"That's the joy of fashion, trying to get everyone to feel good about themselves and praising the individual," Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey told me this morning. Minutes later, she told an audience about Madeleine Albright's insecurity about her weight.
The breakfast at Manhattan's 21 Club featured a panel of successful women — Bailey, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, wealth management CEO Alexandra Lebenthal — talking about women's progress in their fields. I'd gotten a moment beforehand to ask the British-born Bailey what she thought of British equalities minister Lynne Featherstone's recent comments on reaching out to fashion editors on unrealistic photoshopping in their pages.
At first, she talked — at great length — about how French photographer Jean-Paul Goude used retouching as an art form, a classic rhetorical misdirection if there ever was one. I was compelled to interrupt, semi-politely. What about when it's not presented as art form?
She pointed me to last September's layout of supermodels without makeup. "It was our number one most appreciated story on the web, and it still is one year later," she said. "I think it's because it's responding to women's interests in actually seeing reality. And at Harper's Bazaar, we've always tried to present a range of women and praise women's individual style, and try to get women to feel best about themselves. Whether it's super models without makeup or a Fabulous At Any Age article, we really want to show reality....I think reality is what people respond to." She also mentioned a photo shoot of actresses nude, sans retouching.
What about body types not usually represented by actresses or supermodels, I asked?
"As I said, we love women of all shapes and ages and sizes, and you're going to have to look at Harper's Bazaar to realize that, because we have a complete cross section," Bailey repeated. This was going nowhere. We settled on the girls of Jersey Shore as a sort of conversational compromise, and she was pulled away for a photo.
Later, in the panel, Bailey advanced an elaborate theory about how metallics on the runway were linked to the boom and then the recession. "In troubled times, we want something shiny to wear. We want a modern form of armor," she said.
And when the moderator asked if women were held back by the fact that we're held to often-impossible standards, including our weight, Bailey offered the following anecdote. As editor of Marie Claire, she was introducing then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in connection with an award for a story about women under the Taliban in Afghanistan. To lighten it up a bit, Bailey had added a mention of Albright's habit of giving foreign ministers Hershey's kisses on Valentine's day. "I wanted to say that Albright understood the power of chocolate," she recalled. But in the FBI vetting of the speech, that line was the only one to get cut. Bailey said,
Afterwards, I said to Madeleine, "You are arguably the most powerful woman in the world. Why did you cut my one and only slightly nice line? To try and create some warmth? I wanted to introduce you in the right way. She said, "I might be the most powerful woman in the world, but first and foremost, I'm a woman." And what she was saying about that was that she felt uncomfortable, this association of her with chocolate. She was conscious of her weight… and that is such a reminder to all of us.
Afterwards, she asked me to look at the photographs taken of her that day to see which one I thought was the most flattering. And it's a reminder to all of us… no matter what your job is, we all know we have our own insecurities, we all have our own issues. And it's a reminder that it's our own perception that matters, of ourselves.
Is that what it's a reminder of? Or is it a reminder of the fact that even the most powerful women in the world aren't immune to, and are at times debilitated by, the powerful messages of what women should look like — including the ones created and sold by Bailey herself?
Now, Harper's Bazaar, whether by virtue of being the scrappier one in the category, smaller both circulation and advertising-wise, or with its inclusion of older women, isn't necessarily the worst offender in this regard. It is, essentially, a luxury magazine, and it tends to focus on luxury products more than it does on women's actual bodies. And since she replaced Kate Betts at Bazaar in 2001, Bailey herself has been subject to plenty of trash-talking by bitchy people in the fashion industry for not looking like their idea of a fashion editor.
But still. Here are the top two "health and wellness" stories on Bazaar's website right now:
Hey, it's your perception of yourself that counts.