The August edition of Elle is out, but I’m still chewing on the “Editor’s Letter” from the July issue, wherein editor-in-chief Roberta Myers defends herself and the magazine. The charge: is women’s media harmful to women?
If you guessed that Myers said “no,” congratulations! Here’s her inauspicious start:
On May 3, I went on the Today show, and in a segment about the winds of change blowing down last season’s runways, I uttered the words “[Elle Macpherson] is not a skinny girl.” Not skinny as in, not one of the anorexic, near-dead models that Ann Curry and I had just been talking about… How ironic that I was actually praising the presence of an almost 50-year-old demonstrably busty and athletic woman as a hopeful sign in an industry where the models have always been way too skinny (read: underweight).
This might be an understandable explanation if Elle had never taken part in the industry tradition of using “way too skinny” models, and if comparing favorably to a “near-dead” model were a meaningfully positive evaluation. Is that how low the bar is now?
“Well, Roberta, she’s definitely still among the living. I even held a mirror in front of her face and detected exhalation!”
“She'll look great in the new Vuitton. Let’s book her!”
[The furor that erupted following her statement] was about what it was about 15 years ago, when I was an editor at Seventeen, and 10 years ago, when I was an editor at Mirabella: In the “who’s responsible for my self-hating body image” debate, there’s no debate at all.
That’s because, in the “who’s responsible for portraying pre-menarche girls as the pinnacle of female achievement” debate, there’s no debate at all.
As New York blogger Amy Odell put it, magazines for women “make us feel bad about ourselves.” I wrote to Amy, hoping she might…explore that a little bit on assignment, but she never wrote me back. Alas.
If only there were more than one blogger who might explain this! If Amy isn’t available, I certainly am.
Why do images of women who are prettier, slimmer, younger, darker, lighter, smaller, taller seem like an affront to our self-worth?
Oh, only because they’re used to point out how flawed we are in comparison, and then sell us products to fix ourselves.
And would self-esteem generally rise were models to look more like the rest of us—5’4” and 165 pounds, the current build of the average American woman?
Um, YES. Obviously.
It’s curious to me that there’s still a belief that the media puts too much pressure on women to be thin, because as a measure of influence it’s an utter failure: The average woman has added 20 pounds to her frame in less than 30 years. More than one third of adult American women are obese, a medically devastating (and expensive) condition.
Hey, did you hear that? It’s the death knell of print media. Isn't the publishing industry’s profit model entirely predicated upon influencing readers and then peddling that power to advertisers?
But seriously: It’s curious to me that Myers ignores the increasing amount of research that being overweight is not necessarily an indicator of poor health. And that the relative affordability of processed and fast foods and the sluggish economy might have more to do with the general rise in the population’s weight than her magazine. And that Elle vacillates between influential and ineffectual depending on whether it suits her argument.
The attractive people favored by media as a whole—movies, TV, magazines, websites—can seem oppressive at times, though they do reflect this truth: Good-looking people get attention.
While this may be true, it also ignores that, beyond the fashion industry, there is no universally accepted definition of “good-looking.” Any model who deviates from the youthful, emaciated standard is shoved into a story about camouflaging those flaws or becomes an excuse for a magazine to onanistically praise its own open-mindedness. Which, you know, could "seem oppressive."
As we grow up and out into the world, how much does the presence of women who have more of whatever it is (brains, success, piano-playing ability) that bothers us about ourselves really hurt us? …as an adult I realized it felt good to be told I was attractive. And it didn’t diminish my accomplishments one bit.
In other words: “I don’t have self-esteem issues, so I don’t understand why anyone else would. And I’m not publishing this in a national magazine because I feel the need to prove anything.”
And it’s a fair question to ask if media is setting, or reflecting, the cultural norms. Feminism allows us to be, pursue, remake ourselves however we like, so it’s challenging to consider what’s the right amount of “change” advice (let’s not call it improvement) for Elle to offer…
You know, I'm loath to make any kind of definitive statement about the nature of feminism, but I’m going to have to go out on a limb here: I’m pretty sure feminism doesn’t exist so we can “be, pursue, remake ourselves” according to Elle’s high-priced doctrine. It’s so we can “be, pursue, remake ourselves” as anything we want. Anything! Even, say, equal to men, whose magazines—last I checked—don’t contain nearly as many condescending explanations of why their readers’ feelings are totally unjustified.
Do we think that if Elle and the rest of “women’s” media stopped running stories about the latest skin saver, we’re all stop caring about our faces?
Scare quotes and a straw man.
And if the average model (under 20, 5’10”, and 124 pounds) were suddenly replaced by a 35-year-old five-footer, would we no longer find the leggy teenager beautiful?
Is there a reason we can't have both? Because—this might blow your mind—we could find them both beautiful.
Yes, we love [the musicians in this issue] for the way they look! And for the way they sing, write, perform, and otherwise rock our worlds. In every way, I flunk by comparison. And the world is so much more interesting for it.
Wait, so Myers admits to feeling inferior in comparison to these women…when that’s the same attitude she decried earlier.
Admittedly, it’s a daunting task to justify the existence of an entire industry. And while I don’t think anyone expects Myers to launch an all-out attack on her own livelihood and, like, immediately cease Elle’s publication, it isn’t unreasonable to hope for a genuine attempt to answer the fashion industry's critics. Instead, we get clichés, contradictions, and almost zero acknowledgment of magazines’ role in promoting the outrage that inspired Myers’ response. Women’s magazines can't speak for all women, but it would be a vast improvement if they at least tried to speak to us.