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Resistance to Photographic Power of Women's Subjectivity

Resistance to photographic power can be seen in concrete examples from popular culture, specifically in some celebrities’ responses to the operations and effects of the photographic apparatus. What can be seen in these celebrities’ responses is that the photographic apparatus’s ‘bids’ for a manipulation of women can be rejected by the primary object of the manipulation – the women represented on screen or on magazine covers. Note that I say the ‘primary’ object for control here because: the apparatus’ secondary object for control is all women consumers of the representational media, who may read these representations of the ‘female body’ as norms for themselves. Even if only tacitly, this will affect those women’s perceptions of their own bodies, measured in relation to that norm, and of their own bodies’ likely failure in relation to that norm. Empirical psychological work has recorded that this norm has become more and more unattainable for the average female population. Indeed, it has become dangerous: ‘success’ in this body-correcting would mean the women will have achieved a Body Mass Index associated with anorexia17. This is the crux of the phrase ‘discipline’ in relation to the operation of the photographic apparatus, because the apparatus, when effective, manages to capture the agency of the secondary object, that is, women consumers of media representations of the female body. It achieves this by directing that agency toward conforming to the norm, and hence mandates the toil of countless ‘womanhours’ in pursuit of that norm.      


One early case of public resistance to this norm involved actress Kate Winslet. Winslet was featured on the cover of the February 2003 issue of British GQ Magazine. After the issue was published, Winslet released a public statement sharing her disappointment at the way the magazine’s editors had digitally edited the size of her legs, describing the retouching as ‘excessive’18. Winslet commented that she had been given a polaroid of the final cover image by the photographer, but when she compared the polaroid to the actual image as it appeared on the cover GQ, her legs had been reduced by a third. Since this incident, she has spoken out about retouching practices in commercial photography. She has said that she feels it is her responsibility to promote a more realistic body image to younger women. In 2015, Winslet took further steps to disrupt the use of unrealistic retouching when negotiating a contract with cosmetic giant L'Oréal. In the negotiation, Winslet insisted on a new clause: images of her body must be ‘free of any additional retouching’19.


Until recent years, retouching tools were the exclusive purview of photographic specialists. Today, however, the burgeoning app market has a range of ‘beauty apps’, such as FaceTune, SkinneePix, FaceLab, BeautyPlus. These are designed to retouch and airbrush Instagram images. Advertising for these mobile-available apps state that the apps can remove wrinkles, whiten teeth, remove skin imperfections, lighten skin and significantly alter the body to be slimmer. In 2016, Samsung released a ‘beauty filter’ that automatically airbrushes the user’s ‘selfie’ (photograph of themselves) as they take it. Any pretence of photographic ‘naturalness’ is eschewed. The unreal glossy magazine girl is set up as a default expectation in users. The unreality, ubiquitous in media and advertising, has become a new ‘real,’ available for free for everyday smart phone users.

Winslet is considered a beautiful woman, even in celebrity culture which is notorious for impossible standards of perfection. Yet even her body apparently required retouching. Winslet’s public statements express a real sense of alienation from her body, or rather a sense of alienation from its representation in the media and her everyday experience of it. It is this gap that perhaps encourages patterned feelings of self-consciousness, shame and guilt. Rather than responding, however, with loathing and shame toward her own body for not conforming to the normative criteria of the Glossy Magazine Girl, she rejected the falsity of its image. As Kate Winslet said of her GQ cover: ‘I do not look like that and more importantly, I don’t desire to look like that.20’ This authenticity, however, appears to be rare in celebrity culture. Women consumers occupying the cultural space of the highly mediatised Global North feel compelled to make use of these new apps and technologies to appear more beautiful, to conform to beauty norms. However, the gap between the lived reality of women’s bodies and the representations through the photographic apparatus may not always result in a cycle of failure, guilt and shame. It is possible that the effect on women’s subjectivity is one of ‘buyer’s remorse’, so to speak. Women may feel alienated from the image produced by these apps and technologies, as the unreality they present is more and more divorced from their own lived experience of their active, bodily life.


Other celebrities have claimed a similar feeling of alienation at the way they were represented by the photographic lens. In 2016, Actress Kerry Washington shared a sentiment similar to Winslet’s via an Instagram post, following the release of an issue of Adweek Magazine with Washington on the cover. While Washington claimed to be ‘no stranger to Photoshopping,’ was familiar with the disjunct between her own bodily sense of self and her cover image, she expressed feeling ‘strange’ and ‘weary’ viewing herself through the eyes of the male gaze, an image ‘so different from what I look like in the mirror’21. Another experience of Washington’s is also suggestive of the complications that arise when the male gaze’s norms of beauty are racialized. For example, in 2015 an issue of Instyle magazine with Washington on the cover created a public backlash. The editing appeared to have lightened her usually dark skin, and her strong cheek bones had been flattened (Washington is of African-American and Jamaican-English descent). While the magazine apologised, claiming that the appearance of Washington’s skin was an unintentional effect of high-key studio lighting, this was not the first time a magazine cover of Washington has been scrutinized for apparent skin lightening.


Similarly, actress Lupita Nyong’o has taken to social media on several occasions to discuss her frustration at the ‘European standards of beauty…that plague the entire world’22Vanity Fair (2014), People (2014) and Gracia UK (2017) have all been accused of lightening Nyong’o’s skin to fit ‘Eurocentric’ ideals of beauty'23Grazia UK smoothed the kinks of Nyong’o hair, removing her naturally frizzy, Afro ponytail. What was left was a smooth dome of black hair, referencing the stereotypical, commercially-palatable ‘African’ woman in fashion. This act of hair removal (without consent) reduces Nyong’o’s individuality to an orientalised African trinket. The irony is that, in seeking to reproduce the orientalised object of ‘Africa’, the male gaze in fact elided symbols of Nyong’o’s heritage (and self-expression). Of the experience Nyong’o wrote:


I am disappointed that Grazia UK invited me to be on their cover and then edited out and smoothed my hair to fit their notion of what beautiful hair looks like. Had I been consulted I would have explained that I cannot support the omission of what is my native heritage. There is still a very long way to go to combat the unconscious prejudice against black women’s complexion, hair style and texture24.


Nyong’o rejects the notion that her hair, to be considered traditionally beautiful, must be soft, sleek and long. She uses her public position to agitate against the message ‘that dark skin is unacceptable’25. Growing up in Kenya, Nyong’o has discussed the negative effects that skin lightening products had on her self-worth and how she was ‘plagued by the idea that light skin was better skin’26. Today, skin-lightening creams have become a lucrative market. Global Industry Analysts predict the industry will be worth £14 billion by 201827. In 2010 Vaseline launched an app on their Facebook page in India that allowed users to whiten their profile pictures. The app was released to promote a new range of skin-lightening creams. Vaseline is a sub-brand of global conglomerate Unilever. Interestingly, Dove is also a sub-brand of Unilever, but unlike Vaseline, who ask their consumers, ‘do you see your skin the way we do?’28, Dove has promulgated ‘body positivity'29 campaigns since 2004. The launch of their ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’30 was a lauded campaign with a strong message encouraging parents to ‘talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does’31. Dove no longer use professional models for their advertisements and currently the brand has launched the ‘Self Esteem Project’32 that aims to educate young girls on the dangers of eating disorders. It seems unlikely that Unilever could hide behind the defence of sub-brands, with one brand advertising self-esteem to their UK consumers and skin-lightening cream to their Indian consumers.

The unreal 'glossy magazine girl' is set up as a default expectation in users. The unreality, traditional in media and advertising, has become the new 'real,' available forfree for everyday smart phone users.