I Am a Prude
The New York Times style magazine, T Magazine, published an issue with a cover photo and inner photo spreads that sparked some controversy: Too Tough To Handle – Harnessing the dark side with black bikinis and a leather cover-up. I actually missed the physical issue, because it was Mother’s Day and I was busy not running errands in a very determined way. So I followed the controversy after the fact in the blogs with intense professional interest. I market magazines for a living. Beautiful girls and sex help sell magazines. I have worked with the editor of T Magazine, Deborah Needleman, and was curious about how she would present her point of view publicly.
In short, readers complained that the girls were too young and too thin and that the imagery was too referential to sexual bondage. The commentary from Jamie Peck at thegloss.com and Margaret Sullivan as Public Editor of the NYT was remarkably benign about the images. Peck acknowledged liking the look. Sullivan focused on the issue of photo-shopping images in fashion photography (forbidden in journalism, but practically de rigueur in fashion photography). Needleman was quoted as saying she also thought the cover model was too thin and considered photo-shopping some plumpness to her but opted not to do so.
Given my personal experience with too-thin-ness, I decided I really should look at the images and check in with my own gut.
My professional distance dissolved.
Two young too-thin girls, perhaps they are all of 20, dressed in black bikinis with a leather cover-up (you know, “harnessing the dark side”) with an aloof and unsmiling gaze. Their skin is pale. Their expression is almost hostile (you know, “too tough to handle”).
I imagined the photo shoot. I imagined myself as one of the models at 20. Eager to please. Flattered they think I am beautiful. Lucky to be wearing couture. Anxious to be considered grown-up, sophisticated, sexy, not naïve. Obedient – I, too, would have endured, willingly, the scrutiny of my body, if it meant I was special. Can’t you hear the photographer (Craig McDean) and the stylist (Joe McKenna) commanding them to be sexy? Why does sexy equate with haughty and aloof, hostile and hard, breastless and bony?
Shouldn’t sexy mean bare souls connecting with intimacy, love, passion? Shouldn’t sexy be happy? These girls don’t look happy. These girls don’t look like they know anything about love, joy, and happiness. Shouldn’t beautiful girls be smiling? Who are the people that think these girls are sexy? Who are the girls that want to look like this?
Sadly, we are everywhere.
In the magazine world, whenever we engaged in serious self-questioning about what kind of models and celebrities to use on the cover and on the inside spreads, we bemoaned the fact that white blonds sold better than ethnic girls and that thin sold better than curvy. I always cheered when a magazine would take a stand against too-thin models. Alas, the readers might say they want to see real women in their magazines, but they don’t buy the magazines with the real women.
I did have some genuine conversation with the editor of Teen Vogue, Amy Astley, across several years of working on that title. Like me, she had been a ballerina. Like me, she was a mother. Like me, she understood issues around body image and eating. In my experience of her, Amy loves all things related to girls and works hard to create a magazine that encourages healthy and positive, honest and open points of view – though within the framework of a fashion magazine. She advocates for no smoking. She advocates for no drinking and driving, no texting and driving. She addresses important issues of body image and bullying and sex. Once, when I came to her requesting images of happy girls making eye contact for a marketing piece, I remember her saying – poignantly – something like: Oh Sally, these girls don’t smile.
Beautiful girls who don’t smile. Sad.
I revisited the T magazine fashion spread and the commentary about it. Blasé, the bloggers commented that the images were unremarkable. I too wanted to be blasé. Not a prude. Yea, these images are unremarkable and the controversy is ridiculous. Everyone wants $500 black bikinis and $5,000 leather jackets to wear to the beach. And then it hit me. Yes I am. I am a prude. An outraged prude! These images are remarkably ridiculous. These images are insidiously dangerous. These images are sad, not sexy.
Now pejorative, “prude” actually means “honorable woman” and was originally a noble compliment, associated with wisdom, prudence, sound judgment. Where are the prudes protecting our beautiful girls? We should be creating a world where girls can allow their bodies to feel. Feel hungry. Feel pleasure. Feel pretty. Feel safe, sexual intimacy. Feel happy. Happy enough to smile.
(Photo is from T Magazine: The New York Times Style Magazine)