Dear Teenage Girls of Britain

You know those models you look at in magazines? The ones you’d kill to look like? Well, here’s some news: they don’t look that perfect in real life. They’re still ultra-skinny, with amazing bone structure (don’t think for a minute that you could look that good). Even so, in the cold light of day, without all those stylists, makeup artists, hairdressers, airbrushing experts etc., models don’t look quite as model-y. Got that? For some reason, this statement of the obvious is supposed to boost your self-esteem (and if it hasn’t, that means there’s something wrong with you).

In what might be described as the beauty industry equivalent of greenwashing, Vogue magazine has just followed in the footsteps of Dove in making a commitment to “educate” girls about beauty. Because girls really need educating, don’t they? There’s nothing like breaking a person’s self-esteem before selling a substandard version back to them (real beauty just isn’t real beauty without “beautiful underarms”, is it?).

Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has distributed a short film to schools, showing the work required to make fashion shoots. By doing so she hopes to disabuse Britain’s girls of the foolish notion that looking beautiful is both hugely important and totally impossible. It’s just very important and near-impossible. According to Schulman Vogue’s fashion photos exist “to inspire and entertain while showing the clothes created by many highly talented designer”:

They are created with this intention in mind, not to represent reality.

The problem, if there is a problem, comes when people judge themselves and their appearance against the models they see on the pages of a magazine and then feel that in some way they fall short.

As Holly Baxter writes, Vogue is thereby saying “it’s not us, it’s you”. It’s like one of those apologies where you’re told “well, I’m sorry you feel that way”. British teenage girls are apparently failing to respond appropriately to Vogue — presumably they’re not cultured enough — so it’s up to poor old Vogue to set them right.

The process whereby the beauty industry cherry-picks the language of pop psychology and feminism in order make itself appear a force for good infuriates me on so many levels. It’s the hypocrisy. It’s the way in which low self-esteem is defined as yet another female flaw. It’s the way in which the notion of inclusivity is itself made less inclusive. It’s not as though we don’t all notice the “one thing at a time” rule (every once in a while you are allowed to fail at being thin, pretty, white, able-bodied, cis or young, but you’re not allowed to fail at more than one of these things). The self-congratulatory, superior tone adopted by Vogue, Dove, Boots No. 7, Olay and the like is deeply offensive. Look, everyone! Look how totally not prejudiced I’m being! I even let fat women buy my products!  In what world can this be okay?

Perhaps I’m being churlish. Perhaps Britain’s schoolteachers really do have nothing better to do than accept the free lesson plans distributed by Vogue and Dove. Perhaps the most important lesson girls can learn is that they’re not sophisticated enough to understand the misogynist culture that surrounds them. God forbid they actually question it. Apparently they just need to get their heads down and learn the rules.