Is Body Positivity A Photographer’s Responsibility?
[Editor’s Note: The following article is an opinion piece. The views expressed here by the writer may not necessarily the opinion of SLR Lounge as a whole].
It’s February, so 2016 is in full swing, and it’s going to be a big year for fashion, beauty, and by default, photographers – especially if you are in that line, or portraiture, or boudoir. Fashion statements and beauty trends for the year are generally set in these early months as Paris Fashion Week is around the corner in March, London Fashion Week is on now, and the highest volume single magazine issue, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has just been dropped. Between these three things alone, there are mountains to discuss, but above all, it’s body acceptance, and ‘skindividuality’. What this also means is that controversy is high.
In case you missed the telegram, the low-hanging fruit of choice for alleged ‘body positivity’ promoters are the tall and thin models that strut catwalks and adorn magazines. These models have oft been villainized for promoting an unhealthy and unrealistic feminine ideal that has led to the physical and mental illnesses of many women who don’t match their image. In fact, it’s not only the models who are criticized, but more the brands that use them, and even the photographers that shoot and retouch them.
With the acceptance of correlational effects from media like this versus causal there’s been a massive push over the last few years, and especially in 2015, to change the paradigm of the fashion and beauty world. France implemented legislation last year that effectively banned uber-thin models, requiring a doctor’s note to assert the models were in good health. Israel has done the same, and here in the UK, the same sort of thing seems imminent. Even Barbie, the very figure that was, according to M.G Lord, official Barbie Biographer, “To teach girls what – for better or worse – is expected of them in society,” now comes in numerous skin tones, petite, tall, and most notably, curvy. [Never mind that Barbie was actually based on a German doll named Lilli that was essentially a bachelor party favor given by and modeled after prostitutes…]
Then, of course, there was the Pirelli Catalogue where Annie Leibovitz and Pirelli decided to forgo the historically sexualized power and skin bearing nature of the infamous publication to showcase women with a different type of power, and just this week, SI drops Ashely Graham as their biggest piece of PR fodder yet as their first featured plus sized model.
It would be easy to join the heaving throngs and assert that this is a move in the right direction and even more needs to be done, because why would we want to promote any kind of unhealthy ideal for anyone? But there’s more to it – this year may prove it, and be an interesting one for those behind the lens.
Recently I’d been questioned, challenged, and even berated and accused as a photographer, as if I or any other photographer could be somehow representative of us all, that I do nothing to help the cause of body-positivity because I only photograph (and their words here), ‘…beautiful, thin women.” I was told that because I, and many other photographers, don’t typically photograph, publish, and promote imagery of women of all shapes and sizes, that, in fact, we are part of the problem. This person was in favor of #realwomenhavecurves, which I find insulting and ignorant.
At first, it made me annoyed, and then it made me think. Could it be as suggested? That we who photograph women that fit a current archetype of sought-after beauty and sexuality are contributing to the low self-esteem and even sickness of the female population at large?
My short answer is no, not really. Firstly, I was raised by a strong, empowered, and powerful single mother and come from a family of similar types. Because of this, I know first hand that women are wicked-smart, so I’m just not convinced, and think it an injustice to women to assume they are so easily influenced by high-fashion as many suggest. I am also well aware that eating disorders are complicated illnesses that arise for a myriad of reasons, of which genetics can be one.
Furthermore, I think it can be dangerous and foolish to extend our concern about influence only to the slim body type and not have it equally apply to the other end of the spectrum. It’s one thing to encourage women to understand that thin doesn’t necessarily mean healthy or acceptable, but then we must engage the other side of the debate and recognize where almost every medical journal assures us that there is a direct correlation between waist size and risk of cardiovascular disease and even diabetes. There is a line between body positivity and promoting obesity, and it is paradoxical that the western world struggles with obesity and yet promotes “chubby’ models, according to Dragone and Savorelli, in the University of Bologna’s study, ‘Thinness and Obesity: A Model of Food Consumption, Health Concerns, and Social Pressure∗‘
“If being overweight is the average condition and the ideal body weight is thin, increasing the ideal body weight may increase welfare by reducing social pressure. By contrast, health is on average reduced, since people depart even further from their healthy weight. Given that in the US and in Europe, people are on average overweight, we conclude that these policies, even when are welfare improving, may foster the obesity epidemic.”
But putting the science aside, forget being too thin, I can tell you there’s huge pressure on models, maybe not for the runway, but in other markets to have curves that just aren’t to be found on most women naturally. The evolution of Western beauty ideals, which tend to resonate worldwide have evolved to iconize the Kardashians, Jennifers Lawrence & Lopez, and Christina Hendricks. The amount of pressure on women to now fit this figure is also astonishing. So if we as photographers should not pander to photographing types that cause social pressures, then this type should be treated with caution, too.
A photo posted by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid) on Oct 9, 2015 at 2:47pm PDT
Now, to step away from the theoretical side of things, here’s what the public, your clients, and perhaps your critics should be aware of; that you as a photographer, typically, are facilitating the will of who hires you. If you’re shooting for an agency, you’re not choosing who to shoot nor exactly always how to shoot them. For tests, they will tell you how the model is to be positioned, and what they want. We mostly shoot what the market demands, and so we are promoting only what is deemed appealing by the consumer (generally). The fashion industry (and especially runway) is meant to be fantasy, a depart from reality, a form of escapism, as much of the imagery we are drawn to is. We don’t use things like filters and creative sets to take an image to represent reality, and we are not, as people, drawn to things that are the same as we are. People are drawn to missing information, to a vacuum, to something different, to what we don’t have. This is one reason I tell photographers now it’s more important to be different than to simply be ‘better’.
A photo posted by ♔Winnie♔ (@winnieharlow) on Feb 17, 2016 at 9:46am PST
In that vein, there is something photographers can and should consider, and that’s embracing the different, and I think this year it’s going to be all about skin. As dropped in above, ‘skindividuality’ is going to be a term we hear more of this year, and models like Winnie Harlow and Gigi Hadid are leading the pack. Flawless and unrealistic alabaster skin has reigned supreme over the past few decades, but Gigi with her moles and Winnie with her vitiligo are proving that it’s not what we are going for anymore as a culture.
My take is that photographers are not responsible for the market, but simply respond to it, though we can do our part in making every subject we focus on feel beautiful, and use our skill to show them in a way, perhaps, they’ve never seen. To do that means you must think about your shot, and care about your clients. Your subjects will take to heart what you say more than you may know, and even more than what you may produce. And hey, right now it’s ‘different’ that’s really in vogue, and we are all better off to embrace it.