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

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 6, 1981

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."

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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.

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.