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Real Girls in a Barbie World

Women’s magazines should start catering to their readers, not the models in their ads

By Rena Xu

Carrie Bradshaw, heroine of TV’s “Sex and the City,” famously remarked in the episode where she models for a New York fashion show, “When I was broke sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of food. I felt it fed me more.”

As I recently perused my own copy of Vogue over a meal in Annenberg, it struck me that almost every female body featured in the magazine looked as if it had perhaps skipped one too many meals. Of course, this was no novel discovery—the endless pages of endless legs were little surprise. After all, models are almost always expected to fit an unhealthily tall and skinny image. What was surprising, however, was the fact that the pictures of impossibly thin, bikini-clad models appeared just pages away from an article discussing the serious battle against anorexia and bulimia fought by one of the most prominent of these models, Karen Elson. Evidently, writing about body problems was one thing, but actually compromising the glamour factor of the magazine by featuring “real women” was another consideration altogether.

To be fair, it’s commendable that Vogue has even called attention to the issue of female body image in modern society. Media’s enforcement of unreachable physical ideals for women has led to a serious problem of distorted self-images: at least 1 in 5 young women in America today has an eating disorder, while a study of fourth grade girls found that 80 percent of them were already on diets.

Dr. Mary Pipher writes in Reviving Ophelia that “...the omnipresent media consistently portrays desirable women as thin.... Even as real women grow heavier, models and beautiful women are portrayed as thinner.” Today, it is almost impossible not to be subjected to the socially determined standards of attractiveness; television, advertisements and diet programs are constantly reinforcing the same message that thinness is synonymous with beauty and success. More dangerous, this message fuels an illusion that the “perfection” of models is attainable, if only one wants it badly enough. Thus women are left aspiring towards images that are usually not even humanly possible. For the dieting and beauty industry, this translates into great profits. For the women, it often translates into profound physical and emotional compromises.

As a prominent force in the fashion world, Vogue holds the rare opportunity to directly influence society’s conception of beauty for women. Instead of using this power for good, though, Vogue has mostly chosen to enforce the stereotypes of body images. Its photo spreads still show impossibly thin women, languidly perched on stools and stilettos. Advertisements for everything from purses to perfume still make use of sensual female body parts.

Moreover, what efforts Vogue has made in the past to be progressive on the issue of body image have fallen disappointingly short. Its annual Shape Issue, for instance, supposedly celebrates the beauty of all different body shapes and sizes. If anything, though, its conceptions of “short” as 5’6” and “curvy” as a lanky woman with large breasts only perpetuate unhealthy bodily images, instead of combating them.

While one magazine certainly can’t erase a problem that is being perpetuated by an entire society, it is capable of initiating progress by eliminating many of the mixed messages currently being sent to readers. If Vogue truly values the beauty of real women’s bodies, then it should reflect those beliefs in its content. Until it accounts for the many inconsistencies in its position, however, Vogue can only be a voice of fashion, but not a voice of leadership on the issues that most concern the women of today.

Rena Xu ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Holworthy Hall.

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