The ‘Real’ Problem
First published in Trespass on 15/01/2010
It was a long time coming and off the back of a flogging of a very tired horse – but there was something that came out of the stupidly hyped Marie Claire cover debacle that irritated me and this was it …
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine wrote on my wall and said ‘looking forward to hearing your opinion on the Jen Hawkins naked cover debacle.’ I wrote back that I was still mulling and wasn’t even entirely sure I could be bothered having an opinion because there didn’t seem to be a need for debate. A model appears naked and un-airbrushed on the cover of a magazine (that will be filled with pages of airbrushed models) in an effort to raise awareness of body image issues and eating disorders. A well intentioned if slightly flawed move that guarantees the publication and the model massive publicity. End of. But then I was in Woolworths the other day and idly scanning the magazine covers at the check-out and noticed Ricki Lee in a swimming costume with the words ‘this is what a real woman looks like Jen’ emblazoned across her. And then I remembered Bianca Dye’s fury at Hawkins as a representation of the female body which is where a vague debate actually worth having began to stir, and my feelings of indifference gave way to feelings of supreme irritation.
I don’t look like Jen Hawkins. But I don’t look like Ricki Lee or Bianca Dye either. And I’m a woman and, I feel it’s safe to say, somewhat real. And I don’t really care that a glamour model has taken her clothes off and said no to some body airbrushing, yay for her. Just like it’s yay for women who get their kit off in the pages of glossy magazines for feel-good stories on accepting ourselves for who we are.
But I hate, hate this notion of ’real women.’ It pisses me off. We are all real and we are all women whether our breasts are double As or Ds, whether our hips curve or not and whether we’re five feet ten or five feet. Certainly, for a long time, one ideal has been privileged above all others and that has happened since the dawn of civilisation. And the battle we fight now is one that recognises this ingrained human tendency to exalt one ideal of beauty. And our weapon is diversity – there simply isn’t any other option. So we have to stop falling into the damaging rhetoric of ‘this is what a real woman looks like.’ It’s regressive bullshit.
Prescriptive notions of femininity and womanhood is where the real danger lies, and these public clashes serve only to reinforce the flawed message – that there is only one type of female body that is real. As much as Dye and Lee probably think they’re doing their fellow sisters a service by beating their breasts and calling out curve-less women as not being real, they’re actually not. They’re doing us a big disservice. For, the more we attempt to definitively identify one single notion of womanhood, the more we alienate the millions of others who don’t fit that ideal – whatever the ideal is. And that’s really the fundamental problem of contemporary western culture when it comes to our unprecedented problems with body image and eating disorders; that we prescribe one body type as ideal and discount the others. It doesn’t matter what that body type is that is being prescribed as real, what matters is the dismissal of ‘the others’.
Many women don’t identify with Jen Hawkins. But many do. Many women do identify with Ricki Lee. But many don’t. Our problem isn’t just with the gross misrepresentation of what constitutes femaleness in the public arena, it is in our attempts to give one ideal the privileged position of representing all. And that simply isn’t possible.
What a naked (expertly lit, made up and photographed) Jen Hawkins on the cover of a woman’s glossy does for the millions of Australians suffering eating disorders, I’m not entirely certain. What it does to raise the profile of the mag the cover belongs to, I am entirely certain; but the bottom line is I don’t believe the idea was conceived with any ill intentions. It just probably wasn’t conceived with a great deal of thought beyond ‘yeah, lets show them what a model looks like without airbrushing, that’ll shatter the myth for sure!’ What it did was start a mud slinging match in which high profile Australian women began battling it out for the crown of the ‘real’ female body, which doesn’t exist. If I a female body is flesh and blood, it is real, regardless of its shape and whether or not it is in fashion. So let’s lose that stupid ‘real woman’ tag, it’s as restrictive and dangerous as high fashion models whose faces grace the ads that pay for magazines like Marie Claire.
And lets stop trying to reach a conclusion as to what the definitive woman looks like. There is no conclusion and the only way out of this rabbit hole is a continued diverse representation of womanhood – minus the self congratulatory back slapping of the media and minus the meaningless mud slinging from the very people who should know better – women.