Last week I listened to a talk by Cameron Russell. She is a model and co-founder of Interrupt, an on-line magazine that addresses issues of identity among other things. She went up on the TED stage wearing a short, black dress and very high heels. When I saw her outfit I started to think of ways to focus on what she would be saying rather than the way she looked – she looked stunning, by the way. I didn’t want to roll my eyes and dismiss her ideas because of her choice of clothing. Surprisingly, she changed her outfit on stage. She changed the heels for a pair of flat shoes, she wrapped a skirt around her waist and put a sweater/cardigan on top of her dress. That was one of those moments when you realise where you stand in terms of judging people by their appearance. I can’t speak for anyone else but I felt uncomfortable when I saw her walk on the stage, I found her appearance a bit intimidating and in just a few seconds made several assumptions about her.
She officially opened her talk stating that image is powerful – a simple and maybe obvious statement. When I look around I see that our attitude to image in Western societies is contradictory. On the one hand, we want to convince ourselves that the way we look doesn’t matter, as a writer in The Guardian put it recently, “…I want, desperately, to say that the framing of a hero on the cover of a magazine doesn’t matter.” On the other hand, as Cameron Russell pointed out, people often enjoy certain privileges or suffer because of the way they look. Just think back to when you were a teenager, were there people in your school that were bullied because of their appearance? What about the people who were considered beautiful, were they treated differently?
There are all sorts of issues that come into play when we talk about body image; attitudes towards ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, health and so on. Even though these are all important, I’d like to focus on how we perceive image and how we use it. Maybe that’s where the tension lies. We want to live happy, fulfilling lives but when we look in the mirror we are often discontent with the way we look and that can be a source of disappointment for many people. We want young people to grow up with healthy attitudes towards their appearance, we don’t want teenagers to feel like they have to radically change the way they look in order to be noticed and liked. And yet the way we use images of people in media suggests something very different. In Canterbury city centre there is a La Senza shop, a lingerie retailer, that has enormous posters of a young woman wearing bright turquoise and pink lingerie. I walk past this shop very often and since it’s an ad for a shop that sells something, I have often wondered: what am I being sold here? What do men think when they see this ad? Surely, the retailer largely targets young women. So why use a pretty, young, white woman to advertise their product?
Cameron Russell did something interesting during her talk, she juxtaposed images of her in ads and on the runway with photos of her doing day-to-day things, e.g. hanging out with friends. She hoped the audience would realise that the images of her modelling aren’t really photos of her, but rather constructions of her. This is usually what I see when I look at magazines and images of models. I see a composition; I look at the colours, the position of the bodies (note, bodies, not people), hairstyles, accessories, use of light, use of props, the type of shot…and so on. I have to admit that even though the way I look at things has to do with my personality, my approach to fashion photography, for example, has been greatly influenced by my education. I have a similar approach towards film, literature, paintings and sometimes music. I don’t expect fashion shows to tell me about the real world, I don’t look for realistic situations in films and I avoid TV adverts at all costs. But ten years ago, when I was about to turn 15, I loved watching music videos and I remember wishing I looked like the women in the videos. I remember constantly feeling awkward about my appearance, I remember feeling invisible at school dances, I remember thinking that my eyes were droopy and never letting my hair down in public because I thought it looked really big.
I have resisted writing about this for a while because I don’t have a problem with the way I look anymore. I don’t need a magazine to tell me what is beautiful, I see beautiful things and beautiful people everywhere. I look for beauty everywhere. I’ve realised, however, that just standing on the outside of the issue and observing is selfish. The truth is that image does matter and that the only reason we see constructions or representations of people in advertising is because they are trying to sell us more than a product. There are reasons for the way women are presented or choose to present themselves; there’s a reason why Beyoncé’s use of her body is widely seen as female empowerment and she’s lauded for her confidence but Lena Dunham is criticised and constantly asked why she appears naked in Girls. Going back to the La Senza advert, I guess that it’s prompted questions in me because it’s an ad I cannot exactly remove. It’s there, on a wall in Canterbury city centre and I can’t take it down and, well, I don’t like it. I don’t like the colours or the underwear in that shop. The only thing that remains is looking at the girl and that’s when I started thinking, are they trying to sell me the image of this woman? Maybe I’m being sold the crazy idea that if I wear their underwear I’ll look like the woman in the add! And maybe it isn’t unfair to say that as well as being persuaded to buy underwear I am being indirectly told that to be beautiful is to look like that woman. I don’t have a problem with the model in the ad, I don’t even know who she is – on that poster she isn’t a person, she is two-dimensional, she doesn’t have a name or personality. And that’s exactly the point. Image, however powerful, is superficial. Beyond whatever ideas of beauty or female empowerment we are sold through visual media the most important and detrimental one is the idea that if only we could change our appearance we would be happier, healthier, more fulfilled human beings.
Cameron Russell touched on insecurity during her talk, she talked about some of her insecurities and the insecurity she sees among her colleagues. The interesting thing is that if we are honest it is pretty obvious that all human beings have insecurities and that having longer legs, a flat stomach, a different skin colour or being taller doesn’t make us more accepting of ourselves or others. There is very little we can do about the way we look without going to extremes. We know that and yet we often pin our sense of value to our appearance. After all it is much easier to work on something superficial, however fragile and finite, than to look for the real sources of our insecurities. It would’ve been much easier for me to stay on the sidelines and watch people blame celebrities, films, advertising and pornography for how messed up the way women are presented is and how that affects everyday life. I honestly don’t think we’re ever going to crack the code and solve it all. I’m convinced that the way we objectify others and ourselves is just a symptom of what’s going on in our hearts and minds. And I know that as a society we are so obsessed with living fast and being comfortable that very few people actually want to know what goes on in their hearts and minds. It is uncomfortable stuff, it is much more uncomfortable than seeing the reflection of our bodies in the mirror. I do hope that as the conversation on image continues there will be people who are willing to be honest with others and most of all with themselves.
A link to Cameron Russell’s talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model.html