Political blogger Matthew Yglesias on the stars without makeup issue of French Elle: "In some ways, I think this might actually be a step back."
A lot of people have done a lot of work over the years to get people to understand that images you see on magazine covers are not images of actual human beings. They're complicated collaborations between photographers, hairstylists, makeup people, and digital image-retouchers that use real people as an important element of source material. The results have an extremely vivid hyperreal quality to them that we intuitively respond to as if we're just looking at pictures of people, but we can come to understand what's really happening and that nobody ought to beat themselves up over not looking like a computer-retouched image.
I'm not convinced that most people understand magazine images are manipulated. Maybe a certain segment of the population — the media savvy, the well-read, the cynics, people who read this blog — but what about teenagers? Or people who aren't immersed in media and just pick up magazines every now and then at the airport or the salon? Or people like your mom or aunt or cousin who just don't think about that kind of stuff? The fact remains that we are living in an incredibly visual culture, and the majority of visuals we're bombarded with continue to be of "perfect," unblemished, (mostly white) women who have 1) lucked out in the genetic lottery department and 2) have been worked on by a team of experts: A trainer, a dermatologist, a makeup artist, a hair stylist, a photographer with assistants in lighting, a photo editor to choose the best shot and an art team to digitally manipulate that picture into the "image" that ends up being printed. So how is showing "stars without makeup" — and not in a cruel, tabloidy way — a step back? Isn't any opportunity to question the artifice we're subject to a step forward?
Of course, then there's the question of what we, the audience, really want out of a magazine. While the ladies on French Elle are indeed beautiful without makeup, would you still be interested in the magazine if they were not pleasing to the eye? Don't we require our "stars" to indeed be "heavenly" — more beautiful than we are, with fewer flaws and that certain something that sets them apart? Otherwise, why are they stars? Why elevate them? Are we not complicit in the plot?
Yglesias writes, "At a time when public awareness of the fakeness of magazine covers is growing, we get a new artifice presented as unadorned reality." But certainly we're aware that French Elle's "reality" — stars without makeup — is not a feat of photojournalism or a documentary. It's still a fashion magazine. But in the context of other, more manipulative publications, it does shake things up. And think about this: If all magazines suddenly did away with artifice, would you miss it? Do you open a glossy magazine hoping to see glamour, stunning makeup and sumptuous clothes? How much more "real" are you actually willing to get?