Today I received a text from my best friend, who had just received the latest print issue of Psychology Today. She was put off by the cover image—it promotes an article on toxic behavior—and wanted a second opinion. So without further ado, here it is: wow, Psychology Today, this photograph is repugnantly sexist! So much so that when I read the word “toxic” on the cover, it seems like a self-referential move.
You can see the cover photograph in its entirety here, but the above image gives you the basic gist. The camera hugs a woman’s visage: her eyes are bright blue, and her features precisely symmetrical. From what we can see, this nameless woman embodies idealized Western beauty.
Her face is somewhat obscured, of course, because it has been painted, and appears as if it has been wrapped in “caution” tape. A yellow stripe clings to her lips, which just barely emerge frombeneath the paint, revealing their plump fullness. A warning—“CAUTION”—silences her, and asserts its grasp by snaking around her neck.
If you read the cover story, you’ll notice that the article, “Poison People,” also incorporates one photograph of a man, his mouth covered by a small yellow sign with the word “TOXIC” inscribed in black. The aesthetic is the same, but it’s far less severe and overwhelming. One could imagine the male subject plucking the sign from his lips. On the contrary, the woman’s body has quite literally been marked as a site of toxicity. And the latter image is the one Psychology Today chose for their cover.
Ultimately, the photograph doesn’t suggest anything we haven’t seen before. A woman’s enforced silence is fetishized, even eroticized. The strip across her neck extends suggestively—aggressively—across her windpipe. This woman has not only been muffled; she is clutched by the neck, too.
And the image’s pernicious significance deepens when we consider the context. Women have been stigmatized as emotionally toxic since the nineteenth century, when the gendered diagnosis of hysteria became all the rage. By confronting readers with this close-up, the magazine implicates women as the ones most guilty of “toxic” behavior. One would think that, given its purview, Psychology Today would be attuned to the power of images—particularly those broadcasting regressive messages. And yet, their May 2017 cover greets us boldly with eroticized misogyny and dated implications regarding women’s mental health.