Is Vogue Still Setting Unrealistic Body Standards or Breaking Them Down?

Vogue’s “What’s Changing About Fashion’s Relationship to the Body?” featuring Kim Kardashian who talks about the negative comments she has heard about her body both in person and on social media.

One of the most prevalent issues within the fashion industry is its lack of diversity. Lately, I have been seeing more and more online content discussing this topic. Among this content is a Vogue video I found on Youtube titled “What’s Changing About Fashion’s Relationship to the Body?” The three minute video stars pop culture phenomenon Kim Kardashian alongside other successful female-identifying models of various races, nationalities, sizes, and ages. There are various shots of the models throughout the video as they offer overlapping commentary on their personal experiences loving and owning their bodies. Of course, the video is well-directed and entertaining through its editing and background music. It captures the challenges of finding self worth and confidence in an industry that has set impossible beauty standards not only through discussion but through visual cues. We see scenes of women exercising and weighing themselves whilst hearing the models talk about the negative body shaming they have faced. Historical female sculptures are shown in a probable effort to depict the everlasting beauty standards for women. Vogue clearly wanted to promote body acceptance through this video though there are several ironies that belittle its goal which commenters are not afraid to share. 

Screenshot of a woman weighing herself on a scale while models talk about the body shame they have received.

First of all, Vogue is a major contributor to the beauty standards set by the fashion industry. They have taught women that in order to be pretty and fashionable, they must be unattainably skinny and have flawless skin. Many commenters on the video echo this feeling as they reveal Vogue is in fact partially responsible for making them feel uncomfortable with their own bodies. One commenter points out that while the magazine is trying to reverse some of its past mistakes by capturing different bodies, it is not enough. If they want to change the narrative, they have to do more. The company definitely has the power to do so as Vogue is the epitome of fashion for many people. Vogue thinks so too as the “About Vogue” reads “Vogue is the authority on fashion news, culture trends, beauty coverage, videos, celebrity style, and fashion week updates.” They could use their power for good and create a new standard that every body is beautiful. 

The video was not received well not only because it was created by Vogue but because it featured Kim Kardashian. Like Vogue, Kardashian herself has set unrealistic body standards. While Kardashian just as rightly deserves to own her body like anyone else, commenters take issue with her being in a video alongside other women who have battled the beauty standards, not created them. Kardashian readjusts her pose in a short clip and asks if  “this looks good.” Kim Kardashian trying to look her best in a video promoting body authenticity and acceptance makes Vogue’s intentions seem fake. They could have easily made this video without Kardashian, which would have generated more positive reception. Instead, they likely added her to reach a larger audience and generate more profit. It seems like Vogue’s real goal was to appear politically correct whilst making money. Yet, they do capture many other models besides Kardashian who have faced struggles loving their bodies. But does this diverse cast of models appear on the runways too?

Another commenter who claims to work in the modeling industry argues that this diversity in the video is nonexistent in the actual industry and only appears in the media. I find this fact unsurprising as it’s easy to create the false appearance of something. Despite all the pushes towards diversity, the fashion industry is changing at a slow rate. Vogue doesn’t completely overlook this notion, writing that “body acceptance is a long and winding road” in the description box. They may be trying to suggest that the industry has a long way to go before it is inclusive. Nevertheless, it’s probable that the diversity on screen is mostly absent in real life. 

The video sparked major debate among viewers for good reasons. Others interested in social justice would likely agree with me and the other commenters. It is hard for an audience to watch a video produced by a company that lowered their self-esteem in the first place and celebrate them. Although, I believe Vogue had good intentions. They are making an effort to rebrand themselves and pave the way for increased body diversity in fashion. Obviously, it will take more than a three minute video to achieve this goal and after a bit more research, I found other online content that Vogue has published surrounding body inclusivity. However, none of it avoided criticism including their March 2017 cover on Modern American Women that was criticized for not being diverse enough. It featured seven light skinned models including one plus size model. If they have faced this kind of scrutiny before, I have to wonder whether they expected the same comments or praise for their efforts to celebrate body diversity. Did they want to be celebrated for including models of all backgrounds instead of the usual suspects like Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid? Are they trying to forget their damaging past? Perhaps, by continuing to produce more inclusive content, they hoped to show their commitment to body diversity. Nonetheless, this video, various articles, and magazine covers act as baby steps towards a future with representation for all shapes and sizes. Just like many other companies in the fashion industry, Vogue has a long way to go with much more to learn. 

References

Torgerson, Rachel. “Vogue’s ‘Diverse’ Cover Slammed for Not Being Diverse Enough.” Cosmopolitan, 9 February 2017, https://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/fashion/a8696839/vogue-march-2017-cover-controversy/.

Book Review: Seeking the Straight and Narrow

Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in  Evangelical America: Gerber, Lynne: 9780226288123: Amazon.com: Books

Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America by Lynne Gerber explores the intersection of weight and sexuality in the Evangelical church. The book draws focus to two Evangelical ministries that directly address these topics, First Place and Exodus International. First Place is a Christian weight loss program that was founded in 1981 by members of the First Baptist Church of Houston. The premise of the program is that Christians look to guidance and help from God for every other aspect of life, so they should be able to seek help from him for weight loss. First Place claims that it is grounded in both a spiritual and scientific approach to weight loss that benefits the person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It uses divine assistance rather than intervention, and sees divine authority as complementary to scientific authority rather than contradictory. With the rise of the ideas that homosexuality is immutable and natural from the gay right’s movement, ex-gay ministries grew in opposition. Exodus International is an organizational umbrella for roughly one hundred and thirty ex-gay ministries that evolved when the new evangelical movements started to reach out to gay people in the 70s. These ministries use evangelicalism to focus on issues like drug addiction, cultural exploration, sexual promiscuity, and homosexuality. Gays and lesbians that were “newly saved” went to these ministries to reconsider their sexuality in the context of their faith. Exodus International was intent on helping people overcome their homosexuality rather than them being in the closet or taking the liberal approach of acceptance. The ministries see homosexuality as a moral and psychological issue that is undeniably a sin. 

Although the connection between homosexuality and fatness is not a direct one at first glance and First Place and Exodus International exist in different realms of the Evangelical world, Gerber argues that they are in fact deeply connected. She states that “both are associated with excessive desires and excessive bodily expression, excesses that have long disturbed American culture and moral sensibilities” (Gerber 14). Also, homosexuality and fatness have been a “focus of containment” for the state, medicine, and religion. “Losing weight and reorienting sexual orientation are projects fueled by a tension between malleability and limitation that is very compelling in American culture” (3).” The interconnectedness between ex-gay ministries and weight loss ministries through the focus on the body, excess, containment, and malleabillity displays a strong similarity between the two groups that would not come to mind when first looking into these topics. 

The monograph is split into an introduction, three chapters, each with two subchapters, and a conclusion. This setup provides for a very organized and clear structure of Gerber’s argument. The first chapter titled, “Framing Right and Wrong,” is split into two subsections, “Sin” and “Health.” This chapter discusses how evangelicals use sin and health as a way to argue what is morally right and wrong. Food is often talked about in relation to sin, sinful foods or the sin of overconsumption of food. Homosexuality as a whole is seen as a sin by many religious communities. Gerber discusses how the definition of sin varies from person to person. Some people believe that some sins are mild and “not what God created you to be” (39) or to be very harsh and “disobeying God’s commands” (40). On the other hand there are people that believe a sin is a sin and that all sins are seen as equal in the eyes of God. One of the most interesting things I found in this section was Gerber’s claim that gluttony is seen as a worse offense than homosexuality in the bible but in Evangelical American society, homosexuality is seen as worse. In “Health,” Gerber discusses how “the Lord is conflated with health” (53) and any behaviors that do not promote health are against God’s will. Each Evangelical group equates their ideal with health, heterosexual relationships being the only healthy relationships, and having low cholesterol or weight is the only way to be healthy. The next chapter, “Making Christian Bodies,” discusses how these programs place the responsibility of the outcome on the participants. If people want to see change, either in their sexuality or weight it is on them to make that change. This then puts the success or failure of the program on the participant and not the ineffectiveness of the programs. The third and final chapter titled, “Accountings,” is split into “Success/Failure” and “Breaking.” In “Success/Failure” Gerber discusses the approach of the ex-gay and fat-loss groups. Both use a flexible programming design which lets participants talk about their frustrations about how they are not seeing progress. This pulls attention away from the program and to the actions of the participants. The flexibility makes it so the program’s successes and failures can be justified and not questioned. The section “Breaking” posits that the rise in queer activism and fat positivity and acceptance movements has allowed for positive narritives about gay and fat Evangelicals. As a result of this rise, Exodus and First Place had to work against those new movements to retain their membership and participant devotion. This was, however, not successful as many participants in these programs reach a breaking point and leave. They then find acceptance in themselves and their fatness or gayness. “Sexual identity is no more inherently true than religious identity. If people feel they need to pick, they may pick either” (223). The final conclusion of the book discusses how these ex-members must face an internal battle between their fat or gay identities and their Evangelical identities because they feel they cannot exist as both harmoniously. Gerber comes to the acceptance that some people, although not necessary, feel like those identities are not compatible and must choose one.

Lynne Gerber is an independent researcher and scholar. She has held academic positions at both the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Divinity School. Presently, she is an independent researcher based in San Francisco. At the time of writing this monograph, Gerber was a research fellow in the Religion, Politics, and Globalization program at the University of California, Berkeley. Gerber’s research focuses on religion, the body, and morality. 

Gerber used qualitative research in her investigation through participant observation, interviews, and content analysis of ministry materials. She attended First Place meetings for seven and a half months and although she was not a Christian and they knew she was a researcher, the group welcomed her and filled in the gaps of what she might not understand without a Christian background. However, it was not as easy to get participant observation in Exodus International. The groups were not welcoming to a researcher that was neither gay nor Christian. They had experience with undercover journalists and also thought that she would not understand their teachings or process since she was not a part of the groups they worked with. Therefore, she conducted her research through public gatherings and conferences of ex-gay ministries. She also interviewed sixty three people, twenty eight from First Place, twenty eight from Exodus, and 7 former members of Exodus. She is transparent in the possibility of bias in her samples as the majority of them were white and in leadership roles. 

One of the main strengths I found with Gerber’s book was how she took into account all perspectives on these issues and did not use her preconceived notions on the topics to influence her findings. She is very explicit in saying that everyone comes into the book expecting a different answer based on their beliefs about religion, gayness, or fatness. She knew that the people she interviewed and worked with throughout the process were expecting fair representation and that their vulnerable experiences were not going to be exploited. I think she shares their stories tastefully and respectfully, without any bias and without passing any judgement on them. I personally had thoughts about this book before reading it that were proved wrong. I think that the work is written very well and tells all sides of the story even if it’s not necessarily what some audience members want to hear. She acknowledges that there is validity to these programs while also talking about the pitfalls of them. 

The main weakness I found in the book was that the samples that Gerber used in her research were mainly white- 5 out of 63 participants were people of color. Although Gerber explicitly recognizes this underrepresentation in her analysis, it does not change the fact that her findings are not an accurate representation of the population. The attitudes and experiences collected from the Exodus and First Place people are only really representative of the white experience. The social impacts of weight and sexuality are not independent of race, for example a fat white person, fat black person, skinny white person, and fat black person will all have very different attitudes towards their fatness or lack thereof and will all have very different experiences regarding their fatness. Another example is that black gay men are more likely to face adversity than white gay men. Queer theory has historically already been focused around the white experience and failing to complete a more diverse assessment adds to this issue. Painting a white centered narrative of experiences in these Evangelical programs does not provide a comprehensive, representative view on how the programs affect people and the success of them. 

Overall, I enjoyed this scholarly read. I think it was a very interesting intersection between queer studies, fat studies, and religion studies. The book is written well and structured clearly, making it a read that is fairly easy to understand and follow while also being engaging. It is fascinating how these two Evangelical groups that seem to have nothing to do with each other, are very similar in their ways of teaching and programming, their beliefs around the things they are trying to fix, and how neither of them are very successful for their participants.

Works Cited:

Gerber, Lynne. Seeking the Straight and Narrow : Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America, University of Chicago Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy048.nclive.org/lib/davidson/detail.action?docID=772137.

Book Review- *Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and The Politics of Stigma*.

The LGBTQ community is growing rapidy and gaining more support through the decades. However, many members within the community continue to experience discrimination because of their identity to other marginalized groups. Fat gay men have a hard time being accepted by the heteronormative society and the gay society. Members of this double marginalized group are often stigmatized and have a hard time feeling confident in who they are. Once the way fat bodies live and shape the world is understood, acceptance and celebration emerges. 

Jason Whitesel, professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, enters the world of fat gay men in his book Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (2014). Whitesel discusses how members of a double marganilzed group (being fat and gay) have reconstructed their identities in the face of discrimination. Whitesel argues that fat gay men are stigmatized in the LGBTQ movement because of their size. He explains how gay big men are marginalized both for their sexual orientation in a heteronormative society and for their size in a gay society (2). Gay fat men want their dignity and respect in society. 

Whitesel’s use of ethnographic study allows people to better understand the stigmatized world of fat gay men. Whitesel does his research and observations by becoming a member of a fat gay men group called Girth & Mirth. Although his experiences and analysis is concentrated to that group, Whitesel does discuss the issues in a broader, open-ended lens. The Girth & Mirth is a group that provides fat gay men a safe-space and support. They like to refer to each other as a family rather than an organization. The Girth and Mirth family allows fat gay men to do activities like eating in public, socializing with others, and more “every day” activities they would not have otherwise been able to do on their own. People in this group discuss ways in which they found out about Girth & MIrth and how their life has changed since. Members have heard of this group through newspaper ads, friends, and more. Ultimately, Girth & Mirth saved the lives of many and provided fat gay men a place to come together and embrace their diffrences.

When trying to understand the everyday life of being a fat gay men, Whitesel becomes aware of his skinny privilage and ensures to not let it play a role when analyzing his research. In trying to understand the impact social events have on the fat gay community, Whitesel attends two. The first event is called the Super Weekend and the other is a national Convergence in Minnesota. Whitesel went into these events with only telling a few people he was doing research. Because Whitesel is a skinny gay man, he was known as a “chaser” (term given to skinny gay man who are attractive to bigger men) when he became a member of Girth & Mirth. By going in as a member and not letting it known he was doing research, Whitesel was able to get  more sincere and honest responses on how the fat gay men feel towards their status within the gay community. 

In Chapter 3, Performing the Fat Body we learn about The Super Weekend, an event where fat gay men gather at the Cabana Inn and “create an inverse world for themselves” (61). Big gay men are able to engage in reinventing themselves as objects of desire and reclaiming their right to self-definitions. People who attend the event are able to have a good time engaging in scatological humor and celebrating through food, dance, and sex. Whitesel attended this event as a member of the Girth and Mirth club, but also a coordinator of the event. Through his weekend and interaction there, Whitesel noticed that big gay men use campy humor to work through the stigma of being fat. It is important to note that The Super Weekend can be controversial as it can be over sexualized. For example, the doorknob award is given to the person who has had sex with the most people during the event. However, using this form of humor allows big men to “overcome their underdog status” (86).

Whitesel also participated in the annual Convergence of big men in Minnesota, which he describes in Chapter 4, Big Gay Men’s Struggle for Class Distinction. This event is much larger compared to the Super Weekend. Although Convergence is similar to Super Weekend, Convergence offers sightseeing, education seminars and theme dances. For example, the Convergence does a “prom”, “homecoming” type dance where fat gay men are able to dress up and participate in an event that they might have felt excluded when in high school. Although many members participate in such events years after their “normal” time, they still play a big role in their life and how they feel about their identity. In this event, Whitesel was advised to talk openly about his role as a researcher so more people can talk to him about how big gay men work through self-esteem issues (98). The Convergence allowed big gay man’s status in the society to be improved. 

By attending both The Super Weekend and The Convergence, Whitesel was able to understand how big gay men socially construct their culture differently (108). This allowed Whitesel to conclude that gay men reconfigure the shame of fat stigma by either turning themselves into sex objects, or by seeking class validation (137). Whitesel was able to fit in the Girth and Mirth group nicely due to his homosexual male staus, but made sure to be aware of his skinny privilege as he interacted with people during both events. By keeping an open mind, Whitesel was able to grasp a better understanding of the injuries and discrimination that big gay men face.

Although Whitesel described his observation in both events, there were areas that lacked information. For example, during the Super Weekend, he talks about the Chub-and-Chaser relationship but does not bring to attention the controversy and hierarchies that might exist. Events like this are spoken in a positive narrative, and lack explaining issues that might be present like the fetishization of fat bodies. 

Overall, Jason Whitesel does a good job giving a voice to fat gay men. Members of this double marginalized group are often silenced by the gay community and Whitesel brings attention to groups such as the Girth and Mirth Club and how they use their platform to create a safe and fun space for gay fat men to express themselves and participate in normal activities such as partying and eating in public places. In Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma we learn of the injuries and discrimination fat gay men face and ways in which they embrace their figure and get rid of the shame they grew up with. 

In conclusion, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma by Jason Whitesel is an informative read for people who are interested in learning about the discrimination that occurs when you are part of a double marginalized group. This book enriches fat studies and highlights interesting ways in which social stigma, body size, and sexual identity intersect and impact the lives of people. However, it is important to note that having some knowledge of fat studies will be useful in understanding Whitesel’s conclusion on how the three social issues connect with one another.

Works Cited

Whitesel, J. (2014). Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma. New York, NY: NYU Press.

*Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia* Review

Unlike existing historical scholarship, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings is one of the first historical studies that emphasizes the interconnectedness of race, gender, and morality in the development of thin fetishism and fat phobia. Strings argues that anti-fat bias is not recent discourse, instead claiming that fat phobia has been circulating since the Renaissance. The transatlantic slave trade and spread of Protestantism were key historical events that contributed to the bias toward slenderness and fear of fatness. Another important point Strings makes is that fat phobia did not originate from  health issues but was instead implemented  to justify the race and class hierarchy. 

Continue reading “*Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia* Review”

Celebrities: That Doesn’t Look Like Me

With social media, more specifically editing tools like photoshop, at the tips of everyone’s fingers, being a teenager today is hard. There is a constant feed of images that have been altered to fit society’s misconstrued beauty norms: airbrushed skin, whitened teeth, any ounce of fat pinched in or smoothed out. These images, mainly of or posted by celebrities, generate unrealistic expectations that collide with the very foundation of what it means to be human: having blemishes, curves, and for goodness sakes – everyone has fat on their bodies – it is normal. This “standard of beauty” often goes uncontested, but known body positivity advocate and celebrity, Zendaya, had no problem taking a stance against the editing done to one of her own modeling photos for Modeliste Magazine.

In the screenshot above, you are able to see not only the two images she has juxtaposed, but you can see her caption, likes, comments, and even how many followers she has. I think it’s safe to say that at 108 million followers, she has quite an audience and at 839,310 likes, that her post was well-received. The right image in the post is the beautiful, unedited image of Zendaya. She is wearing a black leather jacket with high-cut bottoms that flatter her curves and she is working a subtle, soft smile with her curled hair framing her face nicely. This gorgeous image makes it puzzling that someone would even think that there are aspects of it that need to be “perfected.” Yet, thanks to what society has falsely deemed as “beautiful,” the image was edited (left). By placing these two images side by side, it makes it glaringly obvious that multiple things have been “touched up.” Starting with the most noticeable, her skin has not only been airbrushed, but a filter has been placed over the initial image, altering both Zendaya’s skin tone and hair color. Next, editors have made her hair “smaller,” by pinching it in closer to her face and flattening it out. Another evident edit is that her waist and hips have been made smaller. 

The irony in the photoshopping of this photo is that Modeliste Magazine prides itself as being an authentic source for emerging fashion and beauty trends. However, their heavily retouched photos of Zendaya scream many things – none of those things being authentic or along the lines of what “beauty trends” should be. In addition to the way Zendaya juxtapositioned these two images, her caption speaks volumes regarding her important message. At 19 years old, she describes her shock, having images posted of herself with the realization that they did not look like her at all. She quickly noticed that her hips and torso had been altered (as she describes in her caption) and points out that “these are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have.” She then goes on to explain how important it is for her to represent “honest and pure self love.”

While Modeliste later took down the edited images and worked with Zendaya on publishing the complete unedited images, I think that there are multiple take-aways from Modeliste’s initial publication and Zendaya’s response. The magazine’s initial publication speaks volumes not only of society’s need to take away the uniqueness within beauty through photoshopping, but also the beauty norms that are implied as a result of this photoshopping. It implies that there is a standard for beauty and that the standard is thin, airbrushed, and lacking a single imperfection. As a result, people often don’t feel good enough and if we cannot feel at home in our own skins, where else are we supposed to go (Wann)? The amazing thing about beauty is that there is no standard. Zendaya makes it clear through both her post and caption, that beauty is more about self love and being real. Beauty is fat and thin and happy and natural with blemishes and so many other things. Beauty is all encompassing and inclusive. Photoshopping within these large platforms try to make beauty small and singular, whereas it is something that is limitless due to the diversity within the world we live in. Additionally, Zendaya’s response was empowering – not only for her, but for everyone who looks at social media and is overwhelmed by unattainable and unrealistic beauty norms. She makes it clear to her audience that the real her is beautiful and does not need to be edited. Her post radiates body positivity and breaks down the walls that confine beauty to be a singular thing. 

Works Cited

“Fashion Trends, Celebrity NEWS, Influencer STYLE, Beauty Tips, Luxury Travel.” Modeliste Magazine, 8 Sept. 2021, https://modelistemagazine.com/. 

Wann, Msrilyn. “Fat Studies: An Invitation to Revolution.” Fat Studies, pp. Forward XV. Zendaya. “Instagram.” Login • Instagram, 2015, https://www.instagram.com/zendaya/?hl=en.

Zendaya. “Instagram.” Login • Instagram, 2015, https://www.instagram.com/zendaya/?hl=en.