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Objectification at whatever size

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Monday, 5 July 2010


On the 7pm ABC News Sunday, June 27, a report on the Federal Government’s new voluntary body image code of conduct was illustrated by the story of size 14 model Laura Wells. Laura was proud of her body and very confident, even though she didn’t conform to the typical model body type.

That is a good thing of course. It’s positive to have women in the industry who challenge the thin ideal.

But the argument fell apart for me, because, as the ABC report informed us, Laura was so confident that she even took her clothes off for modeling shoots. And then we saw some footage of her squeezing her breasts together for the camera. She was naked.

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This news item summarised some of my hesitations about the latest moves to address body image concerns.

Yes, of course it’s good to encourage body diversity. And of course it’s right to disclose when models have been airbrushed or digitally enhanced. Of course the fashion industry should be discouraged from parading stick-thin half-dead waifs down the catwalk.

But even when these changes come about - and face it, they are the most basic of essentials, and not even mandatory - the fact is the culture of sexualisation and objectification is not challenged or transformed.

Elsewhere it was reported of Wells:

Yesterday, as the 24-year-old recreated the pose of full-figured American pin-up Lizzie Miller - complete with her own “wobbly bits to rock” your socks off, boys - there was nothing to hide … Wiggling and giggling as she attempted to wrestle one [of] her E-cup breasts out of sight, Laura has clearly struck up a fabulously healthy relationship with her body …

It makes you wonder if Laura didn’t have the classic model facial features and an E cup, whether her “larger” body would be so desired by the industry.

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It is no great advance when curvy women are presented in the same sexualised ways as their smaller sisters. I’ve written about this in regard to Rikki Lee Coulter’s dominatrix photo shoot for Ralph, which I described as “objectification in a size 14”. Simply using so-called larger bodies (discuss: is size 14 large?) doesn’t change the main goal of the advertising and fashion industries - presenting women as sexually alluring. The baring of female flesh - even when the flesh comes packaged as a size that isn’t a 6, 8, or 10 - is still the main game.

A lot of research tells us that sexualising imagery contributes to body dissatisfaction among girls and women, depression, anxiety, disordered eating and low self-esteem. Yet the National Body Image Advisory Group - whose report has contributed to the government’s latest announcement - doesn’t mention sexualisation or objectification at all. The industry is smacked with a feather. It’s all voluntary, it’s all about “encouraging” and being nice. (Take the ABC News heading “Fashion industry asked to adopt body-image code”. We hope they asked politely!).

The report has no teeth. There are no penalties for non-compliance for the recalcitrant’s who will continue to profit from their sexist and harmful practices.

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First published at melindatankardreist.com on June 28, 2010.



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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org). Melinda blogs at www.melindatankardreist.com.

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