Tom Hussey is an award-winning lifestyle advertising photographer based in Dallas, Texas. In a series entitled Reflections, Hussey shows a series of elderly people looking in a mirror at their younger self.
According to an interview with PetaPixel, the idea first struck when Hussey was talking to a WWII veteran named Gardner. On the cusp of his 80th birthday, Gardner opined that he still felt like a young man.
The conversation would inspire Hussey to photograph Gardner looking into a bathroom mirror with a reflection of his younger self looking back at him. The resulting image was used in his portfolio and years later was picked up by Novartis as the concept for an advertising campaign for their Alzheimer’s drug.
The resulting campaign was posted by Hussey to Behance back in 2009. Since then it has been the third most ‘appreciated’ project on the entire website, with…
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Although I’ve been to the MOMA over a thousand times, I appreciated having the opportunity to go with the class this past week, as it gave me the chance to check out the new photography exhibit. Moreover, as I usually frequent the museum by myself, it was interesting to be accompanied by my peers and observe the array of reactions to the work. Discussions triggered disagreement in some cases and mutual admiration in others. By and large, however, I found that much of the work that I disliked, others were drawn to for one reason or another. For instance, the exhibition on the first floor didn’t particularly appeal to me at all, especially compared to the photography. My preference for the photo exhibit is perhaps rooted in a biased preference for the medium. Primarily, I was attracted to the work of Barbara Probst and Jonathan Monk.
The artists constituting the photography exposition were, as curator Marcoci states, selected in light of their ability to push “the boundaries of the medium.” Barbara Probst photographic approach offers a range of perspectives. One image that particularly struck me as compelling is composed in such a way that there are three subjects, two of which with cameras in hand: one loaded with black and white film, the other with color. The three subjects are situated in a row and the individual in the middle is looking towards one of the two cameras. Two photographs are taken simultaneously of the same subject, rendering two images from two different perspectives. The black and white picture is taken from behind the woman, delineating her back in the foreground, and a man sporting a camera in the background. In the other image the perspective shifts to the front of the woman, depicting her face. Yet, this time the photograph is in color and the like the adjacent image harbors an individual in the background with a camera. It takes several moments before one is able to discern how the pair was executed. I find her approach novel, and in a sense her work offers “new interpretations of the traditional idea that photography can freeze a moment in time” (Marcoci).
Jonathan Monk’s work also deals with the distortion of time and perspective. The first half of his exposition is constituted of old family photographs laced with words that alters the expected reaction of the observer. In the following room, Monk covers a wall with fifty individually framed printing paper “holders” (for lack of a better word). I perceived this simplistic repetition as a swing at conceptualizing the process of photography. In the center of a room, a slide projector sits throwing images from different countries and hemispheres onto the white wall. Meanwhile, another projector sends fragmented sentences and words onto a wall perpendicular to the aforementioned. The beauty of this installation is that initially one assumes that the writing on the wall corresponds with the incessantly changing images. However, it is quite the contrary, and one find themselves befuddled when trying to link the line “grandma in Montana” with a photograph of a Shivite in India. Jonathan Monk, like Barbara Probst, challenges our preconceived perceptions of the limitations of perspective and redefines the possibilities of photography.
Music has the incredible facility to provoke obscure emotions and trigger thoughts of the past. A certain string of notes can instantaneously incite a memory so vivid that it is almost tangible. For instance, I am utterly incapable of listening to Carla Bruni without being immediately brought back to my early morning walks up Rue Moufftard nor can I listen to Nick Drake without thinking of the back roads of Dartmouth. Velvet Underground sends butterflies swimming through my stomach, as it reminds me of an awful ex-boyfriend I had some years ago, whereas, Ani Difranco’s work elicits memories of the hyperemotional years lacing my adolescence. In truth, it’s really quite difficult to determine which musician, or even more tasking which song has had the greatest influence on my life or has stayed with me the longest. Yet weeding through the glut of soundtracks I’ve accumulated over the years as an avid music junkie, I’ve managed to narrow it down to one musician and then finally to one song: Nina Simone’s Ain’t Got No.
Nina Simone, known to many as the “High Priestess of Soul”, is a woman I have always harbored profound respect and admiration for. It would be imprudent to classify her as solely a Jazz musician, as she was not the type to be pigeonholed to one identity. Singer, songwriter, pianist, actress and activist, Nina Simone was a woman who couldn’t be confined to one career or stifled by the social implications of her race. Her vocal versatility is evident through her embrace of genres ranging from blues to gospel, jazz and folk. Although I find much of her music incredibly inspiring, the song Ain’t Got No has unquestionably been the most influential on my life and work.
This particular piece of music conveys the importance of gratitude. Illustrating the necessity to transcend the difficulties of life, the song is ultimately about appreciating what it is that you already have, rather then focusing on what it is that you don’t. This indispensable outlook on life has helped me through the most difficult of times, as it has served as a constant reminder to always count my blessings. The song starts off by listing all it is that she is without: Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class/ Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture/ Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schooling. The song continues in this self pitying vein for quite some time and I remember vividly the first time hearing it, I thought to myself- God, isn’t this depressing. However, the song ultimately shifts into her acknowledging all it is she has to be thankful for: I got my hair, I got my head/ I got my brains, I got my ears/ I got my eyes, I got my nose/ I got my mouth, I got my smile. Her appreciation for what many take for granted is as uplifting as it is inspiring. She is grateful just to be alive, to have fingers and toes and legs that move. The simplicity of her gratitude is perhaps what I love most about the song. It is nearly impossible not to smile while listening to her vocalize the joy of having a liver and boobies.
In order to fully appreciate the beauty of this song’s lyrics, one must be conscious of the circumstances binding the woman that wrote them. Nina Simone was not only a woman, but a black woman, living in an era when neither were easy identities to inhabit. However, amid the turmoil of the civil rights and feminist movement, Nina Simone defied the odds and became an almost iconic figure in the jazz world. In the wake of great social and racial injustice, she neglected the limitations stemming from the color of her skin and sang fearlessly about the inequality plaguing the nation. Through addressing the bigotry prevalent in the United States during the time, she was able to increase awareness amongst the masses about the severity of the situation. Although her song, Ain’t Got No is not of the many in her repertoire that express her anger towards the intolerant nation, it does illustrate her ability to transcend the racial injustice plaguing her generation and find the good in life.
Nina Simone is blessed with the ability to inspire people through her art form, something that I incessantly strive to achieve through my own photography. Although there is a disparity in the mediums, the facility to influence people in a way that has sway over their emotions or even shifts their perspective on a matter is an indication of indisputable artistic genius. Ain’t Got No conveys the notion that we don’t have even enough fingers to count all of our blessings. The seemingly simplistic form of gratitude is ultimately bliss in its purest form. Nina Simone proves to have the ability to see beauty where others see pain, see hope where others see misery. She has harnessed a way of communicating a concept that I constantly struggle to illustrate through my photography, which is finding beauty in the grotesque.
The American sociologist Herbert Gans analyzes in his work, Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste, whether the distinction differentiating popular culture from high culture remains relevant in the contemporary society we live in today. With the borders of imagined communities incessantly shifting, commercial culture, due to the multi-linguistic nature of the media, breaches the subdivisions of pride regardless of religious, political, societal, or language barriers. This transgression of borders not only metastasizes the mass circulation of products, but also facilitates the spread of hegemonic ideologies that appropriate cultural codes. The recent debate arguing that it is no longer pertinent to distinguish between high and popular culture may be true, however high culture has not ceased to exist but rather it’s been, on the contrary, redefined. To consider the repercussions of the aforementioned it is important to first reconsider the relevance of the past distinction between high and popular culture.
Popular culture, although a vexed and indisputably polemical term, can be loosely defined as everything outside the particular interests of the elite class whose allegedly refined taste falls under the category of high culture. However with museums, orchestras, ballets and higher education open to the general public, the territory formally occupied by the educated and privileged is now becoming a cultural arena open to the masses. The boundaries marking the disparity have blurred.
As the separation between popular culture and high culture slowly diminishes, the argument for distinction becomes frail. As my Professor Nico Vink wrote in his book Dealing with Differences, “the traditional opposition between elite and popular culture has almost disappeared. In modern times, they were each other’s opposites, yet now they are mix.”[i] (13) To further support his point, Vink refers to Andy Warhols’ lithographs rendering the repetition of icons quintessential of American pop culture, such as Marilyn Monroe. These works of art not only serve as a social critique mirroring America’s inclination towards mass production and ceaseless consumption, but furthermore blur the lines dividing high culture from pop. Yet, I suggest that this bleeding together of cultures is not unilateral in the sense that the mainstream is inundating a space formally occupied by the upper class, but rather the elite have also recognized the economic and political potential lacing the mass media.
The global onslaught of the multinational conglomerates owned and controlled by the elite must not be overlooked, as their role in the production of television, music, advertisement, films, brand names, commercials, magazine and fashion is indisputable. The pervasive and transitory nature of pop culture is not only subject to change but also an initiator of it. Infused with political propaganda that fuels the naturalization of stereotypes and globalization of capitalism, the hegemonic agenda mediated by the mass media is veiled by ideological innocence. Due to popular cultures faculty to sway the minds of the masses, it harbors a political dimension in its ability to manipulate the public via infiltrating the media with hegemonic ideologies that support the socioeconomic interests of the power that be. Popular culture in its multitude of forms engenders the possibility to be lived vicariously through, thus influencing not only the way people think but also live. In short, although the distinction between popular culture and high culture has become increasingly irrelevant, it is important to acknowledge that high culture has not disappeared but rather redefined and disguised itself within the realm of popular culture.
[i] Vink, Nico, Dealing with Differences (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2005) 12-13.
The crucial difference between the structural and cultural view lies namely in the fact that the former regards consumption as a passive act whereas the latter argues that it is an active practice wherein identities are constructed via consumer choice. The structuralist approach claims that consumers are “infected with artificial wants dreamed up by the international league of producers” (247, Appleby) and that consumption “is a mere shadow of production” (132, Storey, Consumption in Everyday Life). Naively embracing the ideals and values engendered and exported by the multi-national conglomerates, consumer choice exist to certain extent however it’s heavily dictated by advertisements, branding, merchandizing and the hegemonic agenda mediated by the mass media.
Culturalist, on the contrary, rejects the claim that consumers are manipulated by commercialization and views consumption as a highly active act and social practice that offers “avenues for individual expression through a range of commodities” (608, Bennet, Subcultures or Neo-tribes?). Consumption does not follow at the heels of production, but rather it is a means of expressing individuality and constructing social identities.
My personal take on the matter is that individuals are simultaneously consumers and producers of popular culture, and thus the two paradigms offer concurrently accurate and flawed concepts concerning the issue at hand.
Last Friday, I was graced with the opportunity to see the recent Max Beckmann exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum. In all honesty, prior to this experience, I had never set eyes on Beckmann’s work first hand. Not knowing what to expect, I went without expectations. My first impression was that of awe. The vibrant colors of the compositions lacing the walls were indisputably stunning. The frantic and free fluidity of his brush strokes lend an impression of raw emotion rather than visual abstraction. Despite the relatively small collection of work on exhibit at the Van Gogh, it is not difficult to find yourself lost in the lofty museum halls for hours at end- examining with great scrutiny each minute detail. After roaming aimlessly around, I returned home hell-bent on learning more about the life lead by this unique artist, as I was quite perplexed as to why I knew so little about an individual who’s influence on the art world seemed profound. Although it was his paintings that initially elicited my interest, upon learning about the circumstances that delineated his existence and the philosophy behind his artistic approach, I was able to fully appreciate the distinctive nature of his work and stylistic vision.
Born in Germany, the prolific painter Max Beckmann can perhaps be best defined as an artist that swayed between realism and expression. Subsisting during the first half of the twentieth century, he was recognized during his lifetime as one Germany’s greatest painters amid the onslaught of the modernist movement. Straying from the stylistic constraints identification with a particular school or art movement can often render, Beckmann was influenced by the classics and the traditional forms of art that circumscribed his predecessors. Although it would seem as if portraits constitute a vast majority of his work, he also generated several still lives during his artistic career. Furthermore, his metaphysical perception of reality inspired a few paintings that can best be recognized by their allegorical imagery. His outlook on life was indisputably unparalleled, yet through contact with his paintings one is able to harness an insight into his artistic psyche. His ability to elegantly illustrate strips of his own reality on canvas leaves one with a fleeting impression of how the world must have been perceived through the eyes of a man void of aspirations outside of unbridled inspiration.
Contemporary photographer Ed Kashi distinguished himself from other photojournalist by embracing the onslaught of technological advancements in the field of digital while still maintains the spirit of a print photographer. As accomplish photojournalist for National Geographic, he relies on both digital and analogue in his work. Shooting in the RAW format with a 5D Canon, Ed Kashi covets the freedom of digital so much that he has not shot with film in over three years despite its being his primary medium since the onset of his career in 1979.
Dedicated to exposing the social and political turmoil that defines the conflicts of our time, Ed Kashi work deals primarily with the complexities of poverty and deracinate that which many prefer to ignore. A graduate of Syracuse University in 1979, Kashi work has appeared in National Geographic, The Times, The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek. In the past couple years, Kashi has been manipulating the digital medium in order to test its limitations. His last project could be defined as a visual story communicated through the multimedia composite of photographs.
Whereas many photographers in this day and age feel threatened by the emergence of the new digital imaging technology, Ed Kashi has cultivated a style that harvests a sense of authenticity regardless of the complexities of the medium. For Kashi, he believes that “despite all of the complaints that photographers offer about the new tools and technology, that they fear they’re being taken over by it or losing something—in fact, their control or authorship is far greater now.” Branching out to new medias, Ed Kashi employs his digital acquisition to redefine the potentials of the medium within a contemporary social landscape. The possibilities of web is rooted in the its ability to mass distribute information.
Ed Kashi exclaims, “with National Geographic, I can reach 40 million people around the world. That’s quite a potent audience.’ But there’s something different about how I can reach people on the Web that in a way is almost more intimate and potentially could be even bigger.” Kashi admits that there is still a part of him that harken back to the time of still photography. However, his decision to make the digital switch stemmed from the acknowledgement that he would have the facility to globally reach the masses through the world wide web.
Coupling advocacy journalism with the exploitation of digital possibilities, Ed Kashi voice is heard. He admits that there is little objectivity to his work, but rather his politics bleed through the images of his portfolio. Ed Kashi is more interested in creating photographs that influence people, that trigger a reaction, rather than focusing on the aesthetic fine art end of the medium. The intercourse of photographic techniques and digital imaging gives birth to an innovative and flawless art form.
As a photographer, I agree with Ed Kashi approach to the recent technological developments in the medium- one has no choice but to adapt, especially in the field of photojournalism, commericial and fashion photography. He asserts, “I can’t escape the fact that the new digital tools—along with the Internet as a distribution system for images, video and multimedia stories—has the potential to overshadow traditional print media because of its potential to reach more people and have a more powerfully engaging message.” I agree that it is imprudent to turn a blind eye to the fact that we are currently in the midst of a digital revolution that is accelerating at such fast and unpredictable rate that the future is laced with incertitude. The technological movement toward digital has served as a catalyst to the way photography is perceived and distributed.
In his closing remarks, Ed Kashi admits that “technology will change and I’ll once again have to change with it.” The accelerating rate at which technological advanments are being made are so inpredictable that a blank canvas suits best the years to come.
A RECONTEXTUALIZATION OF THE BEAUTY MYTH
There is a lie in li(f)e and a deceitfulness in the vein the media reflects it. The pulse of our nation beats to the rhythm of a hegemonic doctrine. Societies consume “necessary” fictions so to protect the fragility of the fabricated reality within which they live. Gender norms are understood to be innate, justifying the economic inequality that is dictated by sex. An attempt to determine the origins behind women’s social subordination can be as difficult as trying to nail blood pudding to the wall. The splintered feminist discourse suggests the role of patriarchic politics and the mainstream media as prominate players, however I would argue that it goes deeper. Hidden beneath the flesh of the problem is the psychological self-imprisonment of the ‘beauty myth’. Stripping women of their power, the societal pressure to meet aesthetic expectations in America deteriorates sentiments of self worth and robs many of their sense of control.
The mass neurosis of women starving themselves skinny while struggling to remain youthful fuels the economy, not through participation but through the excessive consumption of insecure females. Yet this perverse phenomenon is a fairly recent one that was only truly recognized over a decade ago by feminist Naomi Wolf. Due to the novel nature of the discourse, a theoretical framework must continue to be constructed in order to position the historical evolution of the ‘beauty myth’ within the context of the contemporary capitalist system. The socioeconomic pressure to be beautiful has been a catalyst to the growth of the cosmetic and diet industries as well as consumption practices rooted in fetishism rather then necessity. Using the tabloidization of the media as postmodern paradigm for the ‘beauty myth’, I aim to recontextualize the discourse originally formulated by Noami Wolf’s so to better suit the present.
II. HISTORICAL EVOLUTION
In order to understand the present one must look towards the past. World War II triggered the transition of women’s experience from the domestic sphere to that of the work. However, as the horrific war came to a close in August of 1945, the men whose absence facilitated women’s presence in the industrial field returned home to reclaim their jobs. The country faced an economic and social predicament. As the backbone of the wartime economy, women had more freedom than they ever had before and sure enough 75% of women opted to continue working after the war. It was as if ‘Pandora’s Box’ had been opened. The patriarchic system, realizing the implausibility of female re-domestication, reluctantly allowed many women to keep their jobs in the post-war economy.
Statistically earning more money prostituting their bodies rather than using their minds, women have been an underpaid and undervalued part of the work force from the onset. Ensuing World War II, women’s new visibility in the economic sphere complicated the notion of gender roles. Questions of equality rose in response to the disparity in wages earned for parallel tasks. An effort, perhaps in vein, was made to create a new space for the female labor pool that would keep women in subordinate positions where no justification was needed for their lower salary. The “qualities that best serve employers in such a labor pool’s workers are: low self esteem, a tolerance for dull repetitive tasks, lack of ambition, high conformity, more respect for men (who manage them) than women (who work beside them), and little sense of control over their lives” (26 Wolf 1991). Yet this was just the beginning.
‘The Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf was a national best seller back in 1991. The underlining concept of the novel is that in the postmodern world a women’s worth is hinged on their looks. Wolf argues that this social phenomenon came to fruition in tandem to the second wave of feminism. She goes further to claim that the beauty myth “is not about women at all…it is about men’s institutions and institutional power” (Wolf 5 1991). No longer shackled to the societal expectations of fulfilling their role as wife and mother, women’s newfound freedom was perceived as a threat. Thus, the beauty myth emerged as a means of keeping women in their place. Rooted in the debatable argument that beauty and futility are intertwined, the beauty myth rapes women of their ability to be conformable in their own skin and extrapolates how reproductively fit they are on their beauty.
III. THE BIRTH OF THE BEAUTY MYTH
Like “adults, play-wrestling a child, enjoy letting the child feel it has won” (46 Wolf 1991), the independence given to women of modernity carried with it the expectations tied to the ‘beauty myth’. According to Wolf, this ‘cultural conspiracy’ is not only the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact,” but also the last of the “old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women” (Wolf 3 1991). This psychological prison bred rotten self-esteem, voluntary subordination and the emotional distress that was fueled by the sentiment of never being “good enough”. This amalgamation of anxieties shadowed women’s perceived economic feat. Although women were welcomed into the labor force, it was under ‘controlled conditions’ that tainted women’s newfound liberty with “self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control” (Wolf 3 1991).
The residual undercurrent of legal and social discrimination leaves women second-class citizens even in today’s evolved socioeconomic environment. “According to the culturally imposed physical standard” of beauty, women are perceived as objects rather than individuals. In response to social pressure, many put their ambition on the backburner and focus their energy instead on cultivating their physical appearance. Weight fixation, cosmetics products and extrapolating self-worth to beauty came practically in tandem to women’s visibility outside the domestic sphere. The culturally constructed paradigm for the desirable physique was and still is disseminated by means of cinematic production and advertisements. In fact, the “cosmetic industry did not become a fully recognizable, commercialized, mass industry” (31 Black 2004) until the second half of the twentieth century brought on the proliferation of product placement. This fabrication of need poisoned the American women’s psyche provoking them to inadvertently consume out of aesthetic concern and insecurity.
In 1948, 90% of women began wearing lipstick (5 Black 2004). Underpinned by media text, the aesthetic symbolized “female empowerment”. Alarmingly, it was only recently that the ‘Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ found that thirty-three brand name lipsticks tested positive for lead at levels exceeding that of the FDA’s regulation of 0.1 parts per million (41 Houton 2004). The release of these statistics is enough to wipe the red glossy grin off any women’s face. Ironically once a marker of self-righteousness, red lipstick adopted over time the stigma of sexual deviance. This semiotic shift is suiting as it laces the slow subconscious surrender of the woman of modernity, as they forfeited their ambition in the career sphere and embraced the never-ending pursuit of beauty. The fact that there is lead in lipstick translates nicely as a metaphor for how this marker of beauty weighs women down.
IV. A BACKLASH TO THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT
Women’s battle for gender equality has been undermined by the beauty myth. It seems as if “the more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us” (3 Wolf 1991). There is a cultural belief deeply engrained in our society that beauty is a standard against which all women are measured. Wolf argues that in the past a women’s worth was hinged on her virginity whereas in the present it is determined by her physical appearance and sexual lure. This paradox can be extrapolated to the mother/whore dichotomy. Furthermore, popular culture purports that women can be either beautiful or smart, yet never embody both. Society rarely praises or acknowledges the former. Mainstream media juxtaposes the studious brunette co-star with the beautiful yet not so bright blonde- two common archetypes for female identity formation. It goes without saying that the catch-22 is absurd, as although attractive women are said to have a leg up in society, they are often stereotyped as being as dumb as doorknobs.
The “maturing of feminism was crudely but effectively distorted in the lens of the myth” (69 Wolf 1991). Women’s growing obsession with beauty inflicted self-hatred and incessant struggle. The feminist movement for economic equality weakened as the influence of the media at large began reinforcing a beauty ideology that weighed a women’s worth on her waistline and cheekbones. With women working longer and harder for less money, the societal pressure to be beautiful brings on a burden almost unbearable. Furthermore, the ever-present effort to meet impossible beauty norms creates an undercurrent of competition that divides women. The every-woman-for-themselves mentality that arises as a result of the beauty myth counteracts the intrinsic aspirations of the feminist movement.
Entangled in a women’s psyche, the anxiety to be attractive is a repercussion of social conditioning at the hands of the hegemonic order infiltrating the masses through media images. One can trace the escalation of societal pressure as Hollywood extrapolated beauty to America’s national identity (32 Black 2004). The beauty “myth is political and not sexual. Money does the work of history more efficiently than sex” (49 Wolf 1991). As the insidious media fed women’s beauty obsession, there was a proliferation of industries catering to fabricated needs. From modernity emerged a new social identity of idleness and excessive consumption that spread like an infection among middle and upper class women.
V. CAPITALISM ARTICULATES WOMENS ROLE IN MODERNITY
Beauty “was no longer just a symbolic form of currency; it literally became money. The informal currency system of the marriage market” (21 Wolf 1991) enticed women into roles of dependency and apathy. Politically complacent and unemployed, these middle class women began having plenty of excess time as domestic labors grew less intensive thanks to the aid of inventions in home appliances. Thus, in order to “counteract middle-class women’s dangerous new leisure, literary” (15 Wolf 1991), capitalism wrote women into the modern market as consumers.
The disposable incomes of these women situated them in the social position of dependency “crucial to recreating and maintaining a productive cycle that functions to support the capitalist economy” (99 Lewis 1990). The slant that money can buy beauty served as a catalyst behind the rapid growth of the cosmetic, fashion and diet industry. “Modes of consumption thus became marks of social and cultural difference” (39 McRobbie 1999). Beauty presented itself as something that could be attained by anyone who was willing to invest the energy and money into acquiring it.
VI. SPACES OF CONSUMPTION AND PERCIEVED INDEPENDENCE
Within no time, department stores became public spaces for women who embraced this alleged freedom as an escape from the recluse of domesticity. Prior to this, women were confined to the chores and maintenance of the house and home. Even today, “females are expected to use streets as a route between two interior spaces, be they places of employment or consumption activity. The social consequence of street loitering or strolling is the label, ‘prostitute’” (92 Lewis 1990). Loitering within a department store was and is perceived as socially acceptable however.
Broadening the geographical constraints determined by gender, the novel intercourse between leisure and consumption afforded women the possibility to inhabit a social space outside their home. Furthermore, an element of escapism ran below the chance handed to women to try on new social identities. The fashioning of the self was advertised as a vehicle of expression, rendering the “regimen of dress codes” that laced confirmation, prom night and weddings (90 Lewis 1990) less rigid. Women realized that they could convey their social status and distinguished taste through the diversity of their wardrobe and brand names of their clothes, paving way for the emergence of the commodity system of sign value.
In tandem to the proliferation of malls and department stores came another social space inhabited namely by women- the beauty salon. It is here where the ‘hidden labor of beauty’ (19 Black 2004) temporarily relieved the emotional stress of societal pressure. Yet despite the illusion of beauty salons serving as grounds for communal interactions, the social exchanges that take place were and arguably still are oftentimes shallow. “Women can tend to resent each other if they look too ‘good’ and dismiss one another if they look too ‘bad’. So women too rarely benefit from the experience that makes men’s clubs and organizations hold together.” (75 Wolf 1991). The tendency to view the ‘Other Woman’ as the enemy can be tied to the mass neurosis of the beauty myth, which keeps woman incessantly competing with one another- denying the possibility of female bonding.
VII. FROM CONSUMPTION TO STARVATION
The absence of community in beauty salons and the apathetic distractions provided by department stores were merely the beginning. As “the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23 percent below that of ordinary women, eating disorders rose exponentially” (11 Wolf 1991). Beauty products and expensive attire were no longer enough, as magazines like Vogue portrayed stick thin models in the nude- their visible ribs reflecting the culture industry’s redefinition of “beauty”. These images “used food and weight to strip women of their sense of control” (11 Wolf 1991). Hostage to societal expectations, women have never before in history found themselves entangled in such a mass phobia that is so psychologically imprisoning.
Seventy-five percent of women have bodies that fall outside that the media propagates as beautiful. As “women breached the power structure…eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty” (3 Wolf 1991). The unprecedented boom of the diet and cosmetic surgery industry came about in tandem to the growth of the telecommunication and commercial industries. Threatening a woman’s sanity, societal expectations manipulate women to willingly starve herself- some consuming fewer calories a day then those in third world countries. This obsession with weight translates in to severe eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and compulsive binge eating.
An alarming statistic provided by the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association unveils the fact that millions of women nation-wide suffer from eating disorders. Each year a hundred and fifty thousand women die of anorexia. With one in five students suffering from the disease education, or lack there of, does not seem to be a factor. As women disparately struggle to obtain the correct height to weight ratio, the body suffers. The internal wounds of eating disorders and the corporeal scars of plastic surgery all trace back to the anxiety bred by the media’s reinforcement of the beauty myth.
VIII. MEDIA, MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS AND ARTIFICIAL NEEDS
Over the past several decades, America has become an “image saturated society where advertising, entertainment, television, and other culture industries increasingly define and shape everyday life” (227 Gotham). The onslaught of commercialization came about as a mechanism to promote consumption in the age of mechanical reproduction. To drive the economy, artificial needs were and are still to this day fashioned. As a result, mass society has devolved into passive spectators and consumers entranced by the hypnotic nature of the media- blindly embracing ideologically infiltrated images fabricated with ulterior motives (227 Gotham). Wolf claims that the beauty myth “is not about women at all.” She explains, “it is about men’s institutions and institutional power” (5 Wolf 1991).
Furnished with the agenda of multinational conglomerates, the media manufactures “fictitious, artificial, and imaginary needs” (161 Lefebvre). The culture industries bred by capitalism infect the American social psyche with hegemonic ideologies that not only cement the current social hierarchy, but also construct “powerful images, descriptions, definitions and frames of reference for understanding the world” (132 Storey). The media’s role in consumption patterns is predominately overlooked by society at large, thus more often than not people purchase without hesitation or reservation as to what motives lie behind their choices. Corporations like IBM, News Corporation, AOL Time Warner, General Electric and Microsoft dominate the communication industry (98 Fairclough 2006). This in turn facilitates the dissemination of a hegemonic discourse of cultural values. The cultural codes and conventions projected by the cinema and television alike are thus internationally acknowledged. Consumptions patterns can be traced to a corporation’s annual expenditure in the advertisement of their products. Susceptible to the subliminal, the masses spend without sense or practicality.
IX. ADVERTISEMENTS BREEDING INADEQUENCIES
In many respects, advertisements are a reflection of capitalist culture. There has been an onslaught of ads flooding the urban scape, lacing the highways of America, cluttering magazines and cutting up programs on TV. These glossy depictions “convince readers of their own inadequacies while drawing them into the consumer culture with the promise that they could buy their way out of bodily dissatisfactions and low self-esteem.” (46 McRobbie 1999). Advertisements project the unattainable in order to sell products laced with faulty guarantee. “They need, consciously or not, to promote women’s hating their bodies enough to go profitably hungry, since the advertising budget for one third of the nation’s food bill depends on their doing so by dieting” (84 Wolf 1991).
The pervasiveness of this subliminal propaganda is enormous. Brilliant marketing tactics tie wealth, sex, romance, joy and appreciation to images of youth and beauty. Thus, hostage to these beauty ideals, women kill themselves in this never-ending battle. The effectiveness of these advertisements is rooted in the repetition of these images. From this array of media text, gender roles are realized, social norms are cemented and beauty standards are established. Silicone breast, tummy tucks, acid skin peels, vacuumed out thighs and stitched tighter vagina’s all serve as a testament to the perversity of this phenomenon.
X. THROUGH A SEMOTIC LENS
Although the aforementioned is as common as it is shocking, oftentimes we as humans have a tendency to build immunities to the unthinkable. As society at large becomes jaded, the media reinforces perverse social norms subliminally. It is for this reason that one must take a step back and analyze the “gender encoded in media text” (73 Van Zoonon 1994) through a semiotic lens. De Saussure, the father of this discourse, argues that the connotative power of signs is unparalleled and that subconsciously humans are susceptible to social conditioning without being aware of it. He employs the ratio Sign= signifier/signified as a framework through which one can examine the extent the mainstream media is saturated with semiotic codes cementing a hegemonic doctrine.
Transmission models of communication, such as television and tabloids, use signs to “represent” or rather reconstruct our perception of reality and understanding of social norms. Through the transmission of semiotic codes, the media subjugates the American psyche with three distinct role for a woman: “(1) wife, mother and housekeeper for men, (2) a sex object used to sell products to men, (3) a person trying to be beautiful for men” (Hole and Levine, 1971: 241). This three-pier paradigm for female identity is perpetuated in advertisements where women are consuming either cosmetics or a product related to the domestic sphere (74 Van Zoonon 1994). Thus, women have the alleged “agency” to choose whether to be an object of male desire or an object of domesticity.
The media engrains in the women’s psyche “how to be a ‘perfect mother, lover, wife, homemaker, glamorous, accessory, secretary –whatever best suits the needs of the system’” (Davies et al.: 1987:4) (66 Van Zoonon 1994). Regardless of the role a woman plays out, their worth is still hinged on their beauty. Even the advertisements of the supposedly self-empowering program Oprah “show women in traditional roles, worrying about their weight and their children” (101 Sage 1994). Furthermore, Oprah Winfrey has celebrity icons like Brittany Spear on her show who nonchalantly admit to doing anywhere between seven hundred to one thousand crutches on a daily basis. The prospect that an average woman with a fulltime job and family would have the time and energy to commit to this sort of exercise routine is ludicrous. But the mainstream media normalizes outrageous expectation.
Makeover shows like “What Not to Wear and The Biggest Loser — even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — show beauty as something created, a condition to which anyone can have access to with the right education and effort” (2 Sullentrop 2006). Cosmetic companies and plastic surgeons are having a field day as women anxiously pay a pretty penny to go under the knife- exhibiting complete disregard for the potential health risks that may be involved. Perversely, one can argue that women perpetuate the need for this sort of self-afflicted torture through their participation in it. The myth is kept alive by those who prop themselves up in six-inch stilettos that physically destroy their feet and by those who spend the night suffocating in corsets that crush their ribs. It is fueled by the mantra ‘beauty knows no pain’- an all too common yet ironic adage that has the split connotation that a woman must subject herself to pain for beauty but also beautiful women know no pain.
XI. TABLOIDS: A PARADIGM FOR THE BEAUTY MYTH IN POSTMODERNITY
The ironic fact of the matter is that the definition of beauty is not fixed. Glossy magazines are paradigms of this schizophrenia as they construct and redefine beauty with each issue. With the pages laced with airbrushed, emaciated models in the teens, it is no wonder that women are starving themselves to attain the unattainable. Furthermore, this medium has the faculty to influence society at large. Wolf writes that “ it was through these glossies that issues from the women’s movement swept out from the barricades and down from the academic ivory towers to blow into the lives of working-class women, rural women, women without higher education.” Thus the ever shifting and increasingly implausible standard of beauty breaches the invisible borders of class stratification and race through the glossy visual media’s accessibility and popularity.
Perhaps even more popular than fashion magazines, tabloids emerge as a reflection of the public’s problematic relationship with reality. Contemporary society seems to be plagued with an obsession for certain celebrity icons that emerge as incessant subjects of scrutiny. A perverse phenomenon particular to the postmodern era is the tabloidization of culture. In many respects, tabloid magazine are microcosms of the societal pressures women in American society endure. While standing in the check out line or waiting in the hair salon, one is bombarded with headlines surveying the physical shape and aesthetic appeal of these branded celebrities.
Magazine such as InTouch, Star and Life&Style target the female demographic. Women across the country indulge in hating and envying the media figures that grace the inky pages of the tabloids. These celebrities are praised one day and chastised the next. One must not forget that the beauty myth is not hinged on any biological or historical justification. “’Beauty’ is not universal or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman […]. Nor is “beauty” a function of evolution: Its ideals change at a pace far more rapid than that of the evolution of species” (12 Wolf 1991). In short, beauty standards shift according to the mood of the market and the taste of the media. The limelight has sour appeal in a culture where perfection is never quite attainable, yet always expected.
XII: STAR MAGAZINE: “55 OF THE BEST AND WORST BEACH BODIES”
The headline of Star magazine’s August 2008 issue was “55 of the Best and Worst Beach Bodies,” a spread littered with paparazzi shots of celeb icons clad in bikinis. Cellulite and ribs are magnified to show why she could either shed a few pounds or be a contender for hospitalization. Kate Hudson was awarded the worst “secret sagginess”, claiming “Kate, 28, looks so perfect when she’s wearing clothing! But the actress and single mom’s plunging blue bikini revealed a surprisingly saggy tummy during a Hawaiian vacation” (Star Magazine, 10/08). This harsh critique referring to the photograph on the right is a fine example of how a mother of two, who still at the age of thirty has maintained a six-pack, can be nonetheless a subject to harsh scrutiny. “Actress Kate Hudson told one interviewer that, to lose post-pregnancy “baby weight,” she worked out three hours a day until she lost her 70 pounds: It was so hard that she used to sit on the exercise cycle and cry.” Shortly after this issue was published, Kate Hudson began suffering from an eating disorder, which once again landed her of the front page of Star in “The 20 Skinniest Celebrities”. This issue accused Hudson of suffering from anorexia nervosa and described her as a “walking skeleton”. This just goes to show that the ideal of “beauty” is incessantly in a state a flux and thus doesn’t truly exist.
XIII. MONEY CAN BUY BEAUTY
Although tabloids reinforce the notion that there seems to be no fixed standard of beauty, one thing is for sure: money can buy beauty. While half of Star magazine is dedicated to dissecting every flaw of a celebrity or praising a pair Prada shoes sported by another, the other half is committed to commercializing fancy beauty products, designer dresses and of course expensive weight loss pills. Wolf argues that “the formula must also include an element that contradicts and then undermines the overall pro-woman fare: in diet, skin care, and surgery features, it sells women the deadliest version of the beauty myth money can buy”. Again, beauty translates as currency. The fetishism of the image results in the public cannibalizing coveted celebrities. Just as fairy tales purport that the princess must be beautiful, tabloid preach that woman of beauty are worth photographing, worth stalking and most importantly they are worth acknowledging.
As the differentiation between capitalism and culture become increasingly blurred, re-contextualizing the discourse of the ‘beauty myth’ in necessary so to better understand it in relation to the age of post-modernity. The deep anxieties of women across the country translate into a 33-billion dollar a year diet industry and the 300 million dollar a year cosmetic industry. You see,“ beauty lives so deep in the psyche, where sexuality mingles with self-esteem” (36 Wolf 1991) that self worth is hinged on one’s body image. Women voluntarily and deliberately partake in this struggle to be beautiful believing that their happiness is hinged on it. Furthermore, a disgusting double standard emerges when one realizes that women appreciate men for who they are, albeit if they have gray hair, a fat gut and wrinkles- thus proving that the beauty rituals have been indoctrinate into namely the female psyche.
The historical evolution of the beauty myth was a slow than sudden transformation in the American psyche, accelerated by the proliferation of advertisement and growth of the telecommunication industry. Through the means of mass media cultural beliefs were cemented. Reinforced in fairy tales, Hollywood pictures, advertisements, conversations and commercials, the unattainable ideals of beauty infiltrate every aspect of western culture. The “violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement” (10 Wolf 1991) keeps females psychologically poor (52 Wolf 1991). Now women face a twofold burden to uphold not only their traditional role as wife and mother, but also to meet the ever-unattainable expectations of socially constructed beauty norms.
“More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our un-liberated grandmothers” (3 Wolf 1991). Looking at mannequins as models, paradigms of felinity that one should strive to emulate, women of today are imprisoned in the iron maiden. Instead of lying here awaiting a fate to come at the hands of metal spikes or starvation, I think it is time women take a stand. Women voluntarily and deliberately partake in this struggle to be beautiful believing that their happiness is hinged on it. Dissatisfaction and low self esteem drives women to go under the knife and choose carcinogenics over calories in a disparate attempt to achieve the socially constructed image of beauty. Human value should not rely on the aesthetic or appeal of youth. As women, we need to shed this burden of unrealistic expectations and decide for ourselves what is true and in doing so we will dismantle our disillusionment.
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Deviating from conventional practice, Giuseppe Penone’s series To Unroll One’s Skin (1970-1971) re-conceptualizes the tradition of self-portraiture. Superimposing a small glass slide against the flesh of his body, Penone’s maps his entire anatomy exhaustively inch-by-inch to produce a portrait that mimics a cylindrical projection. The unique aesthetic of this Italian artist was greatly shaped by the Arte Povera movement in Italy circa the nineteen-seventies. Radically challenging cultural convention, the artistic approach of those in the Arte Povera movement mark a critical shift towards postmodern discourse. Their subversive avenues of artistic expression sought to unveil how consumer culture and the glut of commodities rendered life void of meaning. Awareness usurps illusions; Penone’s work doesn’t pretend to offer a window on the world which ultimately renders it more honest. The image’s fragmentation elicits a newfound understanding of portraiture that is stylistically hybrid- perhaps it could be coined as postmodern cubism. The absence of spatial depth exhibited in his series obscures the established artistic aspiration to create a sense of space within the confines of a two-dimensional framework.
The politics of meaning and the consequences of representation are juxtaposed with the traditional argument that photographs are merely pieces of life not vying to make a statement but merely expressing a point in time. Photography, unlike other art forms, is hinged on the dilapidated pretext that it is honest and true ‘window on the world’. Penone’s manipulation of the medium not only complicates the notions of spatial dynamics and the anatomical structure, but the image is also laced with an awareness that cripples its relationship to reality while remaining honest. As post-modernity cannibalizes authenticity, contemporary photography oscillates from being an “archival medium” to a self-aware one. Whereas both forms lend a version of the truth- the disparity between them posits with the notion of “representation”. This begs the question of what is signification when laced with semiotics, how can awareness impoverish the notion of truth? Ultimately, these binaries confirm the complicities of the medium and dismiss the fragile argument that photography is merely a tool of mimesis. Giuseppe Penone’s work speaks to this discourse in every respect.
The one unchanging truth in life is that life is always changing. I’ve come to perceive this world through a splintered frame of reference- a shattered lens. Cutting the umbilical cord with home at a young age, I moved to India at seventeen after having been expelled from boarding school. In hindsight, this was a blessing in disguise, as India spawned my passion for photography. My first camera was a cheap afterthought I picked up en route to the airport. Incessantly attached at my hip, the 35 mm evolved as a means of salvaging memories of places and acquaintances lacing my travels. India insisted on being documented. Laying just outside modern civilization, it was a country where men lured cobras from baskets and rats traveled in herds. Wandering into slums many would avoid or not think to transgress, I felt as if I was bestowed with a right of entry when armed with my camera. Guided and at times misguided by curiosity, there would be instances where I’d end up in small shacks drinking tea with old ladies who would nod there heads back and forth, back and forth at me and smile. My first tryst with the medium was compulsive, almost obsessive. Trivial observations were often the catalyst behind the click of the shutter. There was a narrative I was weaving, a tapestry of experiences and acquaintances that years later I would salvage from temporal decay. I captured these fleeting moments namely because I was afraid that these memories would slip away over time.
Two weeks ago and seven years later, I find myself back home. Clumsily searching for a red suitcase in the basement, I stumbled upon a box of photographs from the aforementioned experience. Six years in my parent’s basement left the stack stale, reeking of mildew, color faded and corners curled. In the dimly lit basement, I began leafing through them. I came across an old photograph of myself. With fierce eyes and dirty fingernail, I stood on the ghats in Varanasi where the dead is ritualistically cremated. The smell of burning flesh overpowered the musty stench of the basement. Alone in the darkness, forgotten moments that had been sleeping in the folds of my memory flooded in- unadulterated by the passing of time. A heavy calm fell over me as a remembered fields of mustard flowers and the magnolia trees that laced the road to Dharmasala. Faded recollections resurfaced of insomnia married with late night Bollywood films, the smell of post-rain shower during the monsoon, the children at the orphanage. I remember the fluorescent glow of Commercial Street at dusk, the rigshaw walla without a thumb, the Jesus Christ nailed to the cross that swung side to side on the rear view mirror.
The poverty of experience at the hands of our hyper-accelerated society brings into question the politics of memory. Recollections of the past inform who one is in the present, in that identity is constructed through the dynamic accumulation of the memories that come later to define us. The resurfacing of forgotten moments feels like the embrace of an old lover. There is something inexplicable about how photographs can so suddenly elicit a sea of feelings. Yet, trying to articulate the profound subtlety at which an image deracinates thoughts long lost in the unconscious can be as difficult as attempting to nail pudding to the wall. As the years sneak by and time slips away, I find myself photographing even the most banal moments believing I guess that one day it will reveal itself as significant. But there is an honesty lacing these images, because they are not trying to be anything outside of what they are. I always thought it was those in-between days and un-monumental moments that harbor a truth that is beauty.