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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change