Bulgarian fashion magazine 12 just published an appalling editorial containing nothing but portraits of models with horrific injuries. It's a "beauty" spread — the kind of feature that normally highlights a makeup artist's skills and aims to sell the "new" eyeshadow color of the season — but it isn't very beautiful. There are models with Black Dahlia-style Glasgow Smiles, models who've been strangled, models who've had their earrings and facial piercings ripped out, and models who've been mutilated with acid. It's all special-effects makeup, but it's still sickening. These photos give you an idea the nature of the spread. And it's hardly the first of its kind.
It's a given that fashion magazines — like other forms of mass media — often aim to shock. Because they like the attention. Because they like the ad dollars. Because they like the rebellious reputation that shocking us squares confers. But it's still worthwhile to examine the means by which they achieve that shock value. The high-fashion world in general loves to think of itself as contrarian, élite, and boldly at odds with the tastes and mores of the wider public. It likes to think that it, in fact, leads those tastes. But much of the imagery the fashion industry uses to communicate its messages at best echoes and at worst reinforces some of the wider culture's most negative ideas about women and girls. As we all know thanks to Joan Didion, "it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level." Fashion, in all its contradictions, is great evidence of that.
The history of fashion is rife with depictions of and references to violence against women. Historically, photographers including Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin had a particular fascination with bloodied, bruised, or dead models, whom they often depicted in sexualized positions (a vein that contemporary fashion photographer Steven Klein continues to probe). The "dead girl" is such a trope of ladymags that it was imitated on America's Next Top Model — five years ago.
As Margi Laird McHue wrote in her 2008 book, Domestic Violence: A Reference Handbook, this kind of imagery is highly problematic.
Striking examples of the depiction of women as sex objects who deserve to be battered are often found in advertising. In the late 1980s, for instance, many fashion ads featured women who were abused, bound and gagged, or in body bags. These images appeared in department store windows that also featured battered women and women stuffed into trash cans as the conquests of leather-clad men. After protests by women's groups, the window displays were removed. Mainstream magazine fashion layouts featured women pulled along by corset ties, their necks in choke collars; trussed and restrained in straitjackets and straps; blindfolded; and sometimes stuffed in garbage bags. One Epsrit ad depicted a woman on an ironing board with a man about to iron her crotch; a Foxy Lady ad showed a woman who had been knocked to the floor with her shirt ripped open; and a Michael Mann ad pictured a woman in a coffin.
So although the 12 editorial may be a particularly explicit example of the form, these kinds of images are nothing new. Seeing women shown as the victims of implied male violence — or victims of any violence, frankly — in what is an overwhelmingly female industry, in magazines that are overwhelmingly run, written, and edited by women, has always troubled me. It troubled me back when I was a model, and was asked to take part in shoots that had themes of violence and death. It troubles me now that I merely see these images in the fashion media, which are largely the women's media.
Why does fashion still think it's "edgy" to portray women as objects to be beaten and killed? How does the staff of a tiny fashion magazine in Bulgaria get the idea that it's cool and hip to do a beauty story where all the models look like battered women? (Answer: maybe they read Lula.)