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.