On Tuesday, I learned that French Elle is running an issue with multiple photographs of famous women (Monica Bellucci, Eva Herzigova) without any makeup or airbrushing. Over the next few days, I read several articles about the subject throughout the blogosphere, from Feministing to Bitch to Jezebel to NBC (which noted that the issue made it, ahem, “peeing-in-pants time over at ladyblog Jezebel”).
I tend to look at this issue from a women’s health standpoint — specifically, how the unrealistic images that run rampant in fashion magazines and other women’s magazines can have an impact on the real, flesh-and-blood girls and women who see these pictures. They don’t have a personal Photoshop artist touching up their “flaws” every five minutes, nor do they need one. But the print media’s orgy of airbrushing sends the message that it would be tragic if anyone were see a female face or body in its natural, “untouched” state. So waists and thighs are whittled, and “back fat” is shaved off with a few clicks of the mouse. And girls and women decide they will do the same to their own bodies, not with computers but with eating disorders.
Before anyone gets all riled up and thinks I’m writing a piece about how the evil media and fashion industry nefariously cause eating disorders, let me tell you to save your agita for something else. I’m (on a good day) a recovering anorexic/bulimic who understands the complex interplay of factors — genetic, familial, societal — that accompany these diseases. But there is a specific correlation between these magazines and eating disorders, and that is through the rabbit hole known as “pro-anorexia” and its offshoot “thinspiration.” I have a little too much personal knowledge about such things, and it’s something that I hesitate to admit here.
I am not going to go into the details of my eating disorder history in this post. What I will say is that because of that history, I am intimately acquainted with the ramifications of our culture of “retouching” images. In the spring of 2006 I had just been released from a hospital, furious at everyone who had put me there, and desperate to get back to where I thought I wanted to be, i.e. emaciated. With everyone watching me like a hawk, I found that I could switch on my computer and easily find a community of other women and girls (and a few men and boys) who were aiming for the same thing that I was.
(I am issuing a trigger warning here for any readers who might be upset by some very frank discussion of eating disorders. Note that no weights or measurements will be given.)
Immediately, I began to notice that members were posting what they called “thinspiration” which was often shortened to “thinspo”. What is thinspiration? My personal definition is Thinspiration (noun): starvation/purgation motivation. It could take several forms, but the most common were photos of models and celebrities from glossy magazine pictures. For those who think that you can only use these pictures as “motivation” if you are unaware that they are fake and hence not really any bellwether for your own goals, that is not the case. In its way, that knowledge is especially pernicious, ast sends the message that even those women who are touted as being the “most beautiful” are still flawed and need fixing. If Halle Berry can’t escape the wrath of the retouching artist’s perfectionism, what hope is there for the rest of us? Hence the siren call to focus on a self-improvement that is really self-destruction.
Everyone in my pro-anorexia group knew they were retouched to high heaven. But at a certain point, what passes for rational logic among those not dealing with these diseases ceases to be a factor to the girls and boys trying to brutally reshape their bodies. I certainly knew that the avatar of one of my online friends was an extremely photoshopped picture of Gisele Bundchen — not photoshopped by Vogue‘s standards, but a retouching on someone’s own computer program so that it looked like the supermodel’s likeness was refracted through a funhouse mirror. But I was so wrapped up in my sickness that I didn’t care about the fact it was airbrushed; all I could focus on were the visible ribs and the arm with the thickness and muscle tone of an asparagus stalk. This picture was not what the model looked like in real life, or even in Vogue, but my friends were doing their own airbrushing, just like the magazines were, and it seemed a perfectly normal thing to do. We stared at those pictures day after day, happy that we use computers to fashion people’s bodies into the most wraithlike figures possible, in the hopes that our own bodies would follow suit.
It took a long time for me to pull myself away from the pro-anorexia group. And yes, that group is exactly what it sounds like. It pretended to be a safe haven for people with eating disorders, but really was a giant circle where one member’s loss would spur another on to outdo her, and so on and so on ad infinitum. I told my (too nosy for my tastes back then) family that it was a peer support group. In one sense, that was true. There were certainly multiple times when I had desires to self-injure that were defused by a group member talking me out of it via private message. But I never was able to believe it was any kind of healthy enterprise. It was a secret club, a no-healthy-people-allowed club, where we swapped our stats (height, weight, measurements, BMI, goal weights) and cheered one another on to keep starving.
It’s hard to write this without getting very emotional. After the advent of time, therapy, and hopefully maturity, I am deeply ashamed of the fact that I participated in such a destructive activity. I cheered others on as they ravaged their bodies in the same way I ravaged mine. I am embarrassed to admit that I still have my thinspiration journal somewhere in my apartment, and I even used it as my work notebook at my last job. Why admit it at all? Because it’s something that encapsulates my unending push-pull of wanting to be a good, healthy person and wanting to be self-destructive. I have thought so many times about throwing away that journal, but when I cleaned out my desk upon leaving that job earlier this year, I still took the notebook home with me.
I cannot pretend to be recovered, and some days I don’t feel like recovering at all. In some ways the journal is the best representation of that. I could easily chuck it in the trash. But then a tiny voice says…
“What if you want to go back to the way you were before? When you were x number of pounds and felt amazing?”
Reality intrudes and I remember I didn’t actually feel amazing, as it’s hard to feel that way when your body is literally crumbling. That is not enough to stop the tiny voice that is telling me that one day I will still want that journal. And so I keep it. And I am ashamed.
But maybe there is hope after all. Yesterday I got rid of something far more significant than the journal. I took my beloved/hated scale Janus (yes, I named my scale) to my therapist’s office. It was in a reusable shopping bag and I sobbed as I handed it over. I cried harder when I got back home, realizing that when I got up today I would no longer be able to weigh myself twelve times before even having my morning coffee. This is, of course, the best thing in the long run. At the moment, however, it feels like torture, like walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon with no net to catch me.
I am sure that at some point today, I will walk past a newsstand. French Elle will not be on sale, but any number of heavily retouched magazines will be. The knowledge that Jennifer Garner (on the cover of InStyle), Drew Barrymore (on the cover of Elle), or Liya Kebede (one of several models on the cover of Vogue) have been airbrushed will not make any difference; they are still right there, embodying the ironclad mainstream beauty ideals that are thrust at women everywhere.
“Tweeze!” they tell us. “Wax! Dye! Tan! Photoshop! Retouch! Airbrush!”
And inevitably, some of us grab onto this message in a desperate attempt to bring some semblance of order and control to our lives. But what starts as a bid for power over our own selves ends up going off the rails. We retouch, retouch, retouch, and retouch some more, until there is nothing left but the need to keep altering our selves, forever and ever, airbrushing into oblivion unless we can get a hold on something solid and true.