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.