portraits. Every time we digitally adjust these portraits – even as little as a change in brightness – we are confirming that this alter ego not only exists, but that it is the ‘better’ version of us. This is not vanity, but wish-fulfillment. Yet, for women in particular, vanity is a dirty word. The cultural twinning of vanity and sin can be traced back to the artistic tradition of depicting women with mirrors in classical portraiture, which itself can be traced back to Biblical lore. This is vanity punishment; a concept that teaches us that a woman is supposed to be effortlessly and naturally beautiful for the pleasure of others, but not for her own pleasure. It has helped mold our definition of feminine beauty in art and pop culture as one idealised through the eyes of male heterosexuality, and conversely both elevating and condemning female vanity.

If we change our perception of vanity, then perhaps we can change the way we perceive Selfie culture – as wish-fulfillment, as self-gratification, self-definition, and ultimately self-empowerment. Take pride in your own unique image, beauty, and sexuality, and feel empowered by the autonomy to capture, share, and immortalise it. If digitalism has made us the photojournalists of our own lives, why should we feel ashamed in being a bit vain about it?

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