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Too Fat For Fashion: Reading Materials
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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reading Materials

In an average month, I get through ooh, a third of a rainforest's worth of reading material. A couple of papers a day, stacks of magazines a week, books up to my eyeballs, etc, etc. Something struck me recently as I set off for the park with an afternoon's worth of magazines, planning a lazy, sunshiney day of page-flipping and note-taking. Of the wodge of paper I crammed in my bag, three of the issues were weight-related:

Observer Woman (June 2007): The Body
Elle US (June 2007): The Body Issue
Teen Vogue (June/July 2007): editor's letter and main feature "Weighty Issue"

Let's take them one by one.

Observer Woman

I'm not a massive fan of The Observer's monthly Woman supplement. For those that aren't familiar, The Observer is The Guardian's sister Sunday paper; each week they do a not-that-good flimsy glossy supplement (in addition to the eight billion other Sunday sections) on a theme -- Sport, Food, Music, Woman.

(Hilariously, the three supplements aside from Woman are suffixed Monthly. Sport Monthly, Music Monthly, Food Monthly... one can only assume they wanted to avoid any reference to "your monthlies" and so chose not to call the Woman section Woman Monthly (or Women Monthly, which would make more sense).)

The problem with a Woman supplement is it doesn't really have a coherent theme in the way the other monthly supplements do, or at least the paper hasn't quite decided what exactly Woman is. So it's an awkward hotchpotch of fashion and beauty and fashion and the occasional interview or feature with a Woman of Note. Or a man who works in fashion or beauty. Basically it's a fashion 'n' beauty supplement - and hey, there ain't nothin' wrong with that. Except the paper obviously thinks there is something wrong with that, because Lipstick and Foundation and Dresses and Girlish Fripperies are Shallow; therefore we shall dress them up with the title Woman and throw in the occasional feminist slant to pretend like this isn't Vogue.

So, The Body Issue. It largely avoids the body - there's an interview with Tom Ford, an interview with Anne Sweeney, a list of what's hot or not for summer, lots of writers and peeps sharing their body hang-ups (including - eye-roll - Liz bloody Jones and her body dysmorphia*)...and a very short photo story on swimsuits, featuring four photos of two plus-size models, and an essay on same.

*I'm not making light of actual body dysmorphia. I just hate Liz Jones and think she's old enough to know better. If you're not familiar with this odious excuse for a journalist...ignorance is bliss. Really.

The photos are hot though:

"Are you shocked by these photographs? We were - and we commissioned them. We were there, during the shoot. We watched our models, Kate Smith and Elizabeth Satherlund, get transformed, made-up, and styled. We watched them pose. We studied early Polaroids. But still, we were shocked by the finished product. The photographs seemed illicit, transgressive. They seemed overtly sexual. Fetishistic, almost. They certainly seemed contrary to today's rules on glossy-magazine aesthetics. So much bosom! So much bottom! Such luscious rolls of back fat! Such extravagant thighs! Aren't there laws against this?"


Elle's Body Issue cover star is Jessica Biel, who I haven't actually heard of except in magazines and gossip pictures accompanied by Justin Timberlake. She's totally one of those stars who I know exactly who they are without knowing how or why they got famous. A TV show? A film? Is she a singer? I could IMDb her but then I remember I don't care.

Anyway, the straplines:
  • THE BODY ISSUE: Love the One You're With
  • The 6-Step Bikini Makeover Anyone Can Look Good Almost Naked
  • How to Lose Those Last 5 Pounds And Why You Shouldn't Bother
  • "Do I Look Fat In This?" Well... Since You Asked: What Men Really Think
  • A Little Lipo? What's New, What's Safe

So in your body, but make it over, lose weight by reading these conflicted messages, judge yourself through your fella's eyes, and if all else fails: cosmetic surgery!

No sign of any deviation from the norm in the fashion spreads (in three fashion stories, there are three thin, white, dark-blonde models). There are some interesting stories, but all from the perspective of losing weight and then realising that weight isn't the key to happiness. (The conclusion to these tales is always, hilariously, that the writer discovers it's what's inside that counts, and they have inner peace...inner peace conveniently contained in a newly toned Size 6 bod, but still - inner peace, you guys.)

There's the Mormon who lost 80lbs and had to have her excess loose skin removed by cosmetic surgery, who tells us all about her personal journey and God and wisdom and blah-di-blah...and ends with her gratitude for life and bodies and living: "I can finally say I feel gratitude. Not because I got plastic surgery and look better, but because this is the only body I'll ever have." Okay, then. Betcha you wouldn't have come to that inner-peace conclusion before your four-hour surgery though.

There's the new mother who feels "betrayed" by her body when the excess weight she gained whilst pregnant just won't go away. And by "excess weight" and "just won't go away", she means she gained 45lbs during pregnancy, lost 35lbs of that naturally after the birth through no effort, made some effort to lose the remaining 10lbs...and 'failed' because she still has 5lbs to go. She eventually finds inner peace though, despite that excess weight of...5lbs. (Find me someone who didn't get a few pounds heavier after having had a baby...)

The one article I thought was really interesting was a piece by Walter Kirn basically listing how his ways of seeing had been altered by the women in his life constantly pointing out their flaws to him. I do think it's true that the 'flaws' we see in ourselves and constantly obsess over (my current obsession is that I think my nose has gotten infinitesimally rounder over the last year and is now too wide for my face and needs reducing by 4mm. Really.) are usually not apparent to others.

Sadly Kirn ends with a tale about an ex girlfriend who had "let herself go" and casts "a perfectly oval shadow" (instead of being the petite girl he met and fell for, although since his description of her petiteness involves his not having to move an inch in his seat when she walked in front of him at the cinema, I'm thinking said ex was less "petite" and more "dangerously small," but whatever). After a few digs at her "jumbo bladder" and referring to health issues - even though he's kind enough to say that she was still "mentally sharp under her flab" (yes, really), she dumps him and loses the weight. His conclusion? Not to talk to women when they talk about their bodies. O...kay?

The issue is certainly worth checking out if you're interested, but don't expect to see any plus-size models or valuable arguments.

Teen Vogue

I'll own up to being a total Teen Vogue groupie (teen anything, actually. My long absence from this blog is cuz I'm writing a book on teen television), and am thus likely to defend its every move -- but I'm a groupie for a reason! I genuinely think it has a healthy body image, and is a healthy magazine for young women: it doesn't give the mixed messages (Skinny Stars! Stars Wobbly Bits! Are They Too Thin? Whoops, Stars Ate Too Many Pies!) of a celebby gossip rag, and it features plenty of readers among its pages. There's a good mix of not-too-patronising PSA articles with usefull information, it doesn't preach, and it showcases models and readers of different races and sizes far more frequently than its adult contemporaries on the newstand.

The June/July issue is not a weight/shape/body issue, but it does have an interesting feature on teen attitudes to the whole weight debate. What I enjoyed about it was they had obviously interviewed intelligent articulate teens - but they hadn't stuck just to those teens whose views were safe'. (In other words, they hadn't pre-concluded on the article's behalf, and found teenagers to quote who would say "it's not the magazines' fault, we're all healthy, I like a little cake AND a little exercise!".)

So there are positive quotes:

"I realise they have their body type and I have mine."
"Celebrity magazines promote mixed messages."
"My friends and I...would rather focus on school."

Iffy quotes:

"I could probably lose a few pounds, but I'm in no rush." (Iffy because we don't know if she could stand to lose a few pounds, but there's also nothing wrong with choosing to lose weight and doing so healthily.)

And down right BUH?! outrageous quotes:

"Being thin is more valuable than money."
"America, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah - they're not full-figured. They're fat."
"Would I rather be bigger but healthy, or really thin?"

The mag doesn't offer any conclusions, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

Similarly, I haven't made up my mind yet on any of these issues of magazines, but if you're looking for reading material to kick-start a debate or offer something beyond the usual, you could do worse.


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