Questioning the new beauty lessons for girls

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.


11 thoughts on “Questioning the new beauty lessons for girls

  1. Well at least its a step in the right direction if any young girl starts to realize the photographs are unattainable even if the message comes from those that profit from the insecurity they create. Hopefully it will start the process of the girls questioning why the magazines recognize the problem yet continue to perpetuate it – anything that does is fantastic. The fact its a home goal, well I’m not going to argue with that!

    1. I hope you’re right – it would be great if it backfired in that way! I do worry about girls feeling grateful instead – as though they’ve just been given permission to be a bit less model-like.

  2. I just don’t understand the logic here. So Vogue is saying in ‘real life’ the models don’t look this perfect even though they are still quite beautiful. So why are they airbrushing etc to achieve a homogenous pretty look on the models which is humanly unattainable? No one wants to promote “ordinary” beautiful as opposed to “perfect” beautiful in the glossies.

  3. The thing is that Vogue has assumed that we don’t know how much work goes into these photo shoots. For the most part, I’d bet every girl does know! And you know what, that doesn’t even matter because the models are still impossibly thin, tall and bone-structurey and when that’s all your presented with, with or without extreme retouching, many women are going to feel like crap about their own bodies. And making a big thing about presenting other kinds of women’s bodies as though these publications deserve some kind of cookie for it, only shows that they absolutely know what they are doing and have little to no interest in changing it.

  4. I have a daughter- she’s only 6 now, but the princess thing has already started. The only way I can help her escape the patriachial beauty test is to present her with as many different examples of being a woman as I can. A company like dove or vogue throwing in a few ‘larger’ size models is just a patronizing afterthought that does nothing to the change the stereotype’s of what is or isn’t acceptably beautiful.

  5. While you make the usual fair points and you write well, once again you skip the whole personal responsibility thing. Let’s just blame industry [insert whatever is hot] for the current [insert whatever is hot] problem instead of taking or teaching the responsibility for ourselves, our opinions, views, thoughts, feelings.

    There’s too much blaming of everyone else or other things in our culture when much of it can be managed by ourselves with the smallest amount of effort.

    It’s not rocket science and kids, teenagers, people aren’t quite as stupid as we want to believe.

    1. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism, to be honest. I think girls and women should be able to question beauty industry and ignore its diktats. Isn’t Vogue the one denying that this self-assertion is possible, instead pretending girls need to be “taught” self-esteem? What is questioning Vogue’s position if not taking personal responsibility rather than being spoon-fed a substandard version of self-acceptance?

  6. Interesting piece. I agree with Dani’s comment above that it’s a step in the right direction. Of course it’s ridiculous for us to applaud a magazine or a brand that includes one impossibly beautiful black girl, one impossibly beautiful Asian girl and one weighs-more-than-7-stone girl and calls it “diversity”.

    But is the “right” thing to do for magazines to show models with no makeup, no done hair because it perpetuates one version of beauty? I don’t think so. While it’s boring to pick up a magazine aimed at adult women with adult bank accounts filled only with models barely above age 19, I do enjoy the creativity and beauty of many fashion shoots.

    I take this move as positive. Fashion can no longer sit back and say merely “it’s their problem, not ours”. They are at last engaging. And I’m not so sure that all teens are sophisticated enough to realise just *how much* artifice and computer manipulation goes into these pictures. Even celebrities are whittled, contorted and airbrushed to within an inch of their lives.

    1. I think Glosswitch’s point here is that this move reinforces the “it’s their problem” narrative – they’re trying to change us, not changing themselves.

      I enjoy the art of fashion photography too, but I honestly don’t think it would be that hard for them to simply make their art more diverse and representative. I know the shoots are not about reality – when I started reading Vogue I literally did not believe the prices were real, and I still could dream of ever spending £1000 on a dress if I wanted to – but even industry insiders like Shulman realise the damage it’s doing, to women and girls everywhere, and acutely, even fatally, to models. It really doesn’t have to be that way! If we show women of all sizes colours & shapes in beautiful clothes, then our ideas of beauty will change.

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