At the end of each year that is uttered in English, there are words so shop-worn and meaningless we hope never to hear them again. It might be nice, by way of example, if “wow factor” was made a muzzling offence by January 1. “Baby bump”, similarly, should be a criminal phrase. Made-up noises like “agreeance” and “solutionise” must certainly be met with a gag or, at least, a pocket dictionary; but there were few terms so smother-ably empty in 2011 as “body image”.
Earlier this week the great performer Meryl Streep was inadvertently responsible for a fresh wave of references to “body image”. When the 62-year-old actress posed on the cover of American Vogue, there was a volley of “You Go Girls” in the blogosphere followed shortly, as is often the case, by passionate discussion on “body image”.
Streep, almost needless to impart, is an extraordinary artist whose 40-year oeuvre has earned her a gallery of statuettes and a cathedral of respect. The “real women” whom she depicts on screen are entirely believable. The “real woman” she is purported to represent on the cover of this luxury magazine is a cheap fiction.
Many real and intelligent women, however, are impatient to buy this story of the “real woman” as fact. They read it every time a woman who falls outside the margins of a catwalk beauty is represented to a large audience as beautiful.
That this “real” Streep is impossibly beautiful seems not to matter to advocates of “real” beauty at all. I mean, look at her. She is gifted of such remarkable DNA as to make the rest of us look like amoebae by contrast. The actress may be a sexagenarian but looks, for all the world, like a hot 40-year-old who has just been attended by the personal consideration of Ralph Lauren.
Nonetheless, the feminine hunger for the “real” devours Streep as sustenance for the surreal, and terribly confusing, idea of a “real” body intended for public consumption.
More had been made of the need for the real in the weeks preceding Streep’s lovely shots. A piece by writer Catherine Deveny was widely circulated for its remembrance of the real. Posing in a swimsuit, Deveny wrote of the need to celebrate all kinds of female bodies; with particular reference to the celebration of her own. Next, a TED talk by blogger Brittany Gibbons appeared to great acclaim. Again, Gibbons celebrated as she recounted the time she stripped to her swimsuit on live television in New York City’s Times Square. Both women declared the need to show “real” bodies for the sake of young women and girls.
It is generally agreed by feminist thinkers that young women and girls need to make out the real from, as Deveny puts it, the “cookie cutter”. In fact, it seems quite generally agreed that we should all consume more wholesome and real pictures of women.
For me, though, there’s a logical flaw in the argument to compel mass culture to show us more pictures of women; real or artificially baked. Haven’t we seen enough pictures of women, already?
I am untroubled that visual culture reproduces pictures of women who don’t look like especially like me. I have never suspected that the reproduction of pictures of women that do look like me would make anything even remotely better. I have always supposed that the problem with pictures of women was not their lack of authenticity; mass culture eats the possibility of the real for breakfast every morning. I have always supposed that the problem with pictures of women is that there were just so many of them about.
Celebrating my body, particularly in public, is the sort of leisure-activism in which I have no interest. Just as “baby bump” is a very silly way of saying pregnant stomach celebration strikes me as a poor synonym for seeking approbation. I’m not saying for a minute I don’t adore it when someone comments favourably on my appearance. It just feels wrong, even for a “real” woman, to consent to a gaze. Even it is for the sake of the children.
It doesn’t matter what shape the image of woman takes in mass culture; slight, stout or “real” it remains a route to the manufacture of approval. If we are genuinely troubled by this mechanism that manages approval of women’s bodies, perhaps we should just stop watching and participating.
Taking off your clothes for TV in Times Square or being 62 on the cover of Vogue is not especially meaningful. In this way, it is much like a “wow factor”.
This was written for the folks at ABC Online.