Thursday, January 10, 2013

When is a Woman Not a "Real" Woman?

Several people have (rightfully) taken issue with phrases like "real women have curves" or "featuring real women" used to promote movies or magazines showing women that aren't as thin as typically seen in pop culture.

The Fat Nutritionist explains:
ENOUGH already with all this real woman garbage. We’re all real women, for fuck’s sake — the thin ones, the pale ones, the dark ones, the hairy ones, the not-hairy ones, the short ones, the tall ones, the young ones, the older ones, the fertile ones, the sterile ones, and yes, of course, the fat ones. If anyone has the temerity to identify as a woman in this culture, I’m handing them over an Official Membership Card and inviting them to the pool party, since, you know, I’m a real woman and all.
Dori Hartley took the concept to task in this article:
So, now, in order to feel good about being large, you have to loathe what's small. You can't just love your self, you have to hate someone else. Those Victoria's Secret Angels? If you're snorting and huffing and puffing over how sickly they look and how vile they are with their slim legs and their pouty young wet lips, then, doll face, you've bought the entire package. You are now a full-blown hater. You're everything you wanted to get away from. Now you know what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. Now, you too, can hate.
The pushback has sparked a tumblr dedicated to featuring women of all "shapes, sizes, colors, styles, and backgrounds" and images like these:

This is on my mind because of Lesley's excellent xoJane post about Lena Dunham and the complaints about her "forcing" her uncovered body upon the viewing public. (If you haven't read it yet, I highly suggest you do.)

In it, she turns a critical eye on the consuming public, which is exactly where I think a critical eye needs to be focused. She says this of our hypocrisy:
For all our talk about wanting to see more so-called “real women” in the media we consume -- a problematic category itself, as all women are “real,” no matter how near or far they might be to the female beauty ideal -- we are awfully quick to condemn a woman who is showing us reality in a very plainspoken, unvarnished way.
She also links to another post that she wrote earlier where she questions whether we really want to see more "real" women in print. In that post, she says this:
I’ve asked whether we really want to see “real” women in media in the headline to this piece, but it’s a trick question: All women are “real,” even the ones who are extremely slender, even the ones who are traditionally beautiful, even the ones who make their livings by representing a beauty ideal subsequently rendered impossible via the addition of Photoshop.   
And this last line is the only place I disagree with her, but I think it's a biggie. Lesley (and others) are absolutely right to note that simply changing the images we see in magazines will not be enough to eradicate internalized narratives of what makes someone "beautiful." We are quick to hold onto those standards, even when we cannot meet them ourselves. They're absolutely right to say that we have to question our own values and, as Lesley puts it, have a "change of heart" as well.

But I do think there's a time when a "woman" isn't a real woman, and that's when her image has been edited out of the realm of reality.

Beauty Redefined has a Photoshop Hall of Shame that features comparisons between unaltered images of women and altered ones.

This includes images like this one of Britney Spears:

And this one of Faith Hill:

In both of those examples, the real women (Ms. Spears and Ms. Hill) have been edited to be thinner, smoother, and generally more "presentable." At what point, though, does that image stop being a representation of their actual selves. At what point is that image no longer an image of the "real" Britney Spears and instead a fake image inspired by her likeness? 

Wherever that line may be, I will argue that it is crossed very often in advertising and media, as can be seen with this infamous ad from Ralph Lauren:

That's supposed to be model Filippa Hamilton, who was later let go for not fitting into the clothes with her size-4 frame. In an interview about this photo, she said this:
I was shocked to see that super skinny girl with my face. 
Notice the way that Hamilton describes that picture. She calls it "that super skinny girl." She doesn't see that image as being representative of herself but of some other person. However, that other person does not exist. That other person has been created out of manipulations of Hamilton's own body.

Kate Winslet also famously took on her manipulated cover of GQ magazine and said that she doesn't look like that. Cindy Crawford once said that she wishes she looked like Cindy Crawford.

If these women themselves does not think these pictures are of them, can't we agree that these are not  pictures of a "real" woman?

Watch this fantastic video that explains how dehumanizing and troubling these images can really be:

In an earlier post, I wrote that I think we need to remember the real motivation behind these images: profit. Magazines are primarily sponsored by companies in the beauty industry, companies that depend on us to feel flawed in order to spend our money to "fix" ourselves. The more images of unattainable standards they can throw our way, the more dollars we'll throw theirs. 

So I agree that accepting "real" women in our media will require a change of heart, but I think that we need to recognize that there is a time when a "woman" is not real, and that's when the real woman's likeness has been manipulated until it no longer represents a real person at all. Accepting every person does not mean we have to accept that


  1. I believe you make an essential point in that the origin of any talk about "real" women was these sorts of manipulations, not an attempt to say that thin women aren't real. Unfortunately, the whole notion has been co-opted and now this is used to say that heavier women are "real" and thinner ones are now.

    The main problem is that the fashion industry wants women who are living, breathing clothes hangers. They want the clothes to look good and have no concern for how they look on average people. There is quite literally, no end to how far they will go to accomplish this (as the manipulation of Filippa Hamilton shows). We have to reject these images and the products they sell categorically. If people really believe this is an issue that needs to be addressed, they need to vote with their wallets and their attention. Don't visit web sites that promote this sort of thinking. Don't buy products that are advertised with such outlandish imagery. The only vote that counts is the one that comes from your wallet.

    The sad thing is that people constantly see an agenda here. They think that it is about making us feel bad about ourselves so we'll buy products to make ourselves feel better. The only agenda, as you say, is making money. If we don't assist them in that endeavor, the messages will change.

    1. Yes! I do think that the profit-driven narrative does succeed largely because making us feel flawed leads to us making purchases, but I don't think these industries do that because they WANT to make us feel flawed. All they want (in as much as a company can "want") is to make money. If we choose to spend our dollars on products that are advertised through positive images, they'll do more of that. We need to vote with our wallets indeed.

  2. *thinner ones are not (Bah, careless typos)

  3. Great post. I'm also fascinated by the similarities and differences between this conversation and the one I've wound up in (a number of times) about "being a real man." Seems like the "real woman" thing is focused mainly around weight and figure, where the "real man" thing is focused mainly around style of dress and the "correct" interests & hobbies. But of course, you're right, it all boils down to making money and selling these images to the public. Interesting (and icky) stuff!

    1. Great points, and I think they're definitely all boiling down to the same profit-driven model. I also think that Huggies choosing to change their Dad Campaign when they got negative pushback is a great example of how companies will follow the money, even if that means bucking the negative stereotype.

  4. Excellent point and well stated. I our culture does not need to (and shouldn't!) bash thin people in order to have a more balanced idea of "beauty." I do, however, think the Photoshop horrors have gone too far.

  5. Women who like themselves don't buy as much stuff-- that's why we must never be allowed to feel like we are okay. And if we did feel okay we might get uppity, and then who knows what we'd do?