The Body Beautiful

In the women's studies course I teach, we've been talking about body image, media representation, and other related issues. One article we discussed brought attention to how we view the body as parts, not as a whole. I've been pondering this idea, because I think when we don't like something about our body, we fixate on the negative "parts." Then the whole becomes negative. "My hips are too big" really means I don't think my whole body is proportionate. Our perception of our body comes from our comparison of our own bodies to images or representations of other bodies. It's not a true examination of our holistic body.

Some magazines lately have done some interesting things to talk about the body. I applaud the efforts, but sometimes I think they fall flat and occasionally might actually be harmful. (Be forewarned: I've linked the following examples on the bolded words, but some of them are nude photographs of women. They are covered, but nude.) Serena Williams says she's insecure about her curves so she poses nude for the cover of ESPN Magazine's "body" issue this month. Glamour gets some good comments on an "au naturael" photo of a woman sitting au naturale with a belly and a smile on her face, so they do an official shoot of some of their "fuller figured" models and run a supporting article. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty sponsors a movie called The Women featuring a cast who isn't super-skinny, but thinner than average.

Feminist critics, politically and religiously conservative commentators, and other folks have a lot to say about women being nude subjects of photography. The nature of photographs meant for consumption in magazines really is a whole topic in and of itself. I think the photographers and subjects meant well, I really do. And I draw some encouragement from their attempts.

However, there are some (perhaps unintended) messages getting through here. First, be confident about those curves as long as you aren't fat. Sure, a size 8 is ok. But beyond that you don't look sexy naked. If these women are "plus-size" then what about women who are overweight? Second, "natural" confidence can only be exuded when you are in a professional studio, your picture taken by an artist, and your make-up and hair done with expensive products. And it would help if you're a model. I don't see someone's no make-up, candid backyard photograph, taken by a friend, appearing in these mags as features on "real" women's bodies. And third, the way to express your confidence in your body is to pose nude. In many ways I think it would be better to show women in clothes that hug a stomach that's not perfectly toned or ill-fitting jeans or something. Naked models complicate our gaze because it's always going to be voyeuristic in some way, even if we're meant to sincerely appreciate the female form.

The whole body, then, is an account of our interior and external struggles and triumphs. There are ways to hate it and love it (sometimes simultaneously) in constructive ways. And I'm glad to see that some people in the fashion industry are at least trying to show us that.

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