‘Empowering’ magazine covers as a tool of social oppression

Dear women,

Where does the idea come from that being photographed naked/semi-naked/in our underwear is somehow empowering? Accomplished, well known women, required to disrobe in order to sell their work and their achievements. How did we get to the point where women only receive recognition by taking their clothes off?

Take one example: Vanity Fair. It is a high profile, respectable, world-renowned publication, carrying many challenging pieces of social commentary and solid journalism. It also features a celebrity on the cover of each issue – most often an actor or actress (but sometimes a musician or political figure). In their February 2013 issue, their cover star was actress Jennifer Lawrence. This 22 year old articulate, multiple award-winning actress has already been nominated for an Academy Award twice, and is now one of the most sought after performers in her field. The magazine cover, however, chose to state (over a photograph of her cleavage) that over a “Million Men Say Jennifer Lawrence is the World’s Most Desirable Woman!” Open the magazine, and Miss Lawrence’s comments on her remarkable career achievements are printed alongside photographs of her sprawled suggestively in a hotel window, and bent over the bonnet of a car in skin-tight leggings and stiletto heels. Back in October 2011, UN ambassador, producer, writer, director and award-winning actress Angelina Jolie also graced the Vanity Fair cover, to mark the upcoming release of a movie she wrote and directed called “In The Land Of Blood And Honey”, about the Bosnian War. Pictured in a tight, naked head and shoulders shot, the cover tagline quoted “I’ve never felt so exposed!”

On occasion, Vanity Fair does in fact feature a scantily-clad male celebrity on their cover, often in the same sensationalist way. Surely the same point applies then too? However, one glance at their back catalogue demonstrates that it is women far more often than men, as is the case with most other publications.

So why do magazines insist on following this disappointing format? We are told it is all our fault, of course. We live in a consumer-led market, and certainly a magazine with a naked/semi-naked female global superstar on the cover will sell far more copies than if she wore a business suit. And what does that say about us? That we value physical appearance over personal achievement? That sex does indeed sell? The question is: Which came first? The oppressive media, or the willingness to be subjugated?

And how are we fed this toxic medicine? By being told that physically exposing ourselves is a strength, because it displays confidence and self-esteem. In reality, the reason those magazines grab the attention of the customer at the newsstand is not the interviewee’s thoughts on political, social, economic or industry issues. Nor is it the celebration of all they have achieved. They grab the attention because the pictures are titillating – and that is not empowerment. That is reducing a woman to a single aspect of her complex identity, and manipulating it to be pleasing to the eye. Make no mistake, these magazine covers – every single one of them – are the thorn in our sides. They oppress us by encouraging us to hold ourselves to an impossible standard. They oppress the subject by reducing her from a whole, accomplished person to a simple sex object. They set us up to fail by telling us that nakedness and sexual objectification are desirable and empowering in a society that still believes a woman is “asking for it” if she dares to wear a skirt that falls above the knee.

These pictures are not empowering. Whatever the reason for their invitation to appear on a magazine cover, these women are accomplished individuals. But with one picture, they are nothing more than an object to be ogled. If you want to take an empowering picture of a woman, how about one of her holding her High School Diploma? Or her Degree certificate? Or the keys to her business? A picture of Angelina Jolie in a UN shirt should be far more interesting than a picture of her in no shirt at all.

These magazine covers are a social problem, but they will continue to be produced, because we will continue to buy them and play our part in the perpetuation of the cycle of self-abuse. And that’s our problem.

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