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Reader Reform of the Fashion Magazine

By Guest Correspondent Aric Mayer

On page 194 of Glamour Magazine’s September issue, in a three-inch by three-inch photograph by Walter Chin, 20 year-old model Lizzi Miller sits on an apple crate in a thong.


She leans forward slightly, her arm covering her breasts, a confident and radiant smile on her face. There is a small roll on her belly and actual curves on her legs and arms. At size 12, Lizzi is the size of the average American woman.

That little belly roll is pure rebellion in the fashion and beauty industry, and it’s the sure reason why this image has had such an incredible effect. Images of Lizzi have been published before, and in each (that I have seen) she is doing what models do, tucking in, tightening, lifting up. Here she appears relaxed and unguarded, and is all the more beautiful for it. Relief and appreciation poured out from readers and can be read in the 1000+ responses posted on Glamour’s website.

Equally significant to the reader response is the extreme rarity of a photograph like this in the context of a fashion magazine. To be clear, this image was intentionally created to have this impact on its viewers. As Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leiv says, “We’d commissioned it for a story on feeling comfortable in your skin, and wanted a model who looked like she was.” The image isn’t rare because it can’t be done. It is rare because it is selling something outside of the consumer logic of the fashion and beauty industry.

Professor Jeremy Kees at the Villanova School of Business ran a study demonstrating how the skewing of body norms increases the effectiveness of advertising. In his study women were presented with images of skinny models in a commercial setting and were then tested as to how they would respond. The women exposed to the images of overly thin models tested as feeling worse about themselves, but tested with more positive attitudes about the products being sold. Women exposed to normal sized models had no diminished sense of self, but tested with less favorable attitudes to the products being sold. See the logic at work here?

The stereotypically thin model image serves a very pragmatic purpose in generating an overall climate of desire and consumption that serves the fashion industry at the personal expense of the audience. Lizzi Miller, as she appears on page 194, defeats this basic exchange between the readers and the advertisers, and the reader responses are permeated with a release of the pressure both to conform and to consume. It is also significant to note how far the difference is between talking about body norms and actually showing them.

Here is where it gets really interesting and exciting if you would like to see more of this kind of work. Judging from the comments on the Glamour site, thousands upon thousands of readers do.

The magazine publishing industry is in a state of suspension. Trapped between increasing online competition and falling ad dollars due to the recession, many publications are scrambling to figure out what the future holds.

You have the power to talk back to the magazines through social media. And you have the one thing that they absolutely must have to survive–your attention. That attention is a commodity that is traded by magazines with advertisers and converted into real dollars. If you withhold your attention, magazines fail. If you lavish it, they thrive.

Two things need to happen soon, and they need to be reader generated.

First, there needs to be a reader generated movement to request magazines to give an honest and full disclosure of their internal retouching policies. The audience has a right to know how the images are being manipulated. Every image receives some form of digital manipulation. Retouching disclosure statements would simply explain in specific terms what a magazine allows and doesn’t allow in their image processing.

Readers would be able then to appreciate a magazine with a more clear understanding of what they are looking at. It would also be a commitment from the magazine to its readers to work within a set of self-described limits. If even just a few major magazines made a point of communicating their limits to their readers, it would set a precedent in the industry with far reaching implications.

The second thing that needs to happen is going to sound crazy. There needs to be reader-generated campaigns to raise magazine subscription rates.

I realize that this seems counter-intuitive, but here is how it works. If you are buying subscriptions on the cheap, the only hope magazines have to make money is from advertisers by selling your attention as a commodity. After all, you aren’t really paying for the magazine. But if you are willing to pay more, suddenly you, the reader are starting to pay for the content and the magazine has to work for you, not the advertisers. Remember Kees’ study? If you aren’t going to pay for those pages, advertisers will, and it will serve their purposes, not yours.

This post is adapted from Confessions of a Bone Saw Artist by Aric Mayer


Reader Reform of the Fashion Magazine


5 Responses

  1. cshteynberg says

    I’ve seen this picture and have been very surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) about the to do–she looks beautiful, and normal, and actually quite thin in comparison to what I would consider the “average” American woman.

    All of that aside, I agree with your assessments of what needs to be done in order to stop the visually distorted madness that defines most magazines/advertisements (I stopped reading these mags long ago, but often pick them up while exercising at the gym, of all places….).

    I don’t know if you heard, but France is taking a lead here by proposing a law that “requires disclaimers on Photoshopped or otherwise “enhanced” images of people”:
    Apparently, it was proposed by an MP who was inspired to act after writing a large report on anorexia and bulimia. It will be interesting to see if the law passes, and if so, if it has an effect on other countries!

  2. Aric Mayer says

    I certainly agree that Lizzi is a professional model and thereby has passed through a process that establishes her as somewhat rarified. The response seems to me to flow out of the deliberate presentation of her belly, which is being depicted within the visual language of fashion and beauty photography. It is a punctum that seems to puncture the logic of how the industry works. I think that is a key to interpreting both the image in this context and the response.

    There are many photographers who have done excellent work depicting the human body in a more normal state, however that might be defined. But how rare it is to see to see even a glimmer of that in this context. That work can’t jump the gap into the commodity driven fashion industry.

    The proposal in France is interesting but I doubt that it will pass simply because it’s virtually unenforceable. All images in publication are digitally enhanced. The proposal in France is pretty binary in its assessment that retouching is bad. If they were to pass that law, every image in advertising would have to carry the disclaimer, from a boring cereal box to the next racy underwear campaign.

    What we need in the public is a better understanding of retouching as an already integral part of image making in our culture, and we need a broader vocabulary for discussing the ends that it serves. It isn’t a secret, so why treat it as one? Publications already make decisions on retouching with practical and moral considerations. Why not come out and tell the audience exactly what they are?

  3. Janis says

    believe the “average” American woman is size 14/16. Of course, “average” can be calculated a number of ways, but that is the figure I hear consistently.

  4. kms says

    As women we are told that we have to look a certain way, whether it maybe someone commenting on our weight, what we are wearing or even what we are eating. However, it does not have to come only though words. Both men and women are constantly exposed to images of unrealistic sized women in commercials, advertisements, magazines, and runways of fashion week. It really proves that it is a tough world out there. It is amazing and very gratifying that Glamour magazine would do this story with a size 12 model. I am sure many real-size women are very happy with it too.
    We have this “consumer logic” plugged into our minds the moment we are able to turn on the television or subscribe to our first fashion magazine which leads to buying your first pack of diet pills or rejecting dinner that night. This “consumer logic” is detrimental to not only women but men as well, not to mention young girls. There have been controversies lately of models being fired for being too heavy, and yet too heavy is a size 6? What are we teaching our young girls these days?
    I love that Glamour Magazine did this; it’s a beautiful picture that is real and real works these days.

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