Oh, What a Relief It Is!

So I finally started watching Mad Men.  I put it off for a while because I heard that the show realistically depicts a horribly sexist era in our history—I figured it would depress me and make me mad, so I had to be ready.  A couple of weeks ago, I took a deep breath and started watching.  For now, I’ll just say that the show is excellent—fantastic writing, fascinating characters portrayed by wonderful actors, and searing social commentary.  But this post isn’t about Mad Men.  It’s about women’s bodies in our culture, then and now.

Guess what happened, about the second episode in?  I started envying the freedom of the female characters to have some body fat and still be able to consider themselves sexy as hell.  Man, that is messed up—I’m watching this show about an era in which American women were considered intellectually inferior, practically the property of their husbands, sexual toys or sluts or both—and I envied these women their body image.  Don’t get me wrong—the women on the show are concerned with appearance and weight—they discuss it, and they are very aware that beauty is their most important asset—but the standard of beauty, in that time, was a little closer to real.  Now think about the fact that the actresses on the show are real-life modern-day women, and there you have some social commentary indeed.

In this midst of my reaction to the women on Mad Men, I came across two articles showing the real women behind the photoshopped icons in current advertising.  First, I found 15 Photoshopped Transformations of Celebs and Models.  This slideshow is remarkable not just because it shows famous people looking real, but because it shows nonfamous people being photoshopped—including a totally adorable, photogenic-before-photoshop kid!

But it is this one that got me the most: Supermodels without Photoshop.  Here’s the relevant picture, just so we can all see these ladies as they really are:


Check that out!  The woman on the left looks way too thin—I’m worried about her.  But the other women?  They remind me of that time I saw Kate Winslet naked!  (Just in a movie, y’all—1999’s Holy Smoke, in which Kate was gloriously “heavy,” according to the powers that be, and gloriously real, according to the powers that are.)  Oh, the freedom!  The glorious Rubenesque  femininity of it all!  The relief!

Image of The Three Graces, Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1635. From Wikimedia Commons.Because that’s what it is, you know.  I let out a sigh of relief when I saw these women, probably something akin to the one our sisters let out a century ago when they removed their corsets.  Granted, these women are still on the thin side (Crystal Renn, at a size 12, is considered plus-size by the industry), but they aren’t impossible icons of digitized idealism.  Their bodies look like bodies.

Which is what we need—female bodies that are allowed to be bodies.  And one or two articles showing the women behind the digital mask isn’t enough.  A poster on the door of the bathroom stall in my workplace exhorts us all to be happy with our bodies, and not compare ourselves to fake, airbrushed photos.  That sounds like what I plan to tell my daughter, when she begins to notice such things.  It also sounds nigh impossible.

We make these comparisons—our bodies to the bodies of those around us, to the bodies in magazines and on TV and computer screens—in a split second.   It is impossible not to make them.  Living in a forest of altered bodies while trying to love your own is like living in a time when sexism was both pervasive and legally condoned and trying to rise above it—it is possible for the occasional extraordinary woman, or the ordinary woman in occasional bouts, but consistent, everyday triumph over consistent, everyday sexism by every woman who experiences it?  That takes social change.

What the ill of the unrealistic body image needs is medicine—in this case, not the plop-plop fizz-fizz of temporary relief,  but permanent, codified relief.  We need to legislate the crap out of this crap.  Other countries are already beginning to make laws against ads that could be considered a public health risk—for example, Israel just banned “underweight” models in ads.  This trend needs to continue worldwide, and it needs to get to the United States faster than a New York minute.

Until and unless we start making it impossible for advertisers to alter the feminine form, there are going to be millions of women who crave the relief they would feel if they could just be themselves and be okay with that.

Which, naturally, means they’d be sexy as hell.

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