Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

Supermodels are normal too…aren’t they?

Marie Claire SA had an interesting idea for their November issue. They decided to call it the “Love Your Body” issue and invite six major South African ad agencies to come up with campaigns to encourage ordinary women to love the bodies they’ve got. I have yet to see the images they produced, but by all accounts they are fantastic: clever, witty and affirming — a real celebration of ordinary womanhood.

Then Marie Claire released the cover it had chosen for its “Love Your Body” issue, and it looked like this:

Sam Wilson, editor-in-chief of Women24, Parent24 and Food24, weighed in with a tweet expressing her disappointment that swimwear model Candice Swanepoel’s flawless body should be the one to grace an issue supposedly devoted to encouraging women to accept their bodies as they are. Her tweet sparked a debate that raged on Twitter on and off for most of the day.

Other commentators, myself included, were more disturbed by the cover lines on the magazine promising the following: “21 Days to Get Bikini Ready” (because, well, obviously you aren’t), “Tselane Tambo on Life After Lipo” (liposuction — now there’s a thought), and, most gruesomely of all, “WIN: Freeze Your Fat Off” (just in case liposuction isn’t batshit crazy enough for you). But, you know, by all means go right ahead and love the body you’ve already got. You delusional loser.

The choice of Swanepoel as the cover model was an interesting one. On the one hand, this is the Victoria’s Secret supermodel who recently shocked the world by posing for photographs looking like this:

At the time, she responded to media criticism by insisting that she was perfectly healthy and fine, despite glaring evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, a great deal of credit must be given to her for getting back to the point where she could look enviably gorgeous on the cover of Marie Claire. It seems she is now attributing her formerly skeletal frame to “overwork”. I have no way of knowing what kind of weight-loss journey Swanepoel has been on, but just once it would be refreshing for a model to admit that the pressure to be thin in her line of work is vicious, and that it messes up your body image virtually beyond repair.

Whether the glossy, airbrushed perfection of Swanepoel is the most appropriate image to encourage women to accept their own bodies, flaws and all, remains debatable. But as writer, journalist and noteworthy tweeter, Nechama Brodie, points out, those women’s magazines that have been brave enough to experiment with fuller-figured cover girls have invariably experienced an instant and disappointing drop in circulation.

We the public can get all indignant about magazine covers, but the fact remains that we don’t buy them unless they feature absolute perfection. Yes it is equally true that the public can be educated to change its tastes. I remember a time in the 90s when local glossy magazines simply would not feature a black cover girl. That old “nobody will buy it” argument was hauled out and dusted off to explain that one too. But now just 15 years later black covergirls, while not precisely commonplace, have certainly appeared on our magazine racks. And yet the world as we know it has failed to implode.

The tweeter @CapeTown-Girl responded to the debate by posting this piece that succeeds in being acerbic and entertaining, while simultaneously managing to miss the point by several parasangs. The issue under discussion is not whether women should be encouraged to love their bodies or not, but whether a magazine, having decided to devote an entire issue to encouraging women to love their bodies, should, in that very same issue, send out mixed messages specifically designed to generate body anxiety. “Ironic” is one of the words that springs to mind. “Hypocritical” is another.

It is undoubtedly true, as Brodie also points out, that obesity is a far more serious problem in South Africa than rampant thinness. A shocking number of South African adults need to lose a few kilos to get their BMIs back into the healthy range. But it’s highly debatable whether presenting them with images of impossibly photoshopped perfection is any way to encourage this. Emotional overeating is a problem for many overweight people. Can any of us seriously doubt that the relentless barrage of “you’re not good enough … fix this, fix that … try this pill or that surgery” messages contributes to a sense of self-loathing in many women, that in turn contributes to emotional eating? It’s not rocket science that people who feel good about themselves are less likely to indulge in destructive behaviour patterns.

In the 1950s, magazine covergirls tended to be at least two dress sizes bigger than they are today:

Yet despite this, there were notably fewer obese people around too. We must certainly allow for factors such as the worldwide explosion of junk food in the intervening decades, but maybe, just maybe, the fact that models genuinely used to look like the girl next door made women relax more and eat less.

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    • Kerry

      IMHO, this cover, on so many levels, is the COSMOfication of Marie Claire. The magazines used to be distinct on so many levels – with this issue, you could just swop the mastheads around and they’d be the same magazine. Bad editing choice, bad publishing decision.

    • Roxanne

      So far the best piece I have read on this debacle.
      I don’t think Marie Claire achieved their desired result with their “Love your Body” campaign. Nasty comments does nothing to support each other in the eternal battle that is loving our bodies.

    • Diti

      I buy True Love magazine and other than Joelle Kayembe, I don’t remember ever seeing a model thin cover girl, their covers feature women (mostly celebrities) of various sizes and True Love is a glossy magazine.

    • Jean Wright

      Don’t they stand badly! Terrible for the back in the long run.. Where has the good posture gone? Love your body, but remember, shoulders and back ‘straight’, and remove that ‘tum’ by ‘breathing in’…. amazing what a difference it makes, both immediately and in the long term. Sit up and take note!!

    • dr.zeek

      Why are all women’s mags so [email protected], without exception? The women in porno mags have healthier (ie not underweight / normal BMI) bodies than the skeletal pre-pubescents in women’s mags.

      Why do women purchase such RUBBISH, which consists of thinly veiled advertorial, product placements, advertisments and “shoots” that only serve to make normal, healthy women abhor their bodies and hate themselves?

      See this cover: “Win: Freese Your Fat Off”. MClaire actually aiding and abetting eating disorders and body dismorphia.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Good grief the blonde in the middle of that Victoria’s Secret photo is ridiculously underweight.

    • Mari

      I never was one for so called “women’s magazines” and when I had my daughter 11 years ago I made a conscious decision never to buy and expose her to them. She has a very healthy body image. And to a very large extent I contribute that to the lack of contact with this kind of literature.

    • MLH

      I suppose we should hand it to ‘O’ magazine; they never use an underweight model on their cover, do they?
      I do believe that you spent to much effort on diet, when exercise and general lifestyle are as much to blame for obesity (which I am). Stress can easily trigger bad eating patterns; when your mind is niggling at unsoluble problems, it follows that your eating patterns mimic your frustration and fears. Exercise not only helps to lessen the effects on your mind, but helps the body fight off the effects of bad eating.
      However, there’s no doubt that, if this is what is still going into women’s magazines (can’t remember when I last read one), we most certainly have not ‘come a long way, Baby!’
      I worked on women’s magazines during my 20s. By the time I’d hit the ‘nail colours for spring/winter/autumn/summer’ syndrome for the third time around, I knew it was time to get out. Can you imagine that this precious knowledge is all-consuming to beauty editors?
      What magazines need are OS fashion editors! Anyone can dress a stick woman.

    • La Quebecoise

      @Rod, the ‘one in the middle’ is the ‘one on the cover’…recovered/recovering!

    • jess

      “To be thought ugly or unacceptable because one’s beauty is outside the current fashion is deeply wounding to the natural joy that belongs to the wild nature. Women have good reason to refute psychological and physical standards that are injurious to spirit and which sever relationship with the soul. It is clear that the instinctive nature of women values body and spirit far more for their ability to be vital, responsive and enduring than by any measure of appearance. This is not to dismiss who or what is considered beautiful by any segment of culture, but to draw a larger circle that embraces all forms of beauty, form and function.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, ‘Women who run with the wolves’.

    • http://fungaineni.wordpress.com Fungai Machirori

      A woman’s relationship with her body is complex, full of ups and downs and topsy turveys, and in many ways, we are the precise replicas of that Marie Claire cover; ie. many of us preach that whole ‘I love my body just the way it is’ mantra and yet concurrently wish to have lipo or some botox or something done. Truth is, if I could get lipo, I might consider it. I don’t like my cellulite or my stretch marks. I can live with them, but given half the chance I would get rid of them…

      So while Marie Claire might seem to be contradicting itself, truth is that we women do this also in our daily lives. We compare ourselves to each other and find satisfaction in not being the fattest one in the group, while concurrently fantasising about getting that Extreme Makeover dream and having everything fixed and sorted. But then we don’t usually say this aloud. We just go along and coo about how the greatest love is to accept ourselves the way we are.

    • Catherine

      We should not expect any glossy magazine to use a plus-size model because they simply will not do it. The very fact that even thin models / actresses are air-brushed tells us everything. I think we should first wait for air-brushing no longer to be used before we expect glossies to have plus-sized (or indeed ‘normal’ sized) cover girls. Aluta Continua.