Finally, it looks like significant change is happening in the corporate media. No longer are only ultra-thin women meeting its previously very rigid beauty standard – or what it’s really been – an acceptability standard for women.
Women with actual fat on their body (gasp!) are now increasingly represented in mainstream television and even glossy magazines. Not only are they appearing, they are being presented as examples of great beauty.
Sports Illustrated featured on its cover the gorgeous model Ashley Graham in 2016, which made international news because she is by traditional media standards about 70 pounds overweight.
Graham is now going to be a judge on the panel for the show “America’s Next Top Model” with Tyra Banks.
The popular HBO show “Girls” made headlines over the past few years because it revealed actual cellulite on one of the stars of the show. Glamour magazine followed suit by displaying on its cover the four stars, one of them boldly fat, her cellulite purposefully exposed.
Cable TV, YouTube, and other forms of alternative media distribution set the precedent a decade and more earlier. They have allowed us to see real bodies represented on video on a regular basis.
Now, the corporate media itself is changing. Actresses on TV commercials, female weather forecasters, even pop stars… It’s happening. Women who are larger than scarecrow thin are no longer banned from representation as being normal, and even beautiful, people.
What a victory – or so it seems. After all, for decades, feminists, concerned parents, and “plus-size” activists have been objecting to the media’s presentations of ultra-thin women as the measure of female beauty, and the required body type to even qualify to be a star.
They argued that this standard puts almost every woman alive, even lean women, in the “too fat” category, and that it leads many girls and women to develop and anorexia, bulimia, and the kind of dieting that ultimately leads to binging.
Corporations like Dove have listened. The mainstream media are adjusting to these demands. The basic tenets of public discussion on “body image” and the representation of women have shifted. It’s progress, for sure.
But something’s missing here. Something about as big as an elephant in a room.
It’s something that has everything to do with why so many women and girls have “body image” issues in the first place, and why so many develop eating dysfunctions.
That something isn’t simply about an inflexible or unrealistic or even physically unhealthy beauty standard.
It’s also about how women’s beauty is treated. It’s about how women’s bodies, however diverse in size and color and age, are depicted.
To put it in feminist terminology: the problem is sexual objectification.
The Sports Illustrated cover featuring the beautiful Ashley Graham might have sent the message to women who are larger than scarecrow thin that they, too, can be sexually desirable at the weight they are.
But is this a message about respectful desire? Or something else?
Do the photos of the three featured women of diverse body types elicit from the male viewer: a respect for women’s boundaries, an acknowledgement of their self-possession and their complex humanity, and the understanding that a woman’s sexuality is shared only with those a woman chooses to share it with?
Or does it send the message to the male viewer that the complex humanity of women who turn them on isn’t actually real, or doesn’t matter? Does it send the message that women don’t have meaningful sexual boundaries? And that women aren’t selective in whom they choose to share their sexuality with because – just look – these three diverse models who have what many consider to be the best job in the world for women – modelling – are all offering it to the camera and to millions of anonymous male viewers, no criteria needed?
Girls and women don’t develop low self-esteem, body image complexes, and eating dysfunctions simply because their body type isn’t represented in the media.
That’s part of the problem. But it’s not the most important part. In fact, the tight control over an outer beauty standard is actually just a facet of the real, deeper problem – and that deeper problem is the disrespectful portrayal of women. The portrayal of women – and even girls – as sexual objects.
Not every woman will agree that sexual objectification of women is a form of disrespect. Some women feel that embracing that role is a way to claim their femininity, and that the sexual attention they get from that isn’t disrespectful.
I would argue that what they are enjoying is the alleviation of open disrespect and disregard.
For men who have learned to objectify women, the prelude to “getting some” looks sort of like respectful behavior – smiles, nods, attention, maybe some gentlemanly …