I am repulsed

This is a review of Ashley Mears’s “Pricing Beauty” in The New Republic about the toxic world of high fashion modeling. Great article, devastating critique.

So, some background. For my Masters in Education in Curriculum Studies, very long ago, I did a content analysis of ‘Teen and Seventeen magazines. Some time later, in my library, I spotted one of my favorite young female students browsing through a Seventeen magazine. I pounced on her and proceeded to explain what I thought were all of the things wrong with the magazine. She said, “Mr. B, relax. I know that. Fashion should only be about fun.”

Because I respected her, I rethought my aversion to magazines aimed at adolescent females. I wasn’t crediting young womens’ smarts and judgment – they knew what was okay and not okay. Fun is a good thing.

I’m not particularly good at outrage, so please, forgive my lapses. I really want to rage in language that isn’t normally my mode of communication. So, I won’t. But please know that what follows is screamed and includes many Anglo Saxon derived words that are not in the text.

On reading this review, I thought, I wonder what a current Vogue is like? Surely all of the critiques of high fashion over the last 20 years have made it slightly more sensible. I checked out their website. Wow. Was I wrong. On an evening in late September, 2011, this is the lead picture. Here is another picture from one of the main articles in the magazine.

More background. I enjoyed watching The Devil Wears Prada, which is based on Vogue and its editors. Who wouldn’t like Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway? In 2009 I watched a really well done documentary, The September Issue. It is about the struggles involved in creating the September 2008 issue of Vogue. I found Anna Wintour, the editor, fascinating, but I saw her creative director, Grace Coddington, as a more compelling personality. Again, fashion can be fun and the fashion industry another microcosm in the human drama.

Both Anna and Grace are still in their power positions at the magazine. Perhaps, I now think, some part of their personal defects are pathological.

How on earth is it possible that in 2011 such images have a modicum of acceptability? It’s like using racial epithets as just another mode of expression.

I thought we had made some progress. In the last years the idea that gay marriage is a social good has gained enormous traction. Young women I know are comfortable in feeling that their rights and freedoms can be taken mostly for granted. In fits and starts we in the northern hemisphere have achieved some sanity with respect to women and their role in our society. Is there room to grow? Of course. But how on earth can this magazine and all it represents be even somewhat tolerated? For me, naive that I am, it was like looking at particularly disgusting and deviant pornography. It’s not all that subtle.

Why should such a magazine be on new stands and supermarket checkouts? Why would anyone subscribe? Given enough time, I might figure it out – likely with some help from the women I love.

It is also obvious that what, in the moment, seemed a shocking discovery is old news to many women. Sorry for my further naivety.

How does one eliminate abominations like Vogue and its ilk? Rage and sadness are authentic but they are the reason for action. Getting to action is hard – it’s disillusioning to observe what passes for dialogue in the “culture wars”. However, I’ve also have a growing optimism about the possibility, though certainly not the difficulty, of change in our world. Most analysis of the “Arab Spring” and its success is simplistic. However, I found the possible influence of Gene Sharp’s ideas intriguing. They may be a start. Although obviously different, I think it’s equally as useful to see Vogue as repressive and violent regime that might be overthrown by non-violent action.

I’m still left saddened. The young woman in my library, many years ago, I know is okay. She’s strong and smart and still uses fashion for fun, when she’s not busy with something else. I know lots of women like her. But if Vogue is still a toxic mirror for other women, that’s not okay. Please create a world where fashion is just one fun part of a young woman’s experience.

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