A conflict of images; Fashion magazines: What do they say about women?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Since the early 70s, many fashion magazines have been moving in two directions at once. On the one hand, they are recognizing the growing independence of women. Articles on science, politics, and credit have elbowed out coverage of gala balls and "beautiful people."

But this worthy change does not eradicate a second image of woman as sexual object and seductress, presented by some of the fashion advertising, photos, and editorial copy. Under the guise of independence there are articles on how to have an affair with a married man and travel stories on resorts, replete with pictures of naked women cavorting on the beach.

Critics call this soft pornography; apologists call it "the new freedom." But no one denies that the sexuality of women is very apparent in today's fashion magazines.

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There are two kinds of criticism about the trend. Some women simply find it offensive.

"I've seen a lot more nudity in fashion magazines," says a California woman who looks at the magazines on a fairly regular basis. "I am amazed."

Others react to a message they see as denigrating to women. A New York woman says: "I don't like what they are saying about women. Or men, the way they are always shown gawking." She notes that while the magazines urge women to be liberated, enjoy a career, and try new things, there is also a message to look perfect, spend money on items to ensure success, and, above all, act sexy.

This image that women are ideal, flawless beauties is ridiculous because few women can ever live up to it, says Jean Kilbourne, of Cambridge, Mass., who has studied the media image of women for 12 years.

Dr. Kilbourne, the author of an illustrated lecture, "The Naked Truth: Advertising's Image of Women," is particularly critical of photograhs and advertising.

"No matter what the content, the visual images impart the most powerful image ," Dr. Kilbourne says. "[Magazines] are saying the most important thing is to be sexy, baby."

Vogue's editor, Grace Mirabella, expresses pride that her magazine has changed as women's outlook have changed, and that it continues to stand for quality. She responds to critics who charge Vogue with promoting an unrealistic image of men and women.

"We don'tm deal in the minute details of everyday life," Miss Mirabella admits , adding that Vogue looks at the newest, brightest, and best fashions. They may seem avant-garde for the woman on the street, she says, but they are designed to spark new ideas in that woman's wardrobe.

When the fashion news contains material that emphasizes sexuality, some readers react. They recently criticized Vogue for running a photograph in the April issue of a naked woman holding two grocery bags, which accompanied a story on fitness and "the great American body." Letters to the editor expressed dismay and sadness at the photograph.

"I understand the reaction of the readers who wrote us," says Miss Mirabella. "But it was a special photograph for special text -- it was about strength. We feel a sense of freedom, we are in good shape, we move with more ease. Many people didn't notice the text."

Readers who didm notice the text disagree.

"I don't mind nudity in art," says one woman. "But that was not artistic." She says the photo distracted her from the story it was supposed to represent.

An examination of several recent magazines illustrates the conflicting double track on which fashion magazines are traveling.

The June issue of Vogue devotes more than eight pages to a symposium on the "private war" of career vs. family. Participants include Matina Horner, president of Radcliffe College; Eleanor Holmes Norton, a lawyer and former chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and Beverly Sills, general director of the New York City Opera.

Yet a series of photos in the May issue of Vogue shows "family" in a different light. A woman and a young boy are seated together on a couch. In one of the photos, her legs are draped over his, and they sit with their heads nearly touching.

Harper's Bazaar for June features impressionistic photos of nudes on the floors and couches of Radio City Music Hall in New York. The topic?Fragrances.

Mademoiselles's June issue includes a guide to jobs with a future, and follows it with profiles of cities that offer job possibilities. In the same issue, young models pose provocatively while young men gaze with appreciation.

The October issue of Vogue talks of "the spirit of a new age," and proceeds to illustrate that "spirit" with a fold-out type photo of actress Nastassia Kinski lying nude on the floor entwined with a large python. Photographer Richard Avedon says in Newsweek magazine that he intends to market the picture as a poster.

"How far do they have to go before it is called obscene?" asks Paula Davis, a Framingham, Mass., resident, after viewing the photograph.

Jean Kilbourne charges that stories in fashion magazines too often support the superwoman image.

"They find women who are corporate executives and have raised 10 children," Dr. Kilbourne says, adding that it makes "the rest of us" want to give up. "We feel we are not up to par, and that we need the right products to be up to par."

If Women are weary of perfect models, suggestive photos, or emphasis on the superwoman, they haven't stopped buying fashion magazines. Although there may be a few protest cancellations, many readers continue to peruse the magazines for the fashion news and features.

"I love to see the new clothes," says a Boston resident. "In fact, I wish there were fewer features and more clothes."

Interest is high, affirms Gilbert C. Maurer, president of Hearst Magazines, pointing to healthy circulation and advertising sales. At a time when many magazines experience sharp slumps, Harper's Bazaar's was up 23 percent in first quarter ad pages compared with 1980. This picture contrasts sharply with 1970, when subscriptions had dropped 20,000 in a year and ad revenues were down 30 percent.

How does Dr. Kilbourne account for the magazines' popularity? Women are raised to feel that the most important thing about themselves is their appearance, she says, so they are very aware of how they look. They look at magazines and see the perfections and imperfections of the models.

"Women want to identify with them," she adds. "So they buy the products and the image."

Dr. Kilbourne concedes that women will continue to be interested in fashion and to buy fashion magazines. But she urges women and men to look at the message behind the conflicting images in magazines, and speak up when they don't like what they see. Write letters to publishers and advertisers, she advises.

"I speak as a feminist," says Dr. Kilbourne. "The public can exercise their First Amendment rights by refusing to read this stuff."

Other groups have joined in asking the national media to be more discerning. Five years ago the National Federation of Business and Professional Women appealed to all media to take a look at the image of women.

Doris Charnley, who has helped the Waltham, Mass., branch of BPW draw up a new resolution underscoring concern with the lack of respect for women in some media, says all media, including magazines, are getting steadily worse. The state and national federations of BPW have also passed the new resolution.

"We are not rabble-rousers," Ms. Charnley says. "We're trying to do this in a nice way. But there should be a line of decency in the public view. Young people are brainwashed into accepting this as a normal life style."

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