Barnes & Noble recently took an unusual step — the bookstore chain required the magazine Dossier wrap its new issue in opaque plastic before agreeing to stock it. The problem with the cover? Nudity. More specifically, the nude torso of the famously androgynous male model Andrej Pejic. Barnes & Noble was concerned customers would mistake Pejic for a shirtless woman.
Above left is the cover in question; at the right are a few popular magazines whose male cover subjects' bare chests Barnes & Noble apparently did not require to be hidden from sight.
Dossier co-founder and creative director Skye Parrott told me that the directive came as a shock. "We knew that this cover presented a very strong, androgynous image," said Parrott, "and that could make some people uncomfortable. That's partly why we chose it. I guess it has made someone pretty uncomfortable." Added Parrott, "I've been talking to all my friends who work in magazines, and nobody I know has ever heard of anything like this happening. Especially with a guy. Guys are shirtless on magazine covers all the time."
When the message came that Barnes & Noble and Borders, the two largest North American bookstore chains, were requiring the issue be bagged, Parrott says Dossier asked if the stores realized that Pejic is, in fact, a man. The response, relayed via Dossier's distributor, was that the stores were aware of this fact but were still insisting on the opaque covering because "the model is young and it could be deemed as a naked female." Dossier was given the "choice" to accept the opaque wrappers or forfeit the order. (Parrott said her understanding was that the copies that had been destined for the two chain stores would have been destroyed had Dossier not accepted their request.) The opaque covers affect a little less than 10% of Dossier's 20,000 worldwide print run; international chains like the U.K.'s WHSmith, where Dossier is also stocked, apparently do not share Barnes & Noble's and Borders' concern.
This presents, as Parrott puts it, "a very interesting question of gender." Andrej Pejic is a very thin, very tall man with long blonde hair and a striking resemblance to Karolina Kurkova; at the last New York fashion week, Pejic modeled in five men's wear shows and four women's wear shows. He also closed the Jean-Paul Gaultier couture show — clad in the traditional final outfit, a wedding dress. Pejic can look "masculine" when made up and styled one way and "feminine" when made up and styled another. (He can also look like an alien robot when fashion wants him to.) Fashion, an industry which — say what you will — has long been accepting of those whose gender presentation or sexuality lies beyond whatever we mean when we say "the mainstream," appreciates this apparent plasticity.
And yet as much as his androgyny is a boon to his current job, fashion is not responsible for Pejic's look. According to interviews, Pejic has worn his hair long and cultivated his androgynous appearance since childhood, when he played with dolls and dressed in his mother's clothes. Then, he was made to realize "there was a line between being a man and being a woman...When I was about 10 years old, I did everything I could to act like a normal boy but it was hard," he told a Polish magazine. To the Telegraph, he said, "Around the age of 14, I decided to experiment with my look. As a kid, you get to the stage where you realise the gender barriers that exist in society and what you're supposed to do and not supposed to do. I really tried being someone else during that period. It was hard for me — not being able to express myself and feeling I had to be someone else." He added that he had not made up his look "for attention."
Andrej Pejic does not have the kind of body that is typically rewarded with public validation in the form of a shirtless magazine cover. He's not a fitness model, a well-muscled leading man actor, or a buff musician. He's skinny and androgynous, two qualities that are not highly sought after in men. His look disturbs some people, who think he embodies the secret wish of gay male fashion designers to dress hipless boys instead of dressing women, who think he must be unhealthy — but anyone who mistakes Men's Health models for paragons of hale living needs to read this — or who simply find him unattractive. (In that, Pejic may be more like a female model than any male model who came before him, because straight dudes love practically nothing more than pointing out that they personally find models unattractive.)
But Pejic is a man. And pictures of shirtless men, in Western culture, are not considered "obscene." So why is Pejic's cover getting the same treatment as a porno mag? What message are the big bookstore chains sending — that the male torso is only appropriate all-ages viewing when the man in question is ripped? Does the Barnes & Noble newsstand have a minimum biceps standard, no skinny dudes need apply? (Why it is exactly that women's toplessness is considered inappropriate for magazine covers in this country is a question for another day, but this debacle does call into question the general ridiculousness of these standards.)
I asked Barnes & Noble about the policies that the company applies when considering whether to ask a magazine to put an issue in opaque plastic; I also asked about the Dossier case specifically, what it was about Andrej Pejic that led the store to consider his naked chest to be improper. Their spokesperson has yet to respond, but if and when she does, I will update you.
Pejic himself seems very unconcerned by the reactions that his appearance can inspire. "Sometimes I feel like more of a woman, other times I feel male," he said earlier this year. "I'm sure most people think of me as a woman. It doesn't bother me anymore and I feel fine about it...I don't consider my looks unusual."
"The thing about Andrej is, if you see him, he is very, deeply androgynous," says Parrott. "But he is also very comfortable with that. It's a shame that everyone can't be as relaxed about it as he is."
Dossier [Official Site]