The first conversation was based on a much maligned piece in The Guardian on how dreamy romantic leads in YA fiction might damage the esteem of male readers. The second was a response to the earth-splitting revelation that ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham has been photo-shopped in Vogue. Neither Stephenie Meyer (for it is ‘Twilight’ that seems to come under attack in the article) or Anna Wintour are presenting the world as it really is – no acne, no braces, no bulges, no body hair, no-one over a size eight.
Of course, fashion magazines, with little actual proof on either side, have been singled out as causing mental health problems in teenage girls for decades. Attacking fictional beautiful people is a new one however, especially those who exist in the imaginations of YA fans.
In Being A Boy, I wrote at length about the effects of media images on young men, but this is a gender neutral problem. Both young men and women are bombarded with ‘impossible standards of beauty’. They are impossible because of Photoshop. But here’s the thing – EVERY professional photo has been retouched. ALL OF THEM. Dark shadows are removed, bits thinned, bits thickened, pores and blemishes are removed. YouTube is bloated with time-lapse videos of legs being stretched and eyes moved so far outwards, women start to resemble bugs. It effects men and women, and now female models are even being retouched to look less thin.
The well-worn argument is that people look to these aspirational images and feel bad about their own realistic appearances. Vogue and Twilight are making young people feel bad about themselves. If that’s true, that sucks. You tell me, dear reader. Did Edward Cullen make you feel inadequate as a man? Does Karlie Kloss make you hate your regular-length legs?
However, in my book, the message was simple: Such images aren’t real. Young adults, even young children, are more than capable of understand how digital photography has changed beauty for all of us. Who doesn’t filter the living shit out of iPhone snaps? They understand Star Wars is fiction, they understand Photoshop creates fiction. My problem is that this very simple lesson is not on the National Curriculum. Indeed, PSHE isn’t even mandatory. That’s my issue: this could so easily be taught. Many schools do teach it already, probably most, but it should be made a requirement.
A detour here on steroids. I also think schools should be teaching young men about steroid abuse. I’m not going to name names, but you know THOSE bodies aren’t just from the gym right? Readily available in any gym changing room but no-one tells you about the shrinking testicles, back acne or ‘roid rage. This detour would also be appropriate for cosmetic surgery. Beauty is a two-tier system. We could all look like supermodels if we had the money.
Back on track. Why not just place restrictions on Vogue? Why not limit the use of Photoshop under some trade descriptions act? Basically, I don’t think it’d make a scrap of difference. It’s about that key word: ASPIRATIONAL. When I was writing Hollow Pike, that word came up at several points in editorial meetings. The characters should be aspirational. And yes, fictional love-interest Danny Marriott, although he has his flaws, is also the gorgeous captain of the rugby team.
And why not? We all aspire to something. How can we not? I go to the gym four times a week for this reason. If Photoshop was outlawed tomorrow, I would still go to the gym and see guys who look like the models on the front of our romance novels. I would still want bigger arms, better definition and broader shoulders. Despite knowing it is physically impossible, I would still want to be six foot two and have wider set eyes. It’s fantasy, and fantasy cannot be censored. The heart wants what it wants. We can dance around a flaming pyre of Vogue and Men’s Health but I’ll still have my eyes and I’ll still compare myself to other men.
I honestly believe it’s easier to get mad at Vogue than it is to enter into discussion about physical aspiration. It feels like heresy to even whisper we might have a built-in archetype of beauty. Don’t get me wrong, we all have different types – anyone who knows me can spot my type at a hundred paces. I favour a larger ‘rugby build’ in my boyfriends (see Danny Marriott) and to each their own. But would it be fair to say there’s a standard deviation of beauty? Like is anyone going to look at Brad Pitt and say ‘he’s ugly’? Is anyone going to look at Natalie Portman and gag? No, probably not.
I suppose we’re left with a high-fashion chicken and egg. Which came first, the aspiration to look like a model or a fashion magazine? With slight variations, in the West, we’ve more or less agreed on beauty forever. Plato suggested ‘Forms’ of beauty that developed into archetypes. Evidence of early corsets has been linked to ancient Crete. Look at Michelangelo’s David, look at Botticelli’s Venus (they were tweaked by the artist a la Photoshop too). Look at Josephine Baker and Beyoncé. Look at James Dean and Ryan Gosling. Look at Farrah Fawcett and Blake Lively. There have always been aspirational faces and bodies and they predate both YA fiction and fashion magazines.
Evolutionary anthropologists suggest that we’re pre-programmed to look for healthy sexual partners and that this health is worn outwardly. Athletic, strong bodies with glowing skin, thick hair and decent muscle mass would suggest you’d provide good baby DNA I guess. Perhaps our aspirations are linked with our own desires and our desire to be desired. Say that ten times fast. Before I’m accused of being a body fascist, I loosely subscribe to Caitlin Moran’s ‘Human Shape’ idea. Moran writes that weight doesn’t matter (and is no-one else’s business anyway) until you stop resembling a human – i.e. morbidly obese or dangerously thin – a sign of poor health, which is just sad. (Some other time I’ll write about growing up skinny – that’ll be a long one).
It would perhaps be nicer to see greater physical diversity in magazines, TV and film. But wait – isn’t that what Vogue was trying with Dunham and they couldn’t do right for doing wrong. TV shows and films are full of ‘real’ looking people, too many to list here, but I still aspire to Chris Hemsworth’s body over, say, Michael Cera’s. Sorry! Please don’t burn me at the stake!
Rather than banning Photoshop, all journalists could sign a moratorium on describing women’s bodies. It’s shit journalism and a fairy dies every time the Sidebar of Shame is updated. It’s a nice idea but it won’t stop aspiration will it? I still want to be six foot two and built like a brick shithouse. After thirty-two years I’m content that that want is ever-present.
It’s not about shame it’s about blame. We need to stop looking around for things to blame, even if they are problematic, and refocus the time and energy on the never-ending quest to individual contentment. While we do that, I know I enjoy the escapism and fantasy of beauty. Yeah, sorry, but I really want to read YA novels about gorgeous werewolves, geeks who become models and girls who cry tears to another dimension.