A meditation on crow's feet and snake oil; or, why Redbook did it

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By now, you have surely heard about Redbook's dramatic photoshopping of Faith Hill for their July cover. Jezebel has provided readers with both a flash animated comparison of the before and after photos and a very funny annotated analysis of what precisely was edited out (crows feet, mole, extra fifteen or so pounds, etc).

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The response to Redbook's choice has been overwhelmingly negative. BlogHer's own ClizBiz wrote eloquently about her own experience with a recent family photo and her mixed feelings about airbrushing. "True confession," she wrote. "'When they airbrushed my arms, couldn’t they have swiped off some around the middle too?' I thought to myself. So now, I am double shamed by this ghastly photo as well as this unhealthy urge to photographically alter my unsightly bulges." That tension is what Redbook is counting on, honestly. Back In Skinny Jeans sums it up nicely:

For crying out loud! If someone like Faith Hill is not good enough as is to be on the cover of a woman's magazine, than doesn't it make you question why some of us are killing ourselves trying to look celebrities who don't even look like themselves. It also sends the message that no matter how beautiful you are, you're still not perfect enough. Hmmmm?

So what IS Redbook after? Why would they choose to so dramatically alter Hill's image for their cover? And what on earth does it have to do with my regular dispensing of style and shopping advice? Simply this: it's all about marketing.

Jezebel followed up their initial Losing Faith post with this impassioned analysis of "Why We're Pissed":

Honestly, it sort of broke our hearts that it was Redbook; the magazine has been criticized before for some questionable covers (see Aniston, Jennifer; Roberts, Julia) and, after all, readers of magazines like Redbook worry that they can't have it all as it is (the great career, the loving husband, the healthy kids, the perfect body). Plus, at this point in the evolution of the celebrity-sartorial complex, who or what exactly is Redbook -- or any number of other women's magazines -- fucking kidding with such a female forgery? Go to any name-brand, pop culture website and you can see galleries upon galleries of images of celebrities (female and male alike) in their normal, un-retouched, unlit and still-sickeningly-hot states. These pictures are perhaps the new cultural currency, as Virginia Heffernan of NY Times wrote the other day (they certainly increase our traffic!) So why do women's magazines continue to insist on providing readers just the opposite? Is it stubbornness? The selling of fantasy? Or the selling of other things, i.e. advertising revenue? And if so, is it really necessary to shave 10-15 pounds off a woman and erase exactly what it is (the freckles, the moles, the laugh lines) about her that makes her human and accessible and interesting in order to sell a bit of fucking soap? Look at the picture above, and tell us that Faith Hill is not fucking gorgeous and vibrant just the way God -- not Photoshop -- made her.

I am fascinated by this vexed relationship between idealized beauty and consumerism. Women Hill's age--women MY age--have a tremendous amount of buying power; we shop for ourselves and our children and our spouses. We need clothes for work and play; we need reliable sunscreen and fuss-free hair product and versatile lip gloss. We worry--because of images like the altered Redbook cover--about our laugh lines and our skin tone, and we spend money on products that promise to make us look more like Faith Hill.

Except that not even Faith Hill looks like Redbook's Faith Hill.

A decade ago, Joan Lunden did a piece for Behind Closed Doors about body image and marketing. The segment that I remember the most clearly was about how precisely catalog models are dressed, how the garments they wear are pinned and hooked and clipped to ensure a perfect fit (or at least the illusion of one) in photographs. The moral, of course, was that the dress you lusted after in the catalog will never look, on you, like it looked on the model, not only because she's littler than you are but because the dress isn't made to look like that; the image was manufactured to guarantee that you would buy the product.

More recently, Jamie Lee Curtis posed in her skivvies, without makeup or hair styling, to make the point that even celebrities need extra help looking perfect. Curtis has said that the More magazine piece "was a way of making amends, of saying, 'I'm sorry I made you feel less than. Because I am just like you.' That was my goal. I knew that on some level, women who had struggled with that would appreciate it."

When you shop, you need to hold these images in your head--not the airbrushed, professionally styled images, but the real images, of Faith Hill with crow's feet and Jamie Lee Curtis with her little poochy tummy. For the most part, media is designed to play on our fears, on the worry that one day we will be old and wrinkled and no one will love us any more. What Hill's unretouched photo shows us that this isn't true, that being a 39 year old wife and mother and career woman can be beautiful in itself.

Redbook bills their magazine as "the total-life guide for every woman blazing her own path through adulthood and taking on new roles — wife, mom, homeowner — without letting go of the unique woman she’s worked so hard to become. . . . Our mission is simple: to help millions of readers face life’s complexities and joys with energy, optimism, intelligence, and style—the true trademarks of today’s young women." The problem is not with Redbook's mission, which is essentially laudable; the problem is that they are selling us a load of snake oil and expecting us to buy it. For our crow's feet, of course.

Susan Wagner writes about fashion at Friday Style and about everything else at Friday Playdate. You can see her unairbrushed crow's feet in her thumbnail photo.

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