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This creative practice research project1,The Body + The Lens: Shrink, Wax, Purge, Bleach, investigates women’s body-correcting practices, and how these practices have contributed to, and transformed, the social construction of women’s gender. The concrete body-correcting practices studied include body-contour wear, Brazilian waxing, anal bleaching, salt water cleansing and fake tanning. This group of practices, popularised in recent decades, has become part of women’s everyday experience (or rather, it should be stressed, they have become so predominantly for white women in the capitalist Global North, though I will analyse intersectional cases below in ‘Resistance to Photographic Power of Women’s Subjectivity’). Their normalisation – or rather, the normalisation of their effects on the appearance of the body – has established a strong cultural expectation toward their performance. The very idea of ‘body-correcting’ practices exclusively for women, implies that the given female body is something to correct. Empirical work (for further discussion see the section on ‘Designer Vagina’) suggests that the body-correcting practices have redefined women’s experience of their gender identity and feminine embodiment in the Global North (the contextual focus of this study). The pressure to perform these practices, in order to normalise the body, appears to be felt keenly by younger women. This research hypothesised one reason for this being that younger female bodies are more often displayed than mature bodies in traditional media (film, television, magazines, etc.); younger female bodies, as objects of beauty, are also objects of more regular scrutiny and surveillance. However, it is also the case that images of female bodies are now more frequently circulated and consumed through higher levels of consumption of image-rich media via the internet (by heterosexual female peers, as much as by heterosexual men). Women’s own everyday presentation and publication of their bodies online has become part of everyday life, a part of younger women’s own ‘self-expression’ (intentionality) via interactive social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr).  


Accepting the broader premises of George Gerbner’s ‘Cultivation Theory’, it was an aim of this research to further the analysis of the relationship between the visual representation of women in media and the normalisation of certain gendered body-correcting practices in everyday life. Cultivation theory suggests that consumers’ interaction with media, with its themes, its patterns of representation and its stereotypes, informs consumers’ beliefs and values as well as societal norms2. Content analysis, working within the cultivation theory frame, suggests that media often perpetuate stereotypical representations of gender norms, in both image form and through narrative events and take-home ‘morals’3. It is an interest of this research how media affects not only consumers’ beliefs but also women’s subjective practices, i.e. the relationship of women’s identity and agency with these newly emergent body-correcting practices. Certain analysable patterns in the media’s gender representations reinforce a normalised image of women’s bodies. However, to achieve this norm through body-correcting practices is difficult if not impossible for the average population.


What are the specific characteristics of this norm, of what I call the ‘Glossy Magazine Girl’? In the Global North (for predominantly white, heterosexual, able-bodied women) this normative image of ‘woman’ appears as a norm of beauty, but also of ‘healthy’ feminine subjectivity. She who achieves it is normal and healthy; she who doesn’t is abnormal and unhealthy. The healthy ‘she’ is preternaturally thin, hairless, her skin unspotted by bulges or cellulite; her skin tone is a clear, clean white, or evenly bronzed; even her anus is an unblemished pink. Such biological facts of the female body as pubic hair have become objects of disgust and disdain, for women and men alike. 


The saturation of media into ever more finely-grained interstices of everyday life has no doubt put more energy into the relay between representations of women in media, gendered expectations, and women’s gender performativity. Images of the Glossy Magazine Girl, in old media and in consumers’ mimicry of old media’s image library, has penetrated not only the idle days and hours but idle minutes and seconds of women’s everyday lives. The pressure of the norm is intensifying. The introduction of social media has powerfully linked women’s own subjective agency and intentionality to the formation of this normative image (witness the proliferation of ‘copies’ of the Glossy Magazine Girl in ‘everyday’ Instagram practices and images, in the pattern of body-imagery for example).

Empirical qualitative research discussed here demonstrates that the subjective experience of women’s bodies’ failure to conform to this norm causes an affective pattern in the subject – from self-consciousness, to body-alienation, then body-shame, guilt, distress – that can cement the female subject’s dependency on the body-as-self. A body in constant need of correcting dulls the will, encourages docility. Media itself can therefore be understood as an operation of power, as forming women’s subjectivity. The concrete practices of commercial photography, including the norms and rituals of its editing suites – re-touching tools to render women skinnier, their skin more flawless, etc. – can be usefully understood as a Foucauldian disciplinary apparatus4. For the best analysis of this apparatus’ functioning, however, Laura Mulvey’s useful concept of the male gaze will be elaborated on below. 


More than simply ‘informing’ my interest in the topic in question, my own personal experience of women’s subjectivity under the normative regime of the Glossy Magazine Girl is the true focus of this work. This is bolstered by my research’s methodology, informed by Louis Wacquant’s ‘carnal sociology’, as well as the notion of ‘situated knowledge’ theorised in the field of feminist epistemology. In brief, these methodologies share the concern of foregrounding the role of lived bodily experience in knowledge production, and therefore advocate for a research participant’s subjective immersion in a field of study. Rather than occupying a place as an objective observer, outside the action, this research foregrounds the subjective, affective experience of the acting, lived body undergoing these body-correcting practices under the discipline of a regime of normativity. Through studio-based research, I investigated everyday ways younger white women in the Global North perform and enact gender, using my own body and subjective experience to produce research results unavailable to non-situated, objective-observational researchers. Such results let in affective responses of the subject to this normative regime. Critique of the regime, insofar as it exists, also flows from these affective responses. The details of this methodology, including a justification of the limitation of this research project to my situatedness as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual woman, will be expanded upon in the methodology section. I will argue that the limitation of this research to my own subject positionality, is necessitated by this research’s methodological choices, including the choices of creative practice research. Self-portraiture becomes a way to foreground the first-person knowledge of the living body as a research subject. Hopefully, the research is transferable across intersectional boundaries, which my own positionality as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied feminist living in Australia arguably precludes. It should be cautioned that, as this research relies on a methodological framework that tries to disclose the first-personal knowledge of the living body (knowledge de se), it is necessarily limited in its scope to the first-personal knowledge of this body, the body of the researcher. In doing so, however, this methodology insists not only on the existence but the validity of first personal knowledge. It insists that knowledge is embodied and that third person knowledge of someone else’s embodied experience is always incomplete. This limitation supports intersectional feminism because it highlights that a more complete feminist theory must account for the diversity of women’s embodied identities and the credibility of women’s first-personal knowledge of that experience.


Rather than simply allowing the body, my body, to suffer under this same normative regime analysed, it is an aim of this research to compose, through completed works of art, a visual ‘counter-text’ to the predominant visual semiotics of media, which represent disempowering gender embodiment and subjectivity. This group of visual counter-texts in this paper is the result of a practice that occupies the nodes of power within the photographic apparatus, with an aim to produce strategies of resistance against this apparatus from within these nodes.


Self-portraiture is an effective way to critique and undermine the normative regime of media’s Glossy Magazine Girl and the body-correcting practices that that norm mandates. Chiefly, this is done through a demystification of the ‘glossiness’ of this image: this image enforces the norm through fetish, since the objectification of women by the camera’s ‘male gaze’ is taken as the real, framed by the photographic lens and the invisible editing work. These artworks are a de-fetishization of the Glossy Girl image. They testify to the labour objectified in the idealised image. My artwork thus confronts the male gaze with the awkward, comic labour of body-correcting practices. The ‘natural’ camera image is hence denaturalised.