For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that.
If you were to conjure up a picture of a woman, one based on the image we are traditionally sold by the media, you’d believe that we all eat chocolate in the bath while groaning with pleasure. That we’re all white. That we’re all suspended in time at the age of 28. That our skin is as poreless as a pane of glass. You’d believe the female gene pool is a tiny, shallow pond, rather than a vast, rolling ocean.
But one look at our colleagues, our friends and our family reveals that women are more glorious, more technicolour, more interesting and more nuanced than the narrow representations we’re so used to seeing in films, TV, books, magazines and adverts. We come in many shapes, sizes and colours; we have a myriad of tastes and preferences and cultures. And yet the ‘we’ we know exists, because we see her in the mirror every day, is largely invisible in the media we also see daily.
A skewed view
You cannot be what you cannot see, that we know. And yet the number of us who can switch on a TV drama or go to the cinema and be sure that we’ll recognise the woman staring back at us is miniscule.
Research by Dove this year found that 70% of women do not feel represented by media and advertising. The more ‘minority’ your place in society is, the more invisible you become. Of 214 magazines published by the best-selling glossies last year, only 20 featured a person of colour (that’s despite 13.7% of the population coming from an ethnic minority; 40% in London).
Worse still, an Arts Council report revealed that just 1% of children’s books from 2017 had a BAME protagonist and shockingly only 4% of children’s books featured a non-white character at all. And just four women of colour were leads in films in 2017, according to a report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
This gross underrepresentation of minority groups runs deep. Approximately 18% of the UK population is disabled (about 12 million people) and yet only 6.5% of TV characters have a disability.
Research from Lloyds Banking Group in 2016 showed that only 0.06% of people featured in advertising were from the LGBTQ+ community, despite this group making up 5-7% of the population.
Representation on TV and film is slightly better, but LGBTQ+ characters are still overwhelmingly white and male. Worse still, according to research from the University of Southern California, out of 400 popular films from 2014-2017, there was only one transgender character. One.
Even if we’re lucky enough to see our demographic represented, we can almost guarantee that her body will not look like ours. We see around 3,500 marketing images every day – and the vast majority are highly manipulated. Normal skin – skin with scars, age spots, stretch marks, cellulite, body hair and wrinkles – is tampered with, becoming doll-like in its smoothness.
We see female bodies sliced away with Photoshop until they are thin, hard, curve-free. These are the bodies and faces that the media tell us are beautiful. Is it any wonder that two thirds of women surveyed by Dove felt that characteristics such as freckles and skin conditions were hugely underrepresented when our definition of beauty is so narrow?
Social media – initially sold as a place for ‘real’ people – has somehow morphed into a world where the lens of a smartphone (and its filter trickery) can fool us into a totally warped view of what women and their worlds look like.
The image it’s selling is so often a half-truth (no one’s house looks like that all the time) and so often filtered beyond recognition (no surprise when research found that filtered photos have a 21% higher chance of being viewed). The result is that it’s not just the media perpetuating false truths about how we look, it’s us too.
Lest we forget that even the perfect women we do see in our media fall ridiculously short when measured against the men. Indeed, men get four times as much screentime as women and are spoken about seven times more than women are in advertising, according to a report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (yes, that Geena Davis) released in June 2017.
The research also found men are more likely to be shown as leaders, speaking about power 29% and achievement 28% more than women. Not only are we less likely to be smart, ambitious or powerful according to our media representation, we’re also much less likely to age. Women in ads are mostly in their 20s, compared to men who are aged between 20 and 40, and we women disappear almost completely by 50.
So, where does this leave us?
When you’re only sold one incredibly narrow version of a woman, the message is that this woman is the ideal. Therefore, we’re to assume the ideal is thin, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, smiley-happy. This message drip, drip, drips into our subconscious until we are fighting ourselves: we start to hate the parts that make us.
You could argue that as adults we should know better. So much of the media we consume is about fantasy, entertainment and escapism… so what if we don’t relate to the blonde lady on her superyacht selling us perfume? Does it really matter if our favourite crime drama doesn’t have a single BAME character in it? We don’t genuinely believe the influencer’s chia seed porridge gives her the skin of a 10-year-old… do we?
“The issue is that the images we use, the stories we tell about women, have a huge effect on the way the world values women and how women and girls value themselves,” Geena Davis has said after 15 years researching the topic. If we don’t show a true reflection of women in society, we are teaching society that those we don’t show are somehow lesser. It’s incredibly damaging both to individual self-esteem and mental health and to progression and equality.
Justifiably, a huge amount of research has been conducted into the mental health crisis of teens and 20-somethings as a result, in part, of both social and mainstream media and advertising. But what if we shine the light on us? The adult women whose teenage years were shaped by magazines and TV shows that rarely, if ever, featured a woman of colour or an LGBTQ+ storyline (if they did, they were typically a background role). What of those of us who are the first generation to have grown up with social media as part of our daily lives, with all its half-truths and perfect breakfast bowls and face-tuned selfies? Those of us who still don’t see ourselves in magazines or films? What impact does all of this have on our story?
The look of love
We believe that we’re looking down the barrel of a massive self-esteem crisis in adult women. Researchers have known for decades that exposure to overly perfected beauty images can lead to body dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety and even disordered eating in girls and women.
A study by Northwestern University surveyed hundreds of women and found that although they were highly critical of unrealistic beauty images, it didn’t protect them from the effects of these images – rather, the women who were most critical reported higher body dissatisfaction. Research has made strong connections between the regular use of Snapchat and Instagram and users experiencing anxiety and depression. Just Say Yes, an organisation dedicated to empowering students, parents and teachers, reported that, after seeing images of female fashion models, 70% of women felt more depressed and angry than before looking at the images.
It’s a frightening, frightening picture. Media should be a mirror to society. If you don’t see yourself looking back, then where do you belong in society? What does it do to the confidence, self-esteem and social hierarchy of anyone who doesn’t fit that brief?
It’s this thinking that brought us to our most important campaign to date: our Love Women initiative. We are making a commitment to support mental health by changing the way we show and talk about women.
At Stylist, we have always championed women – all women – and celebrated everything that makes us great. We have never featured a diet, a paparazzi picture or pointed out a so-called flaw, and we have strict inclusivity and diversity rules which we build on constantly after listening intently to reader feedback and inviting underrepresented groups to tell us what we could do better.
We are proud that our covers have featured women from the ages of 19 to 97; that we have run campaigns like Hair Equality which challenges high street hairdressers on why they don’t cater to afro hair; that in the past year we ran seven fashion shoots featuring non-model bodies.
But today we’re saying it’s not enough. We can do better. We still see women portrayed as ‘perfect’ in the media (and demonised when they’re not) and – as part of the media – we believe we can do more. We want to lead the change.
Face filters, social posts that only reveal one side of the story, retouching, limited casting, phone camera technology, social media and mainstream media all need to be held to account to stop putting pressure on women to look or behave in a certain way.
The way women are treated is misogynistic, racist, ageist and, for many, abusive. We need to know that when we look and behave like ourselves, that is enough. We need to show that role models look like us. And we will use our own media, as well as the power of our platform, to do this in 2019. That’s our promise to you.
“Here are the five pledges that I’m making to Stylist readers as part of our Love Women campaign” – Lisa Smosarski, Editor-in-Chief
We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.
We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.
We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.
Accountability and Advocacy
We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.
Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.
As part of Stylist’s Love Women initiative and our Body Politics series, award-winning body confidence coach and @ScarredNotScared founder Michelle Elman sits down with women we love to discuss their journey to feeling comfortable in their own skin. Here, writer and mental health campaigner Bryony Gordon shares how giving birth changed her relationship with her body – for the better.
Images: Justin Metz