The topic of representation is paramount to almost every industry in the current climate of diversity. From more realistic women onscreen, to a wider range of genders and races in the film industry, to models with different ages and body types lining the catwalks – representation across the board is under scrutiny from the media.
One industry that is in the limelight for their historically narrow representations of women is the fashion industry. Different designers conscientiously strive to move away from the stereotypically thin, white models that once lined the catwalk and now aim to portray a wider cross-section of society to embody their brands.
New York, London, Milan, and – this week – Paris. Fashion month is in full swing and now it is not just the clothes and trends that are of importance, but it also about who wears the clothes. In the same way the catwalk becomes a space in which designers showcase their most popular models, trends and garments, fashion magazine covers also remain a space of privilege.
On February 19, Drs. Ivana Ebel and Gabrielle Bittelbrun attended Newcastle University for their talk “(Re)presenting Cover Girls”. Just last year, their talk at Edinburgh’s Magazine Festival created an uncomfortable stir when they shared their findings with journalists, editors and publishers. They were consequently asked to host discussions around Britain with aspiring journalists and those entering or working the industry.
Research like theirs has exploded across the field, which criticises the narrow range of depictions of black women in the media. Ebel stated that 95% of the images in the magazines that they analysed were white women. Out of the 552 covers that they analysed, they identified just three black women. There was also an under-representation of disabled, pregnant or transgender women.
But why is it so important to expand our perception of what defines beauty and power? I asked Ebel and Bittelburn why this issue was particularly troubling for young women who look to the media for role models.
“This sort of representation establishes which types of women are better than others. That’s the problem because it’s hard to be a woman in general. When you cannot see yourself as a role model or as some aspirational figure, you end up believing you are maybe not good enough.”Dr. Ivana Ebel
Theorist Karen Bale said: “it is important to evaluate the major determining factor that promotes body dissatisfaction – the media.” If this is the case, the media, along with other institutions, must move away from outdated stereotypes and start to take responsibility for its narrow constructions of identities.
Make sure to watch the Youtube video, in which I interview Ebel and Bittelbrun about their research and what the key problems are for women in their twenties.