It’s a tale as old as time. Beauty’s sweetness and gentility transformed the Beast. Princess Buttercup’s alluring refinement and fair visage motivated Wesley to brave Inigo Montoya and fearsome ROUSes. Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships. Feminine beauty has long played a central role in the media for its power to captivate. In the realm of fashion magazines, though, beauty is a hypersexual “one-note wonder.” The repercussions are dire for women’s well-being.
Recently, Noah Berlatsky defended highly eroticized fashion magazines. In his words:
The reason images in men’s magazines often look like images in women’s magazines is that . . . they are both doing more or less the same thing. They are making women sexual objects, and serving them up to satisfy, or more likely to provoke, the desires of their readers.
Although in this case, this is empowering because:
Women get to be in the position of power, looking at and consuming bodies displayed expressly for them.
How sorely ignorant he is of real women. Studies show 75 percent of real women report feeling depressed or shameful after only three minutes of reading a fashion magazine. There’s a good reason for this–the images elevate hypersexualized body image as the primary measure of a person’s worth. The body becomes a tool to be utilized for the ultimate achievement: usually “pleasing your man.”
Women can’t help but feel inadequate when confined by such a narrow standard. Researcher Dr. Susie Orbach from the global 2004 Dove Real Beauty study noted, “When it comes to strictly physical attributes, the images of manufactured femininity are rejected as being too narrow, as inauthentic and as insufficient.” Women’s endless pursuit of an “impossible dream” winds up being, frankly, exhausting. Furthermore, it’s stifling for healthy holistic development.
Pre-adolescent girls graduate from the innocence of Sleeping Beauty to make their entrée into the world of Miley Cyrus on the cover of Cosmo. These tender minds seek guideposts to help them navigate their sense of self and place in the world. They are unable to accurately delineate between aspirational and delusional. With 69 percent of girls and women saying that magazines influence their ideal body shape, is it a surprise that 68 percent of girls ages six through nine want to be considered “sexy”?
The consequences of these conditions are dire. The American Medical Association cited a large body of research linking eating disorders to media-propagated images and called for the cessation of exposure to images portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo-editing software. We should demand more for these young girls.
For the sake of a healthier society, it’s time for an alternative. Pardon me, Mr. Berlatsky, but what girls and women truly desire (and need) is for magazines to spend less time telling them how they should be and more time celebrating who they are. To portray the myriad of complexities in their lives. To offer an uplifting standard of beauty that doesn’t exploit their sexuality. To consider a loftier life goal beyond sex tips and “pleasing your guy.” That would make women feel truly empowered.
But what do I know? I’m just a woman.