This week I was asked to speak at the Thurston Chamber of Commerce Women’s Sphere of Influence, you can learn more about it here (https://members.thurstonchamber.com/events/details/women-s-sphere-of-influence-252465). A wonderful group of women business owners coming together, sharing their business’ and leads.
I was asked to talk about my studies from university 12 years ago. I specialized in the depiction of women in the media and how that affects our interpretations of beauty standard. A lot has changed since then. I welcomed this opportunity because it was a chance to reevaluate the thoughts and approach I had at the time. I was a 22yr old angry girl upset about the lack of diversity shown in tv and films. Something that I am incredibly passionate about.
When I wrote my thesis it was 2009 and I had limited resources, finding articles of substance and books on the topic were limited and were from few fields of expertise. During my time as a university student I had to work within the academic parameters. Finding works out there on how the media affects our interpretations of beauty were somewhat new but people were beginning to talk about it.
“The beauty standards” I used in previous writings I feel are outdated and should be instead referred to as representation, diversity and inclusivity. Beauty becomes very subjective so what we really need is everyone being represented in media. Different body types, cultures, ages, sizes, shapes.
Susan Sontag was an American writer, philosopher, teacher, political activist and filmmaker. Her book “On Photography” is a collection of essays that analyses the meaning of photography. My favorite essay of hers is The Heroism of Vision. It may have to do with the fact that we had to analyze this essay in university. My biggest take away was the concept of how our brains see photos and believe them without question. There is great power in that. Enter Spiderman quote about “with great power come great responsibility”.
Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth focuses on how images are used against women. This was made when women’s exposure to media was pre-social media. I would love something that deals with that element specifically. I need to revisit this book but if I remember correctly it lacked inclusivity, but that might be because images were exclusionary.
Looking at my thesis about 12 years later I realize now this was a self-exploration of my own ideas of beauty interpretations. I had to go on this journey to work through what I was angry about.
My parents are entrepreneurs so it made sense that our babysitter was the tv. I ingested a lot of tv and film, I became passionate about this. What I noticed was I didn’t see my family represented. My family and I are more voluptuous than the “beauty standards” typically seen in media. My ideas were shaped by this media overdose I went on.
The university required a plan, thesis and portfolio that were a result of the previous two mentioned. My thesis analyzed how fashion photography and super heroine films depicted women and how the best principles could be used in my own work.
Fashion photography started out being something that was a catalogue of clothes and quickly became a visual way of depicting how women should behave in society. This evolved over the decades. The best part of fashion photography was that it could be something that could reflect the time we are living in years from now if done properly and doesn’t need to necessarily represent clothing but rather a lifestyle. Fashion photography has power but power that needs to be used responsibly. Under the guise of fashion photography that would my way in.
I chose film because it was a great way to ingest multiple images in a fast manner, and I grew up on it. At the time I only had access to the superhero film Watchmen to analyze. Which was interesting because it had to two woman. A mother and daughter, from different generations that would make for interesting discussions.
I had an opportunity to make a workshop “Born 2b Myself”, please excuse the shortened text speak it was fun at the time. This workshop focused on sharing with others how images are manipulated in magazines specifically. The attendees were given a journal to work through short exercises that addressed what their ideas of beauty were and how they felt about their bodies at the time.
I did two workshops, one that invited teenagers, the other preteens. All attendees were white with a variety of English and Afrikaans speaking individuals. It would have been more interesting to include a variety of attendees that would better represent the larger population of cultures and languages that make up South Africa. There are 11 official languages in South Africa with many cultures that make up what’s inclusively known as the rainbow nation.
The teenagers enjoyed the workshop and felt empowered analyzing and talking about how photographs in magazines were manipulating their ideas of beauty. They loved discovering how images were “photoshopped”. They created their own standards of beauty in a seemingly easy way.
The preteens had a different experience. After chatting with them about how “photoshopped” images have an affect on how we want to look. They shared the conflict of how they might still want to look the way women did in those magazines. What if how they wanted to look was exactly like that image. This gave me something to think about. For a moment in the workshop I think the attendees felt like I was shaming them for wanting to look like a photoshop manipulated super model. The thing is beauty is subjective and if they have the tools to determine what is possible and what isn’t who am I to question the way they want to look?
She had spoken about how she constantly battled with her body, her looks. After years she finally was happy with her body, except for her breasts. When she was able to get implants she was a completely different person. The confidence, way in which she carried herself and talked about herself was completely different and full of strength. I was in awe of her new found self esteem boost. Prior to my experience with her I was against this kind of surgery, but I realized her choice to have surgery was part of her journey to achieving her ideal beauty.
I looked at my beauty interpretations in four different ways.
The Green Series: approaching the concept of the restrictive beauty standards that are practiced by the media, were executed with costuming. The model was wrapped in gauze, styrene balls and plastic wrap. The color choice was green to show the symbolism of toxicity and warnings of harm those standards have on women.
The Blue Series: this calming color pallet with grey free flowing fabric was to honor the conscious choices women make when changing their bodies in someway. Whether it be implants, hair extensions of lip pumping. These choices are for each individual to make and if its what makes them thrive who are we to judge. It also reminds one of body autonomy.
The Yellow Series: what happens if we aren’t thinking about our choices of our own ideal beauty? What if we are subconsciously following the trends? Do we become clones? The use of yellow as hazardous symbolism amplifies the loss of incivility being detrimental to women’s expression. The images were made by photographing a mannequin and each model 360 degrees, then manipulating their heads ono the mannequin. This took a lot of time.
The Lavendar Series: this was one of acceptance with the body as is. Stretch marks, skin spots, darkened skin, blemishes, cellulite, hair pores and all. The calming lavender is present in further moving the message of embracing each women as they are.
We have had an explosion of social media channels, with an abundance of women finding their voices and expressing them. They embrace and celebrate of all body types and experiences.
The #Metoo and #Timesup movements came about.
The Dove Campaign has gone from educating people around how self esteem is affected by images in the media, to something more diverse and inclusive, with a program with definite action steps for example the No Digital Distortion Pledge.
The Geena Davis institute has grown from SeeJane, see it you can be it. To an organization that has services and tools to help make sure diversity and representation matters. Check out their website, it is amazing.
I still watch a tun of movies and television. There are two things that I have found incredibly helpful in guiding me to celebrate women’s voices and identifying what doesn’t. This is thanks to my husband, whose love for movies is as wonderful as mine. We have a podcast called The Movie Lovers where we talk about just that. There are a few episodes that talk about these two things below.
F-rated film, its not the f your thinking, developed at the Bath Film Festival in 2014 a triple f rating means the film is written, directed and the lead character is a women. If all three are met it is triple f-rated, but if there is only a female lead but no female writer or female director it isn’t f-rated. Its about the creation being f-rated and the female lead is a bonus.
The Bechdel test is more prevalent with podcasts and websites popping up that measures the representation of women in media. Created by Alison Bechdel. States are there two named women, do they talk to each other, is the topic of conversation about anything other than a man. This system has been around since 1985. You will be surprised at how many films do not pass this test.
On the Movie Lovers we have several episodes around these topics. Usually in the last section of the episode we pick a theme, ie female directors, and list 12 movies around that.
Our f-rated pages is here: https://www.thegibsonreview.com/blog/tag/F-Rated
My favorite lists are:
Episode 7 Female Directors: https://www.thegibsonreview.com/blog/2017/06/the-movie-lovers-episode-7-female.html
Episode 13 f-rated movies: https://www.thegibsonreview.com/blog/2017/06/the-movie-lovers-episode-7-female.html
After listening to all these girls and woman that came into my life in 2009 and now. Women change their beauty ideals over the years. They go through a journey, of life experiences and new goals. The question is if media was more inclusive and diverse how would each woman’s journey be, how would it be different?
You can read my thesis here: https://issuu.com/spphotography/docs/article4
More academic articles I wrote here: https://issuu.com/spphotography
The Dove Self Esteem Project, filled with lots of great articles and pledges: https://www.dove.com/us/en/dove-self-esteem-project.html
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, there is research, statistics, spotlights, lists of movies to check out: https://seejane.org/
The Beauty Myth by Namoi Wolf: https://www.amazon.com/Beauty-Myth-Images-Against-Women/dp/0060512180
On Photography by Susan Sontag: https://www.amazon.com/Photography-Susan-Sontag/dp/0312420099
There will be many other books recommended that are similar to these which could be a fun distraction to your day