The Other Side to Media’s Unrealistic Depictions of Beauty

Apologies for the break in posts over the past few weeks.  I’ve been cooking up a whole new aspect to my blog!  Stay tuned for the upcoming changes.

Courtesy of Numero Magazine

I was flying back from Paris last week and picked up the August issue of Numero magazine in the airport.  Though my French is terrible, my eye sight isn’t, so I relished in the magazine’s beautiful imagery.  But nothing blew me away as much as the amazing spread by Sophia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello.  Of course the photography was gorgeous and the fashion beautiful.  What stopped me in my tracks, though, were the striking images of young and older women (see pic above).  Despite my heavy load, I knew I had to carry that magazine with me all the way home.  This photoshoot elated me.  And it confirmed what I’ve been believing for a while.  Let’s not fear and reject media outright for it’s shaming of men and women.  Instead, let’s find ways to uplift it.

As a young strategic planner at DDB in the 90’s, I couldn’t escape all of the famous quotes from legendary ad man and founder, Bill Bernbach.  As you’d expect I barely remember most of them but a few have stuck.  One that has influenced me throughout my career, and frankly kept me connected to the marketing and advertising business as long as I have, was this:

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

Today, media, especially social media, is often vilified for projecting unrealistic, negative, stereotypical imagery of people.  And it can lead to the vulgar sides of society: body shaming, poor self image and crazy standards.  As a mother of girl entering puberty, I’m acutely aware of this.  Plus, I often catch myself measuring my looks against these standards.

But can we recognize the opportunity the media affords us too?

For better or for worse, we are visual creatures.  We are drawn to imagery, especially images of people.  Moreover, we are fundamentally attracted to beauty — beautiful people, beautiful images, and beautiful things.  Of course we have different interpretations of beauty.  But the truth they appeal to us… greatly.   And because we’re that much more likely to focus on a picture or video than sit down and read an essay, or listen to a pundit speak, we are likely to let these new notions of beauty and self-expression penetrate.

We could just bemoan today’s media or we could use our tendency towards beauty, and the media that leverages, it to “uplift”society, rather than “vulgarize it.”

How?

First, let’s use the plethora of imagery to spark a conversation with our kids.  We can ask them how they feel about it and how to view it all with a realistic eye.  Through that conversation we may venture into much larger issues of body image, aging, and confidence.

Second, we can influence media to push for more inclusive imagery.   And it’s happening already!  Media is starting to hear us.  A recent article in Digiday references the numerous examples from beauty and fashion magazines that are now reflecting the many different forms of gender, ethnicity, body type and age.

Finally, because we know we are attracted to such imagery, the world of beauty and fashion can be a vehicle for even greater social change!  This same article gave us two great quotes, one from Jenny Bailly, Allure’s executive beauty editor, and the other from, Cat Quinn of Refinery29, which summarized this well:

“Beauty is a great vehicle for driving conversations about social change, because it’s accessible to everyone,” said Quinn, of Refinery29. It’s a topic that many argue lends itself easily to the bigger picture. “When we talk to Halima or [trans model] Andreja Pejic, or [boy beauty star] James Charles, or a young woman on a reservation in Montana about hair and makeup, we’re also having intimate conversations about where they’ve come from, what they believe in and how they interact with the world,” said Bailly.

Let’s not expect to shield our children entirely from the imagery around us, or even poo poo it.  Plus, we all know they find ways to see to it anyway.  Instead let’s embrace the imagery.  Let’s use it as a forum for discussion, and even encourage our friends and our kids to let media outlets know what they want to see projected.  After all, isn’t that the beauty of social media?  Everyone has a voice :).

Sexy Social Change: Don’t Shun the Vapid Selfies and Videos; They Can Be A Source of Brilliance

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My buddy John alerted me to this fascinating story from the Telegraph, Is this the first Instagram masterpiece? A well-regarded young artist, Amalia Ulman, spoofs the Instagram’s selfie phenomenon to not only make a point, but to create her art recent exhibition: “Excellences & Perfections.”

This story captivated me for so many reasons.  Ulman never revealed the motive behind her selfie project.  Instead she shared pic after pic of herself in images typical of so many young, female-selfie-addicts (think the Kardashians).  As the article says:  “In some of them she posed in lingerie on rumpled bed sheets in boutique hotel rooms. In others she offered cutesy close-ups of kittens, rose petals, and strawberries and pancakes captioned “brunch”…. She was mindlessly bragging about her supposedly enviable lifestyle in LA, as she attended pole-dancing classes and underwent breast-enlargement surgery.”  She admits that people started hating her as a result of these images, even warning her that her cutesy, sexy and showy attitude was going to damage her career.

But all of this was a ruse.  After a year and a half of this photo diary, she collected all of her selfies and is now exhibiting them at the Tate and Whitechapel Gallery.  Her point? As she tells the Telegraph:

“I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman … The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”

Clearly this mastermind fooled us all.

But the other reason I love this story is that she proves a phenomenon that I’ve been witnessing and writing about for a while.  We don’t speak in words, paint, or photo paper as we used to.  We are visual thinkers. and we speak through the medium of a digital cloud using digital pictures, videos and memes.

Instead of using the traditional art mediums of the past, Ulman recognizes the lingua franca of today’s younger generation.   As Ulman says:

“The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet,” she explains, “rather than trying to adapt old media to the internet, as has been done with mini-series on YouTube. The cadence and rhythm were totally different.”

While our new language may seem frivolous or self-absorbing at times, it can be quite profound.  It can be THE way to send a powerful and provocative message for social change.  We have to dismiss our preconceptions (e.g., selfies are for ditzes) and look a little deeper.  Actually check out the selfies below taken at Davos, the least ditzy place on earth right now!  And when we start looking deeper, it’s amazing what we can learn about the world and ourselves.

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Fashionable Protests: The Unexpected Source of Saudi Women’s Independence

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With the glut of oil and rising Sunni – Shia tensions in Saudi Arabia, I’m sure all of us have been wondering,”what happens if the Saudi regime actually falls?”  The impact will be dramatic, no doubt.  The region will be in that much more turmoil. But I can’t help imagine what would happen after all the potential catastrophe.  In particular, how would society change — the social strata and gender dynamics? After so many years of limitations, could Saudi women actually fulfill the independence they so deserve? This question reminds me of a post I wrote a year ago based on a New Yorker article about Saudi women called “Shopgirls” by Katherine Zoepf.  This story shows a glimmer of women’s liberation.  What’s interesting is that these seeds of independence aren’t starting in the schools or the home but in the beauty and fashion subcultures.  Read below for the edited down version.

In June 2011, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia decreed that women could, no, should, replace men in shops where female customers are seeking intimate items.  First the law referred to lingerie shops and then the law extended to other typical feminine spaces like apparel and cosmetics, and even into supermarket checkout counters.  For women who have not gone to college (and there are many), this is their first opening to a sort of financial independence.

To us Westerners, that should feel like a “no duh”, especially in a country with such rigid rules restricting contact between the sexes.  Wouldn’t you rather be told your true bra size from a woman than a man?!  Ironically, there are many protesting such laws because they fear women (that is, the shop girls) will be in that much more contact with men.

The article certainly highlights the intimidation and family pressure many people receive once starting to work.  It ain’t easy.  But it also shows how much more confident and happy these shop girls are.  Instead of living secluded lives at home or maybe in the malls shopping, these women can learn a skill, broaden their social network and secure themselves against financial ruin (the divorce rate is high in Saudi Arabia and often women lose custody of their children because they can’t afford to care for them).

While so many of us independent, well-educated Western women love make-up and a cute bra or two, we would probably think the last place women would gain a sense of freedom and independence would be at a Victoria’s Secret shop or at the Macy’s make-up counter. But in Saudi Arabia, these places may not only be wonderful, liberating places for women, but may actually prove to be the spark to set in motion so much more change.

What strikes me about this story is how people will find interesting and unexpected ways to assert themselves.  For some it’s beauty for others it may be music or sports.  Let’s not think that just because some people are pushed down by society that they can’t find ways to rebel and eventually fulfill their dreams for a better life.  The key is to open our eyes, look for those sparks and help ignite them further.