Fashion victims: why do glossy magazines keep glamorising violence?

Fashion has often looked to violence and brutality as a way of shocking and titillating.

The image above is from a beauty editorial in a Bulgarian magazine called 12. It depicts perfectly made up women who just happen to have also been the victims of brutal violence, probably because the photographer thought that it would provide some kind of arty counterpoint to the polished perfection of well-applied mascara. This is not the worst image in the series, not by a country mile. That dubious accolade would perhaps go to the slit throat, or the ripped open mouth, available for your perusal. The images are shocking, and desperately sad. Yet more sad is the fact than one in four Bulgarian women is a victim of domestic violence. Putting images of battered and broken women in a magazine whose readership is likely to have suffered similar horrors in reality shows a cavalier attitude to their trauma which is at best ignorant and at worst cynical.

Fashion has often looked to violence and brutality as a way of shocking and titillating. Photographer Guy Bourdin's inclination towards sexual perversity inspired images of archetypal women being subjected to violent or sexual humiliations. In an interview about Bourdin's work in the Observer, fashion photographer Nick Knight said: "Fear is something that we, despite ourselves, want to experience. And I think the violence does add glamour in a kind of perverse way." Bourdin can be credited with defining a set of tropes that have persisted long after his own demise: the use of violence and pornographic imagery to sell clothes continues. Earlier this year a photograph depicting 16 year old model Hailey Clauson being strangled for a Pop Magazine editorial surfaced. "Even Barbie bruises," wrote photographer Tyler Shields of a photoshoot of actress Heather Morris dressed up like a housewife with a black eye. Lula magazine went for a dead-looking woman sprawled next to a canal. It all makes for viewing that is charmless as an understatement. Yet no one ever seems to ask why fashion continues to find images of violence against women so compelling.

The fashion industry has often displayed a shocking lack of compassion and intelligence, and so it might be a step too far to hope for erudite analysis of their own images. Perhaps that's a strong statement, but then so are the images themselves. They speak of a world that is ugly, that still fetishises male domination even in its sickest forms, and there's no avoiding the fact that . As women, we can look at this so-called artwork and question whether or not fashion is really our friend at all.

Fashion at its best can be a joy. It can be fun; it can be frivolous; it can be a deeply entrenched part of your self-expression. But there is also a sense of trauma undermining the fashion fantasy. It is the trauma of the woman who looks to anorexic models for "thinspiration", and the trauma of the models themselves and their frequent exploitation. It is the trauma of the female body mutilated by plastic surgery, nipped and tucked and Botox-ed to within an inch of its life. It is the trauma of malnourishment and the woman who "hated every kilo on her body" until she found the latest diet plan.

And with that trauma comes contradictions that can never be entirely resolved. Women diet, diet, diet until they lose the weight, and then just "tack on" a silicone arse and some tits at the end - because their own arse and tits did not suffice, and someone else knew their ideal proportions better than their genes. It's not as though this is anything new, of course - women have always suffered for fashion. At various times in history, women have bound their feet and breasts to constrict their growth, crushed their internal organs with whale-boned corsetry, poisoned their skin with lead-based make up, ruined their feet with agonising and impractical shoes. The self-aware tone of women's fashion magazines goes some way towards trying to justify this attitude. How many times have you seen some impractical yet "must-have" piece accompanied by the words "we know it's ridiculous, but we want it anyway!" Oh, women. Aren't we silly and fluffy and frivolous? We just can't help wanting what's bad for us.

To counteract a growing cult of bruised, emaciated women and their "heroin chic" following in the early noughties, former model Isabelle Caro plastered naked images of herself across Italy in 2007. At 28 years old and 59 pounds, Caro died from the effects of anorexia after a very short lifetime in the fashion industry; shortly before her death, these "repugnant" (her words) images appeared in a final effort of Caro's to assert herself in an environment that had in part legitimised her eating disorder. Milan Fashion Week opened with this stark reminder of art and fashion at its very worst. In contrast to the violent images above, these billboards were defiantly unglamorous, unambiguous, demanding. They held a great many unrealistic expectations of women, as well as their violent undertones, to account.

However, it would be naïve to suggest that creative industries are inherently or stubbornly misogynist, because past years have definitely shown a willingness to progress towards positive change. In 2009, Alexandra Shulman, editor in chief of British Vogue, sent an open letter to designers asking them to make their sample sizes bigger, so that her magazine could hire bigger models. Vogue editors worldwide then collectively pledged not to use models with a body mass index indicative of ill health. This spoke volumes in a world of "pro-anorexia" websites and magazines filled with liposuction quotes straight from Harley Street. And the commitment needs to continue.

When painfully skinny women sprawled on waterfronts in "just got murdered" poses are mainstream sexy, we have to ask ourselves how we got here and why. Could it be an obsession with the apparently erotic appeal of vulnerability? That some men get turned on by "weakened prey"? Or is it simply art? If that's the case, then we'll proudly hang up our Arts degrees and step away from the magazine. But it's not so much art as commerce, and perhaps sick sells.

Strangled teenage models with wafer-thin thighs and implanted breasts undo the work that brave fashion victims such as Isabelle Caro strove to do - so can we step away from the starving and half-beaten women, please? Because whatever the changing definition of beautiful is these days, we know one thing for sure: "at death's door" is never a good look.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.