Last weekend’s RVCA Sew N’ Sing post, in particular the image above, triggered a pretty strong response, so I thought I should address the main points that were made in the comments on facebook and our homepage. I will leave out comments that just say “gross” or “this is disgusting”, not because I don’t think they are a valuable contribution to the debate, but because – after reading some of the more constructive criticism – I realised that they could refer to alleged sexism, the fact that people are not into the models’ veins, figures or the chairs they’re sitting on. So let’s start with this one:
“We all know skinny girls who eat exist, Tim. It is the Terry Richardson-esque look of exploitation that is off putting. Legs splayed. BEHEADED. Pawing. They look like pieces of meat. And, to top it off, the whole thing resembles a thinspiration pin.
What I really want to know is whether Cooler officially thinks that 1) models liking their own photograph negates any sexism therein and 2) that if someone surfs, that person can’t be anorexic.”
1) No, we don’t think that. A photograph that is liked by its subject can be sexist. Even if said photograph is a self portrait actually. Look at all the sexualised selfies teenagers put up on their facebook or instagram pages. If they have internalised the “male gaze”, i.e. if society has taught them to look at themselves through the eyes of a heterosexual man, it is possible for women to exploit themselves in an image.
But the women in question are the designers of the clothes they are modelling, sporty surfers, plus they were photographed by their friend. I am confident they were aware of what they were doing and probably not being objectified themselves. The question of what someone who sees the image outside of any context thinks, or whether it teaches women who see this picture to look at themselves through the eyes of a man is open to debate. Fact is that we didn’t publish this image without a context, it came with a video and a feature about the rad Sew N’ Sing label that’s all about surfing, handmade boardbags and clothes, and individualism in a world of mass production. The photographer is artist Benjamin Jeanjean, who seems to have a soft spot for interesting (often headless) crops, as these examples of his work show (we found a lot of pictures of “beheaded” men as you can see):
We are not denying that the image we published can be interpreted as a sexist shot taken by a predatory male on a camera with a massive lens and and invasive flash, but they can equally be seen as a snapshot of two women having fun and not being particularly bothered about whether they are showing their crotch or not (and why should they be bothered really?). This is clearly also why our web editor Anna chose this particular image, here’s what she has to say about it: “I had the feeling the girls felt very comfortable in their bodies, not caring where the camera is aiming at, how they will look in the picture or if bending over like this will create wrinkles that will be visible in the photo (something that felt very refreshing to me, in a world of Instagram & Facebook, where everybody is super concerned about their image and only posts stuff that presents them in the very best light).”
2) You are right. Anyone can be anorexic, that doesn’t exclude surfers. Some sports seem to be dominated by athletes who look worryingly thin (they might be totally fine though, I’d never say they ARE anorexic, I don’t know enough about them). Anna’s comment about the women in the picture being surfers was referring to the comment “DISLIKE! Your readers are athletes!!!!!!!” (made by the same person as the comment above by the way). This comment presumably translates as “Your readers are athletes therefore they are not skinny” or something along those lines, correct me if I’m wrong. We said, well, the models in the pictures are athletes too. Plus the fact that they are surfers was used by Anna as an explanation for why they are slim. At least that’s how I see it.
This should also answer: “Just because someone ‘surfs’ does not mean they may not suffer from an eating disorder or suffer from any kind of mental health disorder.”
“eww anorexic models, not cool”
“sooo skinny!!! my dogs have more meat on their bones!, not attractive at all im afraid”
“There is no need to promote more anorexia in the media. Even tough you say they aren’t anorectic the image look unhealthy and that is what people are seeing. You can not change the way how people are seeing a image.”
We don’t think it is fair to accuse someone you don’t know of being anorexic, which is why we did a little interview with the model in question. To find out. And because we firmly believe in giving our models a voice. But we are fully aware that an image is powerful, creating powerful images is our job. Some of our facebook fans in particular saw this image as something that promotes anorexia. And it is true that we can’t change they way you initially saw the image, but we never published the image without a context (see above). And we can give you even more background info now. We think research and background info is interesting, that’s why we’re journalists.
And this might be controversial now, but none of us on the editorial team who were in the office or reachable today felt the women in the picture looked too skinny. I suspect that the way the picture was taken, the – arguably brutal and definitely gritty – realism of it, is something some of our FB fans aren’t used too. And that’s not their fault, we live in a world where retouched images are the norm. “All I can see is two skinny girls with veins sticking out” illustrates that rather well. Sticky out veins aren’t only a sign of low body fat but also of a lot of lean muscle (look at people who spend slightly too much time in the gym – not that we are particularly into that look), but most importantly they show that the models in the picture aren’t overly retouched super smooth teenagers we see so often but sporty and somewhat androgynous women. I’m looking at my hands as I’m typing this, and well, I won’t put a picture of them on my instagram, because I might get accused of promoting anorexia…
We’re not much into retouching our images because we think retouching can be incredibly damaging. It’s not fair to the consumer to retouch models who are too skinny, for example, and keep their body as small as it is but get rid of all the bones that stick out and all the shadows that make them look unhealthy and present an end product that pretends you can be super super skinny but have a healthy glow and no sticky out ribcage or gaunt looking face. An image like this is far more dangerous and unrealistic than an image of someone who’s a bit boney. Dangerous not only because it makes people think they can be ridiculously skinny without, well, dying, but also dangerous because people start thinking any unretouched face or body (with a slightly boney chest, a bit of cellulite, dark circles under the eyes, none of which is in itself a sign you’re ill) is unattractive, unhealthy and a reason to feel bad about yourself . And I’m absolutely certain that there would have been a lot fewer “too skinny” comments under the pic we published had the photographer “cleaned the models up a bit” but kept their exact body size.
Now this last comment was maybe slightly off topic but it is something I feel rather strongly about so I’d like to address it too:
“This is grim. Looks like an ad for a dirty brothel.”
I agreed with one of the commenters that we can’t change the way people see an image (see above). So if you think “dirty brothel” when you look at this picture there’s nothing we can do. I don’t quite understand the connection between brothel and dirty though. I’m anti prostitution because of the fact that very very few prostitutes choose to be prostitutes (at the same time we don’t want to patronise anyone by painting them as victims, so we don’t rule out that for some prostitution is a career choice) but there’s nothing dirty about being or having to be a prostitute, it might or might not be sad, but it’s not dirty. Unless you were referring to a lack of hygiene, as in “dirty laundry, “dirty B&B” or “dirty hospital”, in which case this was a bit of a misunderstanding.
Cooler is all about diversity and realism, not sexism, we do a huge amount of labour intensive street casting (which means we often choose athletes and other inspirational women with interesting and often creative jobs over professional agency models for our fashion shoots), this results in us promoting various different body shapes. There are very skinny people who are incredibly good at sports just as there are people with average body shapes who suck at it. And vice versa. We take our readers seriously and feel they can make their own decisions about what they think of controversial images such as the one above so there is no need for censorship. We also like and encourage debate, and value everyone’s input, so keep the comments coming.