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.)
People commonly judge women who are "too" interested in fashion as "fashion victims," a term that implies interest in fashion is pathetic, pathological, and contrary to the interests of the woman herself. "There's a lot of 'dumb girl fashion/capitalist victim' talk that dismisses fashion consumerism as feminine stupidity," as Minh-Ha T. Pham has written. Fashion isn't just stupid girl stuff, writes Meg Clark in one of the most passionately argued (and one of my personal favorite) defenses of taking fashion seriously. "This is society, and self-presentation, and economy, and patriarchy, and sociology, and billions and billions of dollars."
This empty idea of the fashion consumer as fashion victim — of the stupid Vogue-reading woman too alienated from her own best interests to realize that cosmetics and designers clothes are nothing but frivolous distractions from the important stuff — is of course what 12 is punning on. "Ha ha," says the spread, "What if women were literally victims of beauty?" Eye roll. If we finally got rid of the idea that fashion is for victims, maybe we'd see fewer victimized women in fashion magazines.
Ultimately, my feelings on these kinds of spreads are pretty much in line with those of Cheryl Wischover at Fashionista, who writes, "Violence against women exists way too frequently in real life for us to want to look at it in a fashion magazine." Fashion has an enduring fascination with depictions of women as the victims of violence in part because we live in a culture where roughly one-third of all women murder victims are killed by their partners, where women experience around 4.8 million domestic violence assaults and rapes every year, where nearly one-quarter of women will experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner during their lifetimes. Fashion reflects the wider culture, and ours has a lot of work to do.
Victim of Beauty [12 Magazine] [Warning: full spread NSFW]
A photo of Jerry Hall from a 1974 beauty editorial shot by Helmut Newton.
A spring 1975 ad campaign for shoe brand Charles Jourdan, shot by Guy Bourdin.
Bourdin also shot this image of an unknown model, posed as a corpse, for a 1980 calendar.
A Bill Blass ad from 1966. (Click the magnifying glass symbol at bottom right to view full image.)
A 2006 Jimmy Choo ad, shot by director Brett Ratner, depicted Quincy Jones murdering model Molly Sims and burying her corpse in the desert.
A 2008 ad for men's wear designer Duncan Quinn.
Earlier this year, Pop magazine was criticized by many, including us, for printing this photo of 16-year-old model Hailey Clauson being choked by an unseen man. (Click the magnifying glass symbol at bottom right to view full image.)