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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle