Seeing is Believing: Why Media Representation Matters

[I spent this evening chatting about women and media representation at Eastside Yoga, so I thought it was time to share this post, which was featured on The Body is Not an Apology in August. Take a look at the next few posts to get my series of posts on media, visibility, invisibility and some of the consequences of (mis)representation. You can find all of them under the tag or category (In)visibility or Representation.]

Seeing is Believing

In North America today, we are exposed to media on a nearly constant basis. The average teenager now spends over 7 hours a day consuming media and so it’s hard to argue that it’s not having any impact on how we experience the world. For much of the day, we’re living in the media landscape through the internet, cellphones, television, advertisements, magazines, and movies. Unfortunately, the world of the media sometimes proves to be a strange parallel universe that excludes the reality of many, many people.

If you step back and take a look at the media, who you see? Better yet, who don’t you see? The answer may be: You. Your friends. Your family. Even if we forget for a moment about wanting accurate or positive portrayals, some groups can’t even seem to get time on the screen, even if you spend 7 hours staring at one!

When you turn on the television, who is reporting your news? And who is deciding what’s newsworthy? Who is on the cover of the book you’re reading? Whose stories are told? Who is in on the cover of magazines?

[Photo of Vanity Fair’s 2010 Young Hollywood issue featuring 9 young actresses, from left to right: Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Kendrick.]

There has been significant frustration with the whiteness of magazine covers, for example, but this phenomenon is just another aspect of the whiteness of media in general. In 2010, Fearless Magazine noticed a rather ridiculous lack of any visible women of colour in the photo spread above from Vanity Fair for their Young Hollywood 2010 issue and Fearless decided they wanted to do a different version.

[Photo of Fearless Magazine’s Class of 2010, featuring Lauren London, Monique Coleman, Tia Mowry, Tiffany Hines, Naturi Naughton, Kyla Pratt, Jennifer Freeman, and Chyna Layne]

Magazine covers are hardly the be all, end all when it comes to the media, but not letting Vanity Fair’s cover go unanswered is an important challenge to media norms. The covers of popular publications give us a sense of who major media producers think will get attention (i.e. sell more copies). More importantly, they also set up who they think belongs in the public eye and whose body gets to be seen – and being seen matters.

The media helps to shape who and what we see as important, as well as outlining the range of visible options for what is collectively seen as possible. Who can be a politician? Who can be celebrated? Who is part of the community and who is Other, the outsider? Who is seen to live happy, healthy lives, and whose lives are invisible? If you see yourself, or someone like you, portrayed positively in the media, it can offer a sense of belonging and opportunity, but the opposite is also true.

For example, the It Gets Better campaign is an attempt (not without its own problems) to create media that offers representations that the mainstream media and culture do not: real, (generally) happy stories of LGBT folks overcoming challenges and achieving their dreams. With all of the negative representations of the queer community in the media, many people felt that it was critical to offer a different version of the story, particularly in response to high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide among LGBT youth.

The media is one of our tools for interpreting our reality, but when our reality is absent from the media, we may feel like our role has been written out. We may feel ignored, rejected, or erased.

Miss Representation is a documentary that seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, myself included. Although the movie itself is hardly a perfect example of representation, it did get a lot of people’s attention focused on the issue of how women are (under/mis)represented in the mediaand the important impact that this has on the world. In the film, Marie Wilson quotes Marian Wright Edelman, saying:

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This quote really hit me hard. How do you dream from scratch, with no role models to be found? If you can’t see yourself reflected out there, how do you believe you belong? How do you visualize your future?

Still, I would like to revise the notion a little, because many people never do see examples of the people that they hope to become – and they do it anyway. It is too often a privilege to be able to look around and find examples of dreamers who look like you. Obama had to believe that he could be the President of the United States, regardless of what history and the media told him. Hillary Clinton had to believe it too. On a more daily level, many people have been able to imagine lives for themselves that they didn’t see reflected around them by peers or the media.

It’s not impossible to be a trail blazer by any stretch, but it’s an up hill climb when you’re the only one you know who can see your vision of your future (or even your present). It’s tough to keep the faith when everyone else is busy convincing you that you’re just dreaming – or just plain “crazy.” Often, it’s a whole lot easier not to defy everyone else’s expectations. In fact, in a way, the problem at hand isn’t about what you see necessarily, but that people can’t see you. People don’t recognize you or your dreams. To them, you’re invisible, and maybe even “impossible.”

Fortunately, there are more and more people working to create media that offers inclusive representations and positive portrayals. Making media that makes space for everyone is a powerful step towards accepting and celebrating everyone. We should all feel welcome and reflected in our media and in our communities.


Talking Back: Exhibit A

Ashley Judd recently responded to the criticism that she was facing in the media/celebrity blog sites/tabloids/magazines/everywhere. It was criticism not on her acting, choice of projects, humanitarian aid strategies, pursuit of a Masters degree, or various other actual activities. People were criticizing the ‘object’ that is Ashley Judd, the public face, and they were determining all the things that could be wrong, or surgically modified, or too fat. Judd has had enough. She writes:

“The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted…. The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others—and in my case, to the actual public…”

Please read her response to the body policing and objectification here.

I know (and Ashley Judd knows) that celebrities are public faces and will thus face some criticism, but what is the source of that critique? What is the basis for ripping down famous women? Bodies. Faces. The flesh and bones that keep these women walking around. I am no supporter of celebrity worship or hype, but if we’re going to do it, I so wish it revolved around what they did, not what they looked like. Judd would seem to agree. When celebrities speak out, they talk back to a culture that has done so much speaking for and about them. Using their fame to bring attention to the media’s cruelty is so important.

Kate Winslet is also well known for calling the media on their unrealistic demands on women’s bodies. When she was photoshopped outrageously, she said so and complained that, “I don’t look like that and I don’t desire to look like that.” This kind of message is critical, because celebrities are so often trapped in the position where their bodies are policed harshly by the public as well as their employers, making their careers reliant on conforming to the beauty standard. Their conventional beauty is often what gets them fame and fortune to begin with. But if the winners of the beauty game are pointing out that it is rigged, that it is unfair, maybe it will be harder to deny. Maybe the rules will change. As people who both benefit and suffer under the current body standards, celebrities are uniquely placed to speak up. Now, if only we would all listen.

Dressing to Impress at the Golden Globes

Jennifer Lopez at the Golden Globes So, this past Sunday was the Golden Globes and so there was, of course, the required hours of red carpet footage. No doubt there were hours of red carpet preparation as well done by many celebrities. What they wear is often the source of entertainment news fodder. This year, Time has graciously (eye roll) created a post-event slide show highlighting “Five Stars Who Look Looked Fat and Five to Who Looked Fit.” Gee, thanks Time. What would we do without your critical and enlightening gaze?

Actually, more like just critical. This Sociological Images post does a great job of talking about how the article assumes that fashion is used merely to hide the “flaws” that separate your body from that of the ideal we’re supposed to live up to. Thighs are too big to fit the super-skinny mould? If your dress doesn’t hide your shape, then – according to the piece – you’ve failed. And they plan to publicly shame you. Hurrah.

Fashion as body camouflage? Fashion as the tool for creating a generic body? I think we can find a better use for the creativity and beauty that is potentially possible in the things we wear. Many girls (and boys) see their clothing choices as reflecting who they are and showing the world a little piece of themselves, not hiding what makes them special. Celebrity articles show the extreme version of what happens often when people try on clothes at home or in dressing rooms and compare themselves to how they “should” look. Time is holding up the body image standard here to see how the celebrities compare, and even they – who are often only celebrated for being closest in society to this ridiculous ideal – cannot live up to this measure. Anyone calling J Lo fat in this picture needs to get their eyes checked, and re-checked.

I’m no fan of the Golden Globes. I’m no fan of celebrities. However, I’m even less of a fan of this beauty standard that requires our every effort be devoted to conforming and contorting our bodies to fit the ideal. Can’t we just wear pretty dresses?

White-Washing in Women’s Magazines

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in her Elle photoshoot

Elle Magazine recently featured Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on their front cover, with noticeable changes that are inspiring outcries. The cover image features Bachchan with skin several shades lighter than in real life, part of a larger trend to lighten skin both in the media and in many countries. Bachchan is a Bollywood actress and a former Miss World, and so it’s not entirely surprising that her body shape follows Western standards of beauty, but the beauty image standard isn’t just about being skinny. It has racist dimensions that demand lighter, whiter skin. In India, where Bollywood and Bachchan is based, there are many products that are in fact sold in order to lighten skin. There is a long history of products meant to imitates the signs of whiteness in order to achieve “beauty.”

This past October, Elle was already taken to task for doing this sort of photo editing and they are not alone in the tendency to lighten skin. Popular Canadian artist Nelly Furtado even sings about it in her song Powerless (Say What You Want), “Paint my face in your magazines, make it look whiter than it seems, paint me over with your dreams, shove away my ethnicity.” It’s something that happens far too frequently and reinforces the racist aspects to our current Western (and increasingly global) beauty standard.

In this case, Bachchan and her fans are speaking out and Bachchan is considering a lawsuit. This kind of erasure of race is disgusting and Elle needs to hear the message that their front covers need to have fewer white faces, not more. has an online petition to bring Elle’s attention to this issue. If you would like to take a look at their article and their petition, check it outhere. In addition, consider supporting magazines that represent women of many backgrounds and don’t use digital retouching to whiten women. What you read and what you buy can make a difference about what is printed and what is sold.

Sociological Images, a site I’ve linked to several times, just brought attention to an upcoming article in Shape Magazine. Here’s the teaser image:

Not skinny?If that’s the image of “curvy,” if that’s not skinny or seen as typically ideal, then I think I’m clearly confused. Kim Kardashian is no spokesperson for those who are fighting against the unrealistic body images. This is a photoshopping picture glorifying the current beauty standard, while the text tries to be empowering women to love their bodies at whatever size. This conflicting message is commonly seen in women’s magazines, and I think it’s important to remember the old adage at this point that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Yes, it is. Kimmy? Update: You are one of those skinny girls, with or without photoshop. She may not be a bone rack, but just because she doesn’t look emaciated doesn’t mean she’s not a thin girl.

Check out the article at Sociological Images here.

Out of Proportion

Over at the blog Sociological Images, there was a recent posting that made my head spin a bit. Click here to check out their post comparing photos of celebrities in the 90s and photos of those same celebrities now.

It’s pretty shocking to see the different a decade makes. Not only are these female celebrities ten years older, but they’re also much, much skinner. I think the article does a great job of explaining the pictures and I thought it might be worth a look. There’s been news talking about keeping models from starving themselves into their next pay cheque, but celebrities also rely heavily on their bodies to sell themselves to media; we should look at what their job requires them to lose too.

Here’s the before picture:


Click here to follow it on through to see the after.

Computer generated beauty

So, there’s much talk in the scientific community about the things that make people find others attractive universally and they’ve done a few studies that mostly come down to symmetry but below is an article in the NY Times that talks about a machine (the “beautification machine”) that was developed where you can take a picture of someone and make it fit the standard of attractiveness set by the scientists. The article link is here.

But the link that may be more interesting at first is looking at a slide show of celebrities. Their pictures tend to make them look less attractive after the “beautification machine” did its magic on them, so you can check out the difference here.