Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Thesis

Long time, no post! For anyone who's interested, here's a link to my complete thesis project. You can read the abstract and download the entire document here:

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Photoshop of Horrors

At least some governmental body somewhere in the world is paying serious attention to the effects of digitally manipulated imagery on the self esteem of vulnerable young audiences. In the U.K., Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson is sounding her party’s call to ban the use of Photoshopped images on materials deemed to be targeted at under-16-year-old young women. In The Independent:

The Liberal Democrats are calling for a ban on the use of altered or enhanced pictures on publicity material aimed at the under-16s as part of a wider drive to boost the self-esteem of young girls. It also wants the introduction of new rules insisting that advertisements aimed at adults disclose how much images have been airbrushed or digitally enhanced.

Lib Dem frontbencher Jo Swinson said: "Today's unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure now than they were even five years ago. Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable perfect images no one can live up to in real life.

"We need to help protect children from these pressures and we need to make a start by banning airbrushing in adverts aimed at them." {…}

A spokeswoman for the Advertising Standards Agency suggested it would be difficult to intervene to control airbrushing. She said: "All ads are altered or enhanced, whether it's food that has steam added at a later date to lighting techniques to airbrushing."

Although it seems impractical to control the use of digitally manipulated images through legislative rulemaking (How could the government effectively screen and evaluate digital images that can be posted instantly online? How could the government label every one of the billions of digitally modified photos utilized by advertisers? The questions just keep coming…), I appreciate the Liberal Democrats’ recognition of the pervasive, systematic campaign against young women’s self esteem and body image conducted by unthinking advertisers. The media is inextricably wedded to advertising, and this dual information source has adapted to exploit and cater to the audience groups that are most vulnerable to its idyllic vignettes of impossible perfection. So says British fashion designer Wayne Hemingway in his response to the Photoshopping ban written for The Independent:

The fact is there will always be people who see different forms of advertising and become obsessed with what they see. The trouble is that the media, through which these images reach young people, are dependent on the advertising. Legislating on this issue is very difficult because there is a huge amount of ingenuity in the fashion industry and they'll find a way around anything the Government does. The industry is all about big business, and so long as there is money behind a trend like airbrushing, it won't go away.

Of course, the image-makers can’t to cop to any malicious or conscious attempt to take advantage of young women’s vulnerability as their self-concept develops by creating impossibly perfect inhuman pixilated beings to which they can aspire through the help of the beauty, health, and retail industries’ wares. While aware on some level of their motivations, the media/advertising information conduit paints a picture of an innocent tool that can even help to take on eating disorders. From The Independent article:

The Periodical Publishers Association, which represents 400 magazines, said: "Images are predominantly manipulated to remove... stray strands of hair, spots, bruises, creasing on clothes and shadows will be removed... articles and advertisements promoting a healthy lifestyle and should be seen as a partner in tackling eating and other disorders, rather than one of the sources."

Media outlets claim to present confidence-inspiring, “aspirational” iconography in order to show radiant role models, but the only images of these role models worth looking at are thinner than the actual woman represented. Even though Kelly Clarkson is comfortable with her weight and appearance, on her cover image for the new issue of Self magazine, Clarkson’s shape is distorted and whittled down in order for her body to conform to Self magazine’s construct of what a role model looks like at her “personal best.” Margaret Hartmann of Jezebel:

On the new cover of Self (see post image), the editors did everything they could to obscure what her body actually looks like. Her right arm is totally invisible and much of her left arm has been cropped out. A yellow dot strategically obscures the area where her butt meets her lower back and white pants against a white background make her legs almost invisible. Much of the photo looks like it was drawn on a computer, which would be obvious even if Clarkson had been living in seclusion since From Justin To Kelly. But, the Photoshopping is even more obvious since Kelly Clarkson has been widely ridiculed in the past year for putting on weight.

In reaction to the online uproar about the cover image, Self editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger posted to her blog:This is art, creativity and collaboration. It's not, as in a news photograph, journalism. It is, however, meant to inspire women to want to be their best. That is the point.” On the August 13, 2009, Today Show, after assuring viewers that "we love Kelly for the confidence that she exudes from within," Danziger explained that on a cover, "you want to capture the essence of you at your best." Apparently, you at your best resemble an unreal Barbie doll version of yourself, and your aspiration and inspirations to excel are only related to how you look.

All of these disembodied selves that the media/advertising machine sells us are so enticingly superficial, like the hollow Easter rabbit that promises endless chocolatey pleasure. Take a bite, though, and realize that there’s more chocolatey goodness in a Dove bar than constitutes the Easter bunny. Likewise, if you take a bite and pursue the unattainable, unreal physical ideals promulgated, as I did for too long, then you become aware of how incomplete, unfulfilling, and disempowering they are to consume with the hope for satiety. In reality, we are so much more expansive and multifaceted than any false image can convey; humans are multi-dimensional beings that operate on physical, mental, spiritual, energetic, subtle, and profound planes of existence. Limiting ourselves to aspiring only to perfect our physical bodies neglects the deep happiness and contentment that comes with evolving the consciousness of our mental and energetic bodies through meditation, spiritual discipline, self-study, and other activities of refinement.

This is why I am so convinced that legislation will never provide meaningful assistance to young girls whose self worth falls prey to manipulated imagery. Only by educating and raising awareness in young women (and men!) about the advertising techniques and motivations employed by companies to sell products through the kinds of media literacy lessons that the Liberal Democrats also called for with their Photoshop ban can the objectifying effects of the media’s body imagery be mitigated. So therefore, I propose that the Liberal Democrats fund my research with a lucrative grant so that I can develop my media literacy and body awareness program for young women J. In seriousness, it is crucial that any preventative or self esteem-boosting efforts undertaken consider all levels of our beings, from understanding the physical distortions at play in manipulated images and critiquing the industries that create these images, to developing one’s consciousness of her own body, mind, spirit, and aspirations through awareness-building techniques such as yoga and meditation. Slapping a “PG-13” label or some equivalent on advertisements that use digitally manipulated images isn’t going to do much more than fuck up the pretty picture.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Top Five Feminist Lyrics from Metric

Thanks to a tip from one of the members of my elite clique of readers (and he's single, ladies!), the music of one band has invaded my head, where their songs are permanently stuck on a never-ending playlist. Metric, a Canadian indie rock band whose members include lead vocalist/songwriter and keyboardist Emily Haines, guitarist James Shaw, bassist Josh Winstead, and drummer Joules Scott-Key, features an awesome blend of rockin' beats, techno effects, soaring melodies, and hauntingly poetic lyrical imagery that leaves plenty to their fans' own interpretation. So, fan-girl that I am, I want to share with you all the Metric lyrics that have resonated in my feminist heart for two reasons: to exercise my creative license as said fan-girl, and to get you listening to Metric if you haven't been already. An OMG note: in June, we saw Metric live in Portland, and Emily TOTALLY looked at ME and sent me vibrations while singing "Satellite Mind" from the new album, Fantasies. Stop looking at me like I'm a delusional freak - it happened, really!

5. "What it is and where it stops nobody knows /
You gave me a life I never chose /
I wanna leave but the world won't let me go /
Wanna leave but the world won't let me go."
from "Blindness," Fantasies

"Blindness" is certainly a cryptic piece of poetry that could be read many different ways, but I am choosing to understand this lyric as an indictment of the choices, role models, and archetypes provided to both men and women. It speaks to the trapped feeling that we all sense as our consciousness of callow consumer culture grows, confined in a gilded cage of stereotypes against our volition.

4. "So hang high soft star /
Don't shine for swine /
Not a lot of room to move, but where's my guide? /
I tried looking up to you girls /
Please correct me, but didn't you let the work slide /
Capitalize on a novelty, cheap pink, spotlight."
from "Soft Rock Star," Grow Up and Blow Away

For me, this lyric conjures up images of Disney princesses and Hannah Montanas twirling about under the glitter of the novelty, cheap pink spotlight, blithely selling their wares: the importance of prettiness, the need to please, the desire for recognition and a pat on the head. Where else can our "soft star" young women look for their guides? A suggestion: mentors five to ten years older than them who they can talk to about the pressure of these expectations.

3. "All the gold and the guns in the world couldn't get you off /
All the gold and the guns and the girls couldn't get you off /
All the boys, all the choices in the world /
Is it ever going to be enough?"
from "Gold, Guns, Girls," Fantasies

Here, Emily turns her focus from the girls to the guys who live in a fantasy world that Michael Kimmel so aptly terms "Guyland." Overwhelmed by a commitment-phobic, machismo-obsessed archetype of what it means to be a man, many guys retreat entirely from their emotional inner lives, to the extent that even all the gold and guns in the world can't get them off. Until guys reclaim their right to embody feminine as well as masculine characteristics without fear of being called a fag, the answer to the question "Is it ever going to be enough?" is always going to be "no."

2. "Promiscuous makes an entrance /
Her mouth is full of questions /
Are we all brides to be /
Are we all designed to be confined /
Buy ourselves chastity belts and lock them /
Organize our lives and lose the key /
Our faces all resemble dying roses /
From trying to fix it /
When instead we should break it /
We've got to break it before it breaks us"
from "Patriarch on a Vespa," Live it Out

This lyric's feminism can stand without explication in its poignancy and directness. But her converse of the idea "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" - that if our patriarchal culture is broken, then we should stop trying to fix it - is such a refreshing departure from apologist neo-feminism. In neo-feminism, the coping mechanisms women adopt to survive patriarchal culture, such as her "independent" choices regarding pregnancy, escaping domestic violence, reporting sexual abuse, etc., are attacked and scrutinized, rather than the forces that cause women to have to make those choices in the first place. As Emily says, we should stop questioning other women's responses to their shitty situations and break the fucking thing before it breaks us.

1. "Every speed on our knees is crawling" from "Glass Ceiling," Live It Out

It's really worth reading/listening to this entire song, because I think that it should be the anthem of all "post-wave" young feminists (i.e., those of us who are sick of being categorized as second- or third-wavers and then pitted against each other for it). But this single line is so evocative, so loaded with significance, that it merits the #1 spot on its own accord. As long as women are getting 78 cents to a man's dollar for equal work (with African-American women receiving 67 cents and Hispanic women 58 cents to a man's dollar), no matter how far and how fast individual women can climb, we will all as a gender suffer from the confines of stereotyping's straight-jacket, crawling along with low expectations to a variety of positions on our knees.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Go Mad-Men Yourself!

Too awesome! If you can't wait for Season Three to arrive mid-August, then check out AMC's sweet new app to create your own swanky cartoon doppelganger as you would look in the world of Mad Men. Be sure not to miss the orange, circular tabs at the bottom-right of the page, where you can customize everything from the shape of your head to your accessories. Then you get to download your image and use it for your Facebook profile picture, not that I would do that or anything...

Besides my deep and undying love for the way that Janie Bryant dresses Betty and Joan and all of the other Mad Women, I am super-psyched for Mad Men to start up again to see what else Matt Weiner has got up his sleeve for Don, Betty, and their secretly sordid friends at Sterling Cooper. It is comfortable to view the extremity of the sexism portrayed in this late 1950s-early 1960s advertising office as a historical relic of how working women had it in the bad old days, with the same detachment that we admire and are inspired by the aesthetics of dressing and self-presentation of that time. Although overt gestures common in Mad Men world, like slapping a secretary's ass, are now (rightfully) the subject of lawsuits and other protections, the attitudes that engender these behaviors still rumble beneath the surface, cloaked in innuendo, thinly veiled threats, and stunted opportunities for advancement.

Most troublingly, the dissonance between how the characters feel and how they present themselves to the world resonates strikingly with the psychotic state of modern-day gender affairs. One of the most tragic aspects of the Mad Men and Women is their isolation from one another, paralyzed by shame or fear against exposing an inner life that would destroy their perfect veneers. The rigidity of the familial and social roles perscribed keeps every character in his or her place, separate and alone.

Although their specific constructs have adapted to fit the times, the gender roles are no less constrictive now. The young age at which people are absorbed in media culture fifty years after Mad Men means that kids are exposed to stereotyped concepts of "boy" and "girl" even before they start to have contact with actual children of their own age in school. The ideas of what it means to be a "real man" and a "hot girl" seep in at a steady drip, infecting how we encounter real people and decipher what our potential partners are interested in. For example, when I was anorexic, I had convinced myself that what guys really wanted in a girl was someone who looked like a model based on who was on the magazines that guys read, rather than trying to figure out what an individual guy found sexy. The images mediated and sold by the Masters of the Universe distort the way we see each other, warping us into caricatures and interfering with our ability to directly relate to the individual spirit, regardless of gender/appearance. So while the costumes have changed since those mad days, the confines of the gender roles they evoke that alienate us from each other continue to tighten around our hearts.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Don't Fear the Knee-per!

The always-enlightening Daily Mail Femail section is not satisfied with making you feel bad about the pre-wrinkles that you should be protecting your 20-year-old face against, how your nipples should look through mesh tops, and how much your 16-year-old should spend on beauty maintenance (12,000 pounds a year sounds about right). Those body obsessions were so last month! Now, the Daily Mail's body-snarking has devolved to consider those pesky joints, the knees, whose sins up to this point had only included presenting an annoying obstacle to leg-shaving.

Presuming to speak for the Everywoman, writer Claudia Connell zooms in on the knees of over-40 celebs like Elle McPherson, Courtney Cox, and Nicollette Sheridan to make us all feel a bit less inadequate (italics mine) next to those skinny bitches: "As a curvy woman in my 40s, it gives me considerable pleasure to point out that saggy knees will strike skinny women a long time before us more rounded ones. The 40s are the decade when a woman carrying a few extra pounds can come into her own: the wrinkles are fleshed out, the knees hold up and you tend to look a good few years younger than your more slender counterparts. It's payback time and, yes, a chubby knee looks a lot more youthful than a skinny one."

Connell makes sure to point out that the sufficiently wealthy and shamed by her haggard joints, like Demi Moore, can shell out 5,000 pounds for a surgery to strip skin from the kneecap, pull it tight, and stitch the skin in place like a facelift - there's always a surgical solution to your most outlandish body-image issues - but advises those of a certain age and lesser means to permanently send those disgusting gnarled knees into exile under the cover of longer skirts and tights, with a proper sense of guilt.

Disturbing not only for the author's unabashed glee in toppling the "otherwise ridiculously perfect body" of McPherson and her body-shaming advice for all other would-be knee-bearers, this article also serves as an example of the even more horrifyingly commonplace practice of body-snarking celebrities and strangers as if women's bodies are subject to debate in the public sphere. Any psychologist or therapist worth their perscription pad will tell you that commenting on another person's body or eating habits constitutes an invasions of her emotional boundaries. "The Body," as McPherson is known in modelling circles, has a right to inhabit her body in public without engendering back-handed compliments or overt put-downs (or catcalls, for that matter) as every woman does. Although the paps and pop culture apologists claim that there are different rules for celebrity women who make a career of their public personae, the pervasive tendency to comment on and criticize women of all walks of life for daring to show their bodies in public recognizes no such distinction. If we participate in body-snarking celebrities' appearances, then we practice and normalize the behavior when it is directed at our own bodies, from within or without, or those of women we encounter in the world. Now, there's a boundary I'd like to see each of us protect.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Never Eat Anything with a Face (or Fat!)

Sorry to all of my two readers that I've been MIA. But I'm back with a good one for you.

In the April issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a study found that a vegetarian diet might in fact be masking an underlying eating disorder, with twice as many teens and nearly double the number of young adults who had been vegetarians reported having used unhealthy means to control their weight, compared with those who had never been vegetarians. Those means included using diet pills, laxatives and diuretics and inducing vomiting to control weight.

The study's lead researcher, Ramona Robinson-O'Brien, an assistant professor in the Nutrition Department at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in St. Joseph, Minn., said, "Current vegetarians may be at increased risk for binge eating, while former vegetarians may be at increased risk for extreme unhealthful weight-control behaviors." The researchers collected data on 2,516 teens and young adults who participated in a study called Project EAT-II: Eating Among Teens. They classified participants as current, former or never vegetarians and divided them into two age groups: teens (15 to 18) and young adults (19-23). Each participant was questioned about binge eating, whether they felt a loss of control of their eating habits and whether they used any extreme weight-control behaviors.

About 21 percent of teens who had been vegetarians said they used unhealthy weight-control behaviors, compared with 10 percent of teens who had never been vegetarians. Among young adults, more former vegetarians (27 percent) had used such measures than current vegetarians (16 percent) or those who'd never been vegetarians (15 percent), the study found. In addition, among teenagers, binge eating and loss of control over eating habits was reported by 21 percent of current and 16 percent of former vegetarians but only 4 percent of those who'd never followed a vegetarian diet. For young adults, more vegetarians (18 percent) said they engaged in binge eating with loss of control than did former vegetarians (9 percent) and those who were never vegetarians (5 percent), the study found.

Chalk this one up to the "no shit, Sherlock" category of research topics. In and of itself, vegetarianism is not only a diet choice made for personal health reasons, but also a clear social statement of difference and defiance. Anyone who has a vegetarian or, God forbid, a vegan in their family or social circle has witnessed this phenomenon at a restaurant, as the well-meaning soul grills the poor waiter about the ingredients of his chef's marinade and righteously abstains from the main course in favor of salad and bread, the safely faceless staples of the vegetarian dining out. Like it or not, our food choices are political, not just personal, determining our capacity to participate in the shared experience of food consumption. Purely on a social level, vegetarianism is one of the most prevalent forms of rejecting cultural eating habits, compelling the vegetarian to refrain from partaking of family meals and denounce whole categories of foods. It's not a huge leap to move from refusing to eat meat to refusing to eat sugars, fats, or any other "bad food" group that haunts the consciousnesses of the eating disordered. Moral condemnations against "food with a face" can quickly morph into equally loaded value judgments about fattening foods, carbs, name your diet demon of choice. Like any other diet program, vegetarianism is a lifestyle that provides moral justifications to its adherents for avoiding food, creating a slippery slope down which many young people fall into disordered eating and food restriction. Chicken wings, anyone?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sick Of It All

At least I don't have it as bad as this poor kid, but I am down and out with some kind of cold/flu/black lung disease. However, my mucus-addled brain is perfectly suited to catching up on my favorite blogs (I'm talking about you, Jezebel and Digby) and commenting on some of the intriguing stories I encounter.

According to a March 16 article from the UPI, researchers found that the perception of being overweight among American girls raised the probability of suicidal thoughts by 5.6 percent, the probability of a suicide attempts by 3.2 percent and the probability of injury causing suicide attempts by 0.6 percent. "The prevalence of body dissatisfaction, among special populations of youths such as non-black girls, is significantly higher than the general youth population, even when the underlying weight is in a healthy range," study co-author Inas Rashad of Georgia State University in Atlanta said in a statement. The study, based on 1999-2007 data from the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System, is scheduled to be published in Social Science and Medicine.

I don't know what else could better illustrate the devastating consequences to self-perception and self-worth that are meted out by the stigma of fatness. It is only a deeply sick, cannabalistic culture that could engrain such a powerful reflex of fatty shaming that girls internalize the message so thoroughly as to despise their bodies to the point of suicide. I use the adjective "cannabalistic" because we are all culpable in cultivating and enforcing the stigma of fatness not only in social contexts, but also, most perniciously, in our own consciousnesses. Every time a mom stands in front of her bathroom mirror berating the size of her thighs as her young daughter watches from the open door, every time a young professional woman feels like a failure as she flips through the pages of her latest issue of Cosmo and compares her appearance to those of the models' Photoshopped body products, every time a guy worries about introducing his new girlfriend to his buddies because she is not shaped like the latest model of "Hot Girl" from the lad mags (FHM, Maxim, etc.), we are sustaining the ethos of self-enforced stigmas and denigration against fat/overweight/voluptuous/name-your-euphemism body shapes that feeds this culture of toxic self-hatred. A cannabalizing media and social culture promotes self-destructive, self-annhilating, and humanity-destroying behaviors because, while explicit enforcement of body image mandates (pay discrimination against overweight individuals, fat camps, harassment of the fat girl in school without the teacher stopping it) are present and potent, this kind of overt discrimination is far less efficient than creating an environment where individuals police and shame their own body shapes and appearances into submission. And then, with the people-flesh primed with fear and self-hatred, the cannabalizing consumer culture strikes for its feast selling the products of insecurity, from cosmetic surgery to diet plans to exercise programs to beauty magazines and their wares. Feast or famine, indeed.