The airbrush strikes again

At least Kimora Lee Simmons admits that this picture for her “Dare Me” fragrance was heavily touched up. I don’t, however, understand why anyone would allow herself to be airbrushed THIS MUCH. Not only does the altered image look nothing like Simmons, it doesn’t remotely resemble the figure of any flesh-and-blood woman. Barbie might be envious, but I simply find myself shaking my head at the absurdity of it all.

Apparently, we don't actually want to see "real" models

Crystal Renn, one of the most prominent faces of the plus-size modeling industry (http://crfranke.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/model-crystal-renn.jpg)

New York’s Fashion Week 2010 saw designers sending a more diverse array of body types down the runway, and magazines such as Glamour and V Magazine are featuring curvier women in their glossy pages

However, a study by researchers at Arizona State University in the states, and Erasmus University and the University of Cologne in Europe, shows that real women might not actually want clothing marketed to them by… well, real women. It seems that ads featuring plus-size models have a more negative effect on self-esteem than ads filled with waif-like covergirls.

In the study, women with lower, average, and higher BMI‘s were exposed to ads featuring skinnier and heavier models. After seeing the heavier models, women with higher BMI’s tended to feel more poorly about themselves than after seeing the thinner ones, because they worried that they were overweight, and women with lower BMI’s worried about becoming overweight.

My first thought is that although it may be true that exposure to plus-size women may have a more immediate affect on women’s self-esteem, it has also been proven dozens of times over that the long-term effects of ultra-skinny models are equally, if not even more, detrimental to self-image, and we shouldn’t take that lightly.

My second thought is that I think magazines and runway shows making special “exhibits” out of normal-sized women, deemed “plus size,” does more harm than good in a way. The fashion world seems to either like putting its “perfect” girls in the spotlight, or going to the opposite extreme to showcase “big girls,” with no middle ground. Instead of making pointed celebrations of curvier, average-sized women, which I think draws more attention to the fact that curves are generally rejected as being fashionable, why can’t normal-sized women be included in fashion on a regular basis?

Or better yet, why can’t the focus be just on healthiness in general, regardless of size? Why not celebrate the people who, like my sister, are natural size 0’s without accusing them of having an eating disorder, and also the size 16’s, who are curvier yet still fit?

Gabourey Sidibe, a different kind of Hollywood heavyweight

Credits: lauratobyedison.com, theinsider.com

Photo credits: lauratobyedison.com, theinsider.com

At the 2010 Academy Awards, Gabourey Sidibe stood out noticeably amid the sea of other actors and actresses walking the red carpet.

For one thing, whereas most of the other stars are seasoned pros in the movie industry, Sidibe’s acting credits prior to her turn as the title role in the film “Precious” are limited to two small roles in college theater.

But secondly, and more obvious, is the fact that Sidibe weighs easily 2 or 3 times more than the typical Hollywood starlet. And yet interestingly, in various photo galleries from the red carpet, comments such as “Stunning!” and “She’s gorgeous!” on photos of Sidibe seemed to far surpass similar comments on photos of her skinnier counterparts.

Sidibe’s numerous nominations (not to mention wins) for acting honors during awards season are proof that Hollywood knows she has some serious acting chops. Photo feedback seems to indicate that the average American sees her as beautiful. Leave it to Howard Stern, however, to spark a debate over whether Sidibe’s career actually stands a chance.

“What movie could she play in?” the shock jock asked on his March 8th show.

Columnist and blogger Jeffrey Wells added, “…the hard fact is she’s way, way too fat… I don’t want Gabby to not work, but the only roles she’ll have a shot at playing will be down-market moms and hard-luck girls working at Wal-Mart.”

Both Wells and Stern also remarked on the likely toll of Sidibe’s obesity on her health, which is a perfectly fair concern — not only for Sidibe’s own wellbeing, but for her potential status as a role model. While, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the ultra-slender actresses and models who generally serve as a paragon of beauty in our culture often create an unhealthy ideal for women of all ages, Sidibe is hardly a better alternative. While I think it’s extraordinarily encouraging that so many people consider her beautiful despite her contradiction of the typical Hollywood mold, there’s also a danger in seeing her as so beautiful that we forget the health risks of obesity. I hope that Sidibe serves as a demonstration for young women that beauty is not limited to a size 2, but not so far as to make obesity feel “safe.” Sidibe herself says that she’s perfectly happy in her own skin, which is both commendable and a cause for concern.

On the other hand, of course, Sidibe is remarkably talented, and her talent has already earned her two more roles on Showtime’s “The Big C” and in the forthcoming indie flick “Yelling to the Sky.” I, for one, truly hope that we’ll continue to see more of Sidibe, and that she’ll prompt Hollywood to realize that talent, true talent, doesn’t have to be a generic brand.

Related links:

A more in-depth blog about whether Gabourey Sidibe can find a place in Hollywood

How storytelling is slowly committing suicide

Storytelling, an art as old as man’s ability to communicate, is an art that is quickly dying. Not storytelling in and of itself, but the ability to do so well. One need not look farther than all the constantly recycled, repackaged, revamped products of Hollywood for proof of that. I recently overheard a film major say, “Movies are all about the visuals. You can’t really say a movie is bad just because it doesn’t have a good story, because it’s all about the visual aspect of it.”

By box office numbers, he might be right. Avatar, a film whose storyline has been called out as a reincarnation of Disney’s Pocahontas or Fern Gully, still managed to become the highest grossing movie of all time because of its visual spectacle. (The highest grossing runner up, Titanic, is arguably in a similar boat… pardon the pun.)

A poll conducted by the Associated Press-Ipsos in 2007 reported that the average American claimed to read less than four books a year, with 25% of those surveyed saying they hadn’t even read a single book, whereas the average number of movies the average American sees per year is thought to be between 5 and 8, not including movies watched at home. With this growing prevalence of movies over books as the average American’s preference for receiving stories, it seems to me that filmmakers almost have something of a responsibility to be good storytellers.

My roommate, who is an elementary education major, returned from one of her days of classroom observation in shock over an exchange she’d heard between one of the kindergartners and the teacher. When the teacher asked him why he refused to play on the playground with his classmates, the boy answered that he didn’t know how—that he wasn’t used to using his imagination because all he ever did at home was play the videogame Halo.

Besides the fact that the game garnered a rating of M (Mature) and no 5-year-old should be playing a videogame intended for those over 17, there’s something tragic about a child so young who doesn’t know how to just play. In general, children seem to have the innate ability to spin stories at will, as though they were spiders, and stories their web, quite possibly with more ease than screenwriters and authors who have spent years learning and perfecting their craft. I remember spending endless hours as a child with my friends creating dynamic characters and complicated storylines that only ended because it was time to go home. Even then, we could have easily picked up where we left off the next time we saw each other, and often did.

A survey conducted in January by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that the average 8-18-year-old child is exposed to nearly 11 hours of media per day, which hardly seems healthy. First of all, with that much time spent immersed in electronic media, where do children possibly have time to imagine on their own? Secondly, I believe that good storytelling ought to inspire others to be storytellers, but it seems that most stories today, regardless of medium, foster instead a dependence on the sub-par storytelling of others, or even stifle the imagination (TV and film are particularly more “stifling” than books, which encourage visualization of the words on the page).

Bad storytelling, I think, has several causes. First, we seem to have lost the appreciation for and ability to tell simple stories. Not shallow, not amateurish, but simple. There’s a beauty in stories such as Antoine De Saint-Expéry’s The Little Prince, which don’t rely on labyrinthine plot twists or high language or probing the darkest depths of humanity to reflect truths.

With the proliferation of post-modern and relativistic thought, maybe the reason for the disappearance of simple stories sharing simple truths is that so many storytellers do not know themselves what “truth” is in the first place, and are therefore left to use style rather than substance to craft their works. Not to say that style isn’t important, however, nor do I mean to imply that those who do have a grasp on truth are automatically gifted storytellers. While there’s truth in abundance in Christian fiction, for example, I think most of us would agree that few of the novels on the shelves of Christian bookstores can also be considered art.

Current storytellers have produced very little that is likely to stand the test of time like the “classics.” Will there be any stories left 100 years in the future that we created today? Will stories that were once beautiful continue to be worn down by sequels and remakes and adaptations in a never-ending game of literary “Telephone,” or does the art of true storytelling stand a chance for revival?

Related links:

National Endowment for the Arts’ 2007 survey on the decline of reading

Copycat crimes… what's to be done about them?

On March 3, 2010, a group of thieves managed to successfully pay homage to the film Mission: Impossible by breaking into a New Jersey Best Buy via a hole they created in the roof and lowering themselves into the store to steal $26,000 worth of Apple computers. While admittedly this crime is almost humorous, it is just one of many examples of copycat crimes, a rapidly-growing problem with which the justice system is faced.

While some of the most famous copycat crimes are said to be real-life adaptions of scenarios from books, movies, or TV (e.g., Timothy McVeigh claims he was inspired to perpetrate the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 by the film Red Dawn), there is also no shortage of crimes that imitate earlier crimes that received broad media coverage.

It’s a difficult issue to navigate. When does media coverage of a crime cross the line from keeping the public aware of what’s happening in their communities without being gratuitous and therefore more likely to invite imitations? Will we see the recent kidnapping, rape, and murder of Chelsea King duplicated? (Personally, I found all the coverage of that story to this point to be discerning in what details it disclosed, but arguably, criminals don’t need all the gruesome details to be encouraged to commit an identical crime.) Should “full details” stories such as those seen on the shows “60 Minutes” or “Dateline NBC” be prohibited because of their borderline exploitative nature and therefore seemingly greater potential to encourage copycat crimes?

How can mainstream media handle coverage of crime in a way that is both respectful to their audience’s right to be informed and yet is not intemperate?

Giving "real beauty" a makeover

As much as I can’t stand Heidi Montag, following her recent 10-procedure makeover, she made a statement on Good Morning America that exemplifies the problem I have with the importance of image in mainstream media. When faced with the question as to whether her choice to go under the knife for such a drastic transformation might negatively influence any young women who (for some reason) might look up to her, Montag replied that she’s in a special situation because she’s “in the limelight.”

Only a few years ago, before she rose to celebrity status via MTV’s reality show “The Hills,” Montag was a fresh-faced girl from the small town of Crested Butte, Colorado. Personally, I think she was fairly cute back then, but according to Montag, she felt pressured by the attractiveness of her costars and by being in the public eye to the point that she claims she hated her appearance. Even before her latest and most dramatic round of procedures, she had undergone a nose job and breast augmentation in 2006. Montag also claims that she underwent the plastic surgeries for the sake of her career.

In a blog on usnews.com, Scripps Memorial Hospital chief of surgery Richard Chaffoo considers women who feel they need plastic surgery for purely superficial reasons (particularly to such an extent as Montag) to be in need of counseling, not surgery. He points out the very real mental health issue of body dysmorphic disorder, which is comparable to other such self-image disillusionment problems as anorexia or OCD that are often exacerbated by images of beauty portrayed in the media.

Montag, of course, is hardly alone in her pursuit of her own idea of beauty; the pages of magazines and the internet are teeming with celebrity “before-and-after” galleries.

For every young starlet who goes under the knife for an image update, however, there are far more who are grounded enough to abstain. Really, though, with the miracle of Photoshop, there’s no reason why they should feel the need in the first place. I was amazed by the abundance of Youtube videos that demonstrated Photoshop’s capacities, and found this one particularly engrossing. (Probably the most famous video depicting the magic of makeup and digital enhancements is the “Evolution” video from Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.) Additionally, Newsweek featured a gallery of “the decade’s most egregious retouching scandals,” and the blog thestylebitches.com regularly posts eye-opening comparisons between celebrities as they appear in real life and on billboards and magazine covers.

With the ubiquitousness of such shameless retouching, enhancing, and otherwise nipping-and-tucking whether digitally or surgically, what kind of message must women of all ages be receiving about what it means to be attractive? And what kind of unrealistic expectations must these contrived paragons of beauty be affecting in men? The latter concern is addressed in an article on psychologytoday.com, which, in short, condemns the subjective ideas of beauty put forth in modern media; the former in a study by the psychology department at Vanderbilt University, which concluded that the general effect of media on the average woman’s body image is both strong and harmful, causing discrimination.

So what’s to be done? An article on nydailynews.com suggests that when an image used in mass media has been Photoshopped, that it be marked with a cautionary sticker akin to those used on explicit CD’s. Other groups such as Dove® have launched campaigns and workshops intended to boost self-esteem in young girls by reinforcing the idea that inner beauty is what is most important.

These measures are laudable, to be sure, but for them to rival the effects of what mass media wants us to think of as “beauty” seems, to be perfectly frank, like a fairly insurmountable task. I’m a big believer in “every little bit helps,” but if we really want to change our culture’s idea of beauty, it seems we should make an effort to confront the problem as much as invent countermeasures. For example, there has been plenty of outrage over the size zero standard generally imposed for runway models, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America has made at least some form of an effort to respond by creating its Health Initiative to encourage diversity in the sizes and ages of models. Also, this year’s New York Fashion Week reportedly saw an “eclectic array” of models walking the runway, according to an article on washingtonpost.com.

Between both approaches, it’s a start. Given the odds, can the ideals of beauty imposed on us by mass media ever truly be, themselves, made-over? What are your thoughts?

Other related articles:

Fashion industry insiders say not to expect any real change in model standards

Glamour magazine showcases beautiful imperfection