Popular culture is in a tizzy of a debate over the female physique and the way in which it is depicted.
Much has been written about the broad concept of beauty and its role in cultural politics, but the current conversation has narrowed the focus, from the woman as a whole to her individual parts: thighs, rear end and stomach.
The gang of amateur underwear models in the Dove advertising campaign smile broadly from bus shelters and billboards, their convex tummies and soft thighs serving as righteous protest against skinny models and the media's ruthless campaign to shatter the self-worth of the average woman. (Who knew that a woman was such a delicate creature?)
The Dove women have been lavished with praise for being social radicals, posing and preening to further a woman's right to be round rather than angular. They are the antidote to advertisements featuring Gisele Bundchen, with her washboard stomach and narrow hips, in full orgiastic reverie over her new Victoria's Secret Ipex bra.
The Dove women are familiar not only because they seem to be grinning from every street corner but also because they look like the vast majority of the women one might encounter at the neighborhood gym -- not fat, but not buff either. They are commonly referred to as "real women," an infuriating term that suggests a model or an actress or any woman who does measure up to an unspecified standard of svelteness is somehow artificial. Real is equated with big, chubby -- not sample size, which is as real as it gets in the fashion industry.
It would be more accurate to say that the Dove women are amateur models while the women who regularly appear on the covers of magazines are handsomely paid professionals. Genetics have provided them with extra height and good bone structure and they have promised to do what they can to remain as thin as a reed. If a roaring metabolism does not accomplish that, they will take their nourishment in the form of a daily multivitamin, a bunless turkey burger and a double shot of espresso.
In some ways, these women are like professional athletes, paid to maintain a fighting weight and a breathtaking physique. Yet no one complains that championship marathoners, tennis stars and volleyball players, with their impossibly taut bodies, dominate the covers of sports magazines, posing a threat to the delicate psyche of weekend athletes everywhere.
It may be that the athletic physique is celebrated because sports is held in high regard. Sports milestones in diversity, for example, are celebrated in history books. The model figure is maligned because the fashion industry could not be perceived as more frivolous and superficial. Cultural breakthroughs are acknowledged with little more than a shrug.
Try, for a moment, to separate the bodies from the business. Marion Jones vs. Naomi Campbell. Maria Sharapova vs. Carolyn Murphy. Is one figure more or less damaging to women's self-image? Certainly all look as though they have the strength and wherewithal to take care of themselves. (The various drugs sometimes called upon in both industries to increase muscle mass, dull the appetite or otherwise lend an artificial edge are part of another discussion.)
The new Nike advertising campaign has been incorrectly lumped into this "real" aesthetic. One ad features a close-up of a woman's thigh in a pair of running shorts. The copy has the owner of that leg proclaiming, "I have thunder thighs. And that is a compliment because they are strong and toned and muscular." Let's be clear. These are not thunder thighs. These are runner's thighs. Biker's legs. They are not "real." And there is nothing average about them. They are spectacular and inspiring. They make one want to rush out and buy a new pair of Nike sneakers, strap on an iPod and start training for next year's Marine Corps Marathon.
Nike is selling a fantasy just as surely as Victoria's Secret is. Perhaps Nike's next ad blitz should include a chubby lady with wobbly thighs. Her arms could be raised in victory as she wheezes across the one-mile marker. Is that the reality of the female physique that should be displayed?
Fashion thrives by constructing stories, building images and weaving fantasies. Should the fashion media portray women as they are? Or as they might imagine themselves?
In the September issue of Glamour magazine, the editors ask whether there is such a thing as too much perfection. A seemingly unblemished photograph of the actress Aisha Tyler is covered with notes for retouching. A second photograph shows Tyler after her thighs have been slimmed, her tummy flattened, her cleavage enhanced and her jaw line narrowed. The retouching was exaggerated to make a point: No one is perfect. And in fact, perfection can look a little weird.
"Women are increasingly perceptive about the way media images are manipulated," says Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive. "There's a real level of sophistication about what's done to an image.
"You can retouch your own wedding photos online. And if you happen to have a breakout on your wedding day, who's to say you shouldn't get in there and retouch. That's using the technology for good," Leive says, with a laugh. "But sometimes women like to look at other women who have imperfect features and quirks. I think the problem is not with idealized images. I think the problem, what women react to, is when they see only one type of woman."
It's healthy to occasionally pull back the curtain and remind readers of what most of them already know. Fashion is not truth. That has always been the operating principle of the business. Fashion is extravagance and incongruity, elegance and rebellion. It is envy and exclusivity. All of that may have been epitomized by Richard Avedon's 1955 image of the lithe model Dovima posing dramatically in a Christian Dior gown in front of a line of elephants.
It is reassuring to occasionally see the machinations of the magician. It's nice to be presented with a female physique that is a little more accessible. And it is good to see the beauty fantasy broadened to include attributes such as strength and endurance. But no one wants to feel as though they've stumbled into the ladies' locker room or caught their neighbors in their skivvies.