Do We REALLY Want to See “Real” Women?

I don't know that we can exclusively blame magazines for making women hate their bodies. (Although they certainly don't often help.)
Publish date:
April 23, 2012
body image, magazines

Last week, 13-year-old Julia Bluhm launched a petition on asking the venerable teen institution Seventeen Magazine to commit to publishing one unaltered photo spread per month, and to promise to begin including “regular” girls. Her thoughtful letter reads, in part:

I’m in a ballet class with a bunch of high-school girls. On a daily basis I hear comments like: “It’s a fat day,” and “I ate well today, but I still feel fat.” Ballet dancers do get a lot of flack about their bodies, but it’s not just ballet dancers who feel the pressure to be “pretty.” It’s everyone. To girls today, the word “pretty” means skinny and blemish-free. Why is that, when so few girls actually fit into such a narrow category? It’s because the media tells us that “pretty” girls are impossibly thin with perfect skin.

Here’s what lots of girls don’t know. Those “pretty women” that we see in magazines are fake. They’re often photoshopped, air-brushed, edited to look thinner, and to appear like they have perfect skin. A girl you see in a magazine probably looks a lot different in real life.


For the sake of all the struggling girls all over America, who read Seventeen and think these fake images are what they should be, I’m stepping up. I know how hurtful these photoshopped images can be. I’m a teenage girl, and I don’t like what I see. None of us do. Will you join us by signing this petition and asking Seventeen to take a stand as well and commit to one unaltered photo spread a month?

The question of magazine “realness” has been a popular one in recent years. In August of 2009, Glamour caused a totally unintentional sensation with a three-inch image of size 12 model Lizzi Miller in naught but her drawers -- a sensation that led Glamour to promise to include a wider diversity of bodies in their pages henceforth (although, nearly three years on, I can’t say how strictly they’ve kept to this commitment). The overwhelmingly positive and grateful response from women relieved to see a body that looks familiar in a magazine would seem to indicate that this is something we want to see.

Lizzi Miller's famous Glamour shot.

And yet, history would seem to suggest otherwise: In the mid-90s, before Internet shopping was the huge thing it is today, many plus-size women did at least part of their shopping via mail-order catalogs. Curiously, the models in these catalogs were never plus-sized themselves, and instead the clothes were pinned to fit standard size catalog models.

Shoppers had often complained about this, as it was true of most plus-size catalogs of the time. However, one of these catalogs -- now defunct, unsurprisingly -- decided to do something about it, and pledged to start using actual plus size models to sell their clothes. They shot new product images and took a huge chance on being the first big-name catalog to show plus size clothes being worn by plus size women (at the time, even plus size mall monolith Lane Bryant wasn’t using true plus size models in its ad campaigns) -- and ostensibly the first to reap the benefits of this brave new world.

You can guess what happened next: That catalog’s sales plummeted. It seemed that what women claimed to want to see -- bodies that looked like theirs -- and what inspired them to BUY THINGS had very little in common. (One could also argue that the problem was with the clothes themselves, which were neither stylish, nor classic, nor particularly well-fitting, some of which might be overlooked on a smaller body but in true-to-life size became unavoidable.)

I could TOTALLY be a "real" lady model, you guys. Witness my razor-sharp intuitive knowledge of what to do with my hands when someone takes a picture of me.

A catalog is not a magazine, but to some extent they share the same goals: to inspire women to associate positively with the images within, and ultimately to encourage their consumers to buy the products they’re advertising as a means of accomplishing that aspirational ideal.

This is a near-universal concept in lots of media. It should surprise no one that seeing people who look like us already is unlikely to make us feel aspirationally motivated. So as much as we might say we’re interested in seeing familiar bodies with familiar “flaws,” that may not be the whole truth.

I’ve asked whether we really want to see “real” women in media in the headline to this piece, but it’s a trick question: All women are “real,” even the ones who are extremely slender, even the ones who are traditionally beautiful, even the ones who make their livings by representing a beauty ideal subsequently rendered impossible via the addition of Photoshop.

When we confirm the “realness” of some women at the expense of others, everybody loses, because we’re still valuing women based on their looks, we’re just moving the goalposts a little. And honestly, Gisele Bundchen has days when she hates her thighs. Gisele Bundchen has days when she wishes she looked like Gisele Bundchen. Body insecurity is a virtually universal cultural and social experience, and that will continue to be the case so long as we’re ranking various ladies as “real” or “fake,” pretty or no -- instead of just letting individuals be individuals.

So while I wholeheartedly support Julia Bluhm’s motivations in trying to mitigate some of the body-negativity she sees among her peers (and damn, it warms the cockles of my dusty gray heart to see a 13-year-old calling herself a feminist), I think we will probably have to do some deep thinking about our own assumptions about what we want to see before pointing the finger at magazines as a cause of body-image woes.

Although magazine images may indeed reinforce our current beauty values (and although candid pro-Photoshop sentiment is increasingly hard to find), I don’t think a change in magazine policy alone can necessarily cure our preoccupation with chasing impossible perfection, especially if our subsequent response to seeing ourselves in media imagery is to stop looking, possibly out of internalized disgust. Any social shift in our expectations is going to take a change of imagery, sure -- but it will also take a change of heart.

But what do you think? Do you want to see so-called "normal," unenhanced women in your magazines? Let us know in comments.