Can Vogue Really Stop What it Started?

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THIS is the cultural beauty standard that Vogue claims it's out to change. Really? Okay then. GO!In In this month’s Letter from the Editor, Vogue’s Anna Wintour expounds on her magazine’s recent promise to stop using underage (meaning under 16 years old) and ultra thin models.  She calls Vogue’s partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America an example of their “renewed efforts to make our ideal of beauty a healthy one,”  and everyone’s on board from Tyra Banks to Sarah Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance a not-for-profit group that provides a platform for models in the American fashion industry to organize for better workplace standards.

Then there’s me.

When I spoke to the Associated Press about this, I argued that Vogue is grandstanding in order to make nice with a public that is ever more fatigued by fashion’s fantastical version of what women should look like.   Vogue and its industry colleagues know damn well that we’re upset about how couture’s extreme beauty ideals have trickled so far down that Abercrombie and Fitch was selling push up triangle bikinis to tweens this time last year.  Or how it’s driven women like Sarah Burge, the self proclaimed “Human Barbie,” to gift her daughter with vouchers for future breast implants and liposuction.  And as a result, I believe they’re just throwing us a bone to settle us down.  I mean really, what amazing and tangible improvements are suddenly going to materialize just because Vogue will only now feature models who are seventeen and up instead of sixteen and up?  Exactly zero, in my opinion, if the industry’s rampant use of photoshop and other methods of digitally altering just about every single image we see in the mainstream media doesn’t stop.   And Vogue mentions nothing about that in its new pledge, which is probably because it’s not going to stop that practice.

A few years ago, the New Yorker reported that at least 144 of the images in Vogue’s March 2008 issue were retouched by master photoshopper (yes, that’s an actual profession now) Pascal Dangin, including the cover shot of Drew Barrymore, thirty-six fashion photos, and advertisements by Estée Lauder, Gucci and Dior.   Sure, it’s an old stat—but my guess is that things have only gotten worse, not better, in subsequent years.  And did I mention that over thirty celebrities keep Dangin on retainer?  So that every single photo of them (nothwithstanding those pesky paparazzi shots) appears on his computer monitor before heading to the art department of a major magazine or advertising agency.  THAT’s the kind of fiction that fashion bibles like Vogue proffer its readers. 

In addition, as my colleague Susan Linn, Ed.D.,pointed out during our recent joint conversation with The Daily Circuit on Minnesota Public Radio, the very language of Anna Wintour’s Letter from the Editor belies what the fashion industry truly values:

“Fashion has often been (wrongly) held up as an active agent in making women want to be excruciatingly thin, ignoring the complex genetic and psychosocial factors that contribute to eating disorders. Knee-jerk condemnation of many of the girls working today who are naturally blessed with slim bodies and exercise and eat well to maintain them is to be scrupulously avoided.”

Naturally blessed with slim bodies?  Girls who do the right thing and exercise in order to maintain them?  So, um, what was that you were saying, Anna, about embracing all shapes and sizes? 

But it’s the bit where Wintour takes credit for providing an early forum for open discussion about beauty ideals that really gets me.

“…thanks to the CFDA initiative, and to the honesty of Natalia Vodianova, Lara Stone, and Coco Rocha speaking out in this magazine and elsewhere about their negative experiences in the industry, there has been some progress.”

When I read that, I wished I could sit her—or them.  The editors whom I’ve heard say to Ford and Elite “Send me a perfect model for the next shoot.”  The models who diet themselves down and then let it be printed that they just LOVE to order in greasy burgers while working on set.  The designers who never get tired of trotting out the ol’ “We need models who can fit our sample sizes” defense instead of just changing the size of the darn samples—down and have them read the thousands of letters and emails I received when working as an editor for teen magazines like YM and when I was researching my book All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real BeautyBecause that’s where I heard young women say over and over again in their own words that they’d given anything to be as thin as a model.  That they wanted nothing more than to be considered as “certifiably beautiful” –and therefore valuable—as the A list actresses who grace the cover of magazines like Vogue. One example that still sticks with me came from a reader who wrote in that she was quitting volleyball (her passion!) because she was worried that a ball could hit her face and ruin her chances of being discovered at the mall. She knew, she wrote, that Kate Moss had first been scouted at an airport and was hoping for similar good fortune.  Other girls confessed things like:

“I feel fat.  I know I’m not, but all the things I see in the media make me feel that way.”

and

I’ve always wanted to model even it it means risking my health.  When I turn eighteen, I’m going to starve myself and try modeling because it means that much to me!”

And why did they want that for themselves?  Because the messages they’ve been exposed to from every form of media in our pop culture have told them to.    Because the decision makers in fashion and entertainment’s stratosphere have decided it’s what’s beautiful and what we should all want for ourselves if we hope to have half a shot at being considered pretty, important and worthwhile.

So sure, I hope that Vogue’s public proclamation to foster change does just that, but I’m not optimistic.  Because the work that its images and ethos have done since the heyday of the supermodels in the 1980s and 1990s is so fractured and far reaching at this point that it’s going to take a lot more than upping models’ minimum age or promising scale back on the skeletal skinniness to change our cultural beauty ideals.  

If I’m wrong, though, I’ll be the first to toast Wintour and her ilk—with my non-fat, skinny, low cal, soy latte, of course.