Last year I wrote my Honours thesis on the topic of ‘Teen girls and body image: disparities in the photographic and written text in Dolly magazine,’ a title I am yet to be able to recall in its entirety without double checking, so I understand if you just zoned out a little there.
Basically, what it means is that I looked at the way the magazine’s photos (and other images) and articles sent conflicting messages about body image and beauty to its readers and the implications of this.
What I found was that there is a disparity, in that although the magazine seemed to make an effort to include positive messages about its audience, their appearance and overall value, they weren't generally backed up with consistent images that reflect these ideas.
For the record, I studied Dolly because at the time it had the highest readership and circulation for an Australian magazine aimed at teen girls, however, I think what I found is true of the majority of girl’s/women’s magazines.
Although magazines do not necessarily cause eating disorders and poor self esteem, they can have an effect on them, being a particularly visual form of media. So even if a magazine has dozens of articles telling readers that they are beautiful as they are, if the accompanying images are of girls who always fulfil the typical idea of beauty, this does not encourage readers to accept the message that they don’t have to have a model body/perfect hair/flawless skin to be beautiful.
Case in point: one article asking, “What’s your body happy rating?” accompanied by a full page picture of a girl in a bikini. (It’s OK, she’s holding a balloon with a smiley face, it’s totally relevant.)
Even though magazines make attempts to counteract this problem, by including ‘real’ girls as models, pointing out when an image has been digitally altered (sometimes- this whole practice is quite unclear) and including greater diversity of models, there is still an ideal appearance promoted and most images remain altered, especially as magazines can’t control this when it comes to stock or advertising images.
But today’s readers are pretty media savvy. Even if they don’t know all the details about procedures for digitally altering or choosing images, the affect of magazines and other media is widely known.
So why do they continue to be read and bought, even with the increase of digital media?
When it comes down to it, people like beautiful things; they like seeing images and reading articles that are relatable, but also appealing. Writer Rita Felski said that, “(Beauty) reminds us that the enjoyment of mere pleasure is an important element of our humanity.”
Blogger Erica Bartle (who kindly responded to questions for my thesis and has a great blog on issues of media, faith and feminism here) said, “We live in an aesthetic, image-based society and we are drawn to things of beauty. I think creativity and beauty can be a positive, but not when it turns into unhealthy idolisation.”
This is why people continue to buy magazines, even though that many of their images of beauty are seen as unrealistic- we are drawn to their aesthetics.
In my thesis I found that there is something about beauty that appeals to us beyond reason and practicality, and what is needed is not to get rid of representations of beauty, but to manage them responsibly.