Cosmo and positive body image: When a stopped clock is right

I’m not a Cosmopolitan reader. I’ve rather aged out of their target readership, the words “‘rents” and “vacay” set my teeth on edge, and I know plenty of ways to Make Him Moan that I’ve learned the fun way. There are endless reasons to leave it on the magazine rack: heterocentrism; excellent suggestions for changing yourself in pursuit of a promising lay and, of course, a ring; a parade of tall, slender, white, cis, “perfect” models; “tips for a “killer body image” that largely focus on ways to not want to eat; some seriously questionable sex tips; and, of course, their swell article about “gray rape”.

And then there’s Cosmo fashion editor Charles Manning, who is both a dude and the fashion editor for Cosmo. In an editorial on the magazine’s site, Manning points out that teaching women to “fix their figure flaws” and camouflage their bodies to fit traditional standards of perfection doesn’t exactly promote a positive body image.

These stories break the body down into a set of problems that need to be solved, and more often than not, those “problems” have to do with largeness and the “solution” involves creating the illusion of thinness. It’s not that I object to making someone look slimmer, if that’s what the person wants. I just don’t think that should be the goal of fashion. Fashion should be about self-expression and having fun, not how best to obscure your body.

Of course, the language in these stories is always very carefully constructed to avoid judgment-laden words like “fat” or “thin,” but that doesn’t mean their presence isn’t felt. Words like curvy, round or pear-shaped are employed to describe what ultimately still boils down to different versions of “not thin” and the goal becomes “lengthening” and the creation of a “leaner” and “more toned” silhouette. It’s still a value judgment, but one that gets delivered in a gentler fashion.

Despite the body-positive message these articles claim to deliver, I worry that stories like these could be doing more harm than good since they validate people’s insecurities by framing them as legitimate issues and then suggesting ways to fix them. As if hips and thighs (or whatever parts of the body you are focusing on) are problems that need to be dealt with. Furthermore, making a single page or issue of a magazine (or blog post, for that matter) specifically about addressing people with non-model body types gives the impression that all other content is somehow not also for these same people, which simply is not true. Trends are not body-specific, although they can seem that way when only one body type is used to present them.

(And, for that matter, the same can be said for women whose bodies fall on the thinner end of “perfection,” whose figures are labeled “boyish” and who are given tips to create the illusion of “womanly” curves.)

Manning says that showing a more diverse range of body types in magazines — something he claims Cosmo is trying to do — is a positive step. And indeed, studies show that seeing a wider range of body shapes in media creates more reasonable and positive perceptions of women’s bodies. Manning also says that it’s important that magazines and blogs back away from the concept of named body shapes and “figure flaws” to focus on fashions that are just fun to wear, whether or not they make you look taller and thinner. I’m for it.

It doesn’t work universally. I can’t really shop at Old Navy, not because the clothes don’t make me look thin but because even their “curvy” jeans are still straight-up-and-down enough to leave half of my bodacious behind uncovered. And women with the dreaded “apple shape” that Cosmo is so happy to hourglassify often face difficulty finding pants that don’t cut painfully into their midsection. Trends may not be body-specific, but clothes certainly can be, and that’s up to designers to fix. Some are doing it — legitimately plus-sized models walked the runway during Mark Fast’s show at London Fashion Week in 2010 in clothes that weren’t exactly slenderizing but looked like a lot of fun, and Cabiria’s showing in fall of this year was the first plus-sized line in New York Fashion Week history.

But magazines can — and need to — do their part. Charles Manning, I hate to say this, but you brought it up, so it’s on you to get the ball rolling: Less “figure fixing,” more fun fashion. Finding yourself pinning the hell out of a dress to fit it on an extremely slender model? Try a larger model. Photoshop creating unrealistic, unattainable images? Stop doing that. Do away, as proposed, with “flaw fixing” features and, while you’re at it, advice for “dressing your age.” You’re the fashion editor of the most-read women’s magazine in the U.S. I may not be a huge fan of your content, but as your magazine goes, so goes, to a certain extent, the 18-to-34-year-old female nation. Trends are for everyone. So start one.


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29 Responses to Cosmo and positive body image: When a stopped clock is right

  1. kittehserf says:

    I don’t buy Cosmo or any related magazines either – ditto about the age range (should I even ask what they use “rents” to mean, if not how much one pays for one’s home or tears in fabric?) and really not needing to be shown faked pictures of standardised women – or girls – to show me I’m Gross and Not Trying Hard Enough and blahblahblah. I went through that “I’m ugly” shit as a teenager, a very long time ago. I’ve glanced through ancient copies of the thing in waiting rooms, and that was about as much as I could bring myself to do; it just wasn’t for me, quite apart from its issues.

    I winced in sympathy about the apple shaped bod and trying to get jeans to fit. I have a pear shape, but with extra belly (thank you liver disease) that does the “let’s droop over the waistline” thing. Not painful, but it’s a good thing I like long, loose tops anyway. :S

  2. KP says:

    And women with the dreaded “apple shape” that Cosmo is so happy to hourglassify often face difficulty finding pants that don’t cut painfully into their midsection. Trends may not be body-specific, but clothes certainly can be, and that’s up to designers to fix.

    I’m not part of Cosmo‘s target audience in a lot of ways, but this also assumes that everyone reading has or wants a traditional feminine presentation. What Not To Wear is another big promoter of “hourglassifying.” Not only would I like to see a diversity of body types, but styles, too, and not just “menswear femmed up with lots of cleavage.”

  3. Ashley says:

    I used to read Cosmo, but became bored with it’s representative content, which is 80% about sex and how to make him happy in 1,001 different ways.

    It’s very important that at fashion editor is making these statements. I don’t understand how other women are finding pants to wear at all because even I have trouble. I am a petite pear shape. My butt is larger than the average woman my size, so I often have to settle for pants that are about 2 inches too long because those are the only ones that cover my butt and hips.

    • Ashley says:

      representative = repetitive

    • Treefinger says:

      You forgot the worst bit about being petite pear, or any dramatic pear or hourglass shape: forget about buying anything high-waisted in pants or skirts because either you can’t get it over your hips or it’s baggy as hell in the waist.

      It makes you wonder if ONLY the 36-24-36 figure is designed for or something, because having a more dramatic version of “Ideal” figures still leaves you out of luck, though not to the same extent as other people. There’s also people between sizes (why isn’t there a 33″ bra band size, ugh) and whatnot. We need a revival in tailoring instead of expecting people to fit mass-produced standardized stuff (one of the most heartbreaking moments when listening to my mother talk about her dieting plans was when I told her “if your old clothes don’t fit you then just get rid of them, the clothes are made to fit you, you don’t make yourself to fit them” and she snapped “yes I do”).

      • pheenobarbidoll says:

        I can tell you, having just about those measurements- theyre not designed for either unless youre 6 feet tall or something. 5 feet tall is ignored. Short hour glass doesn’t exist evidently, or we’re happy to walk on a foot of excess hem. And if you have a large chest with a small waist, the dresses and shirts are guaranteed to make you look either pregnant or as if youre purposely showing off boobs.

      • Kirelia says:

        6 foot tall women don’t really have an easy time finding clothes either.

      • EG says:

        Does anybody? Seriously, I have never met a woman of any size or shape or height whatsoever who says “Yes, actually, I can just waltz into any old shop and find things that look fabulous on me.” We’re all made to feel so cringingly inadequate because mass-produced pieces of cloth don’t suit us perfectly straight off the rack. It’s so stupid and enraging.

      • Donna L says:

        Believe it or not, I actually have a much easier time finding clothing that fits reasonably well than I did once upon a time, simply because people of my particular height are very much more common among women than they are among men. Which doesn’t mean for a moment that I think I look fabulous in anything — which is probably why I so much dislike buying clothes and hardly ever do, in addition to always feeling guilty about spending money on myself.

      • pheenobarbidoll says:

        Judging by the hems of jeans deemed regular, regular women are anywhere from 6 inches taller to a whole foot taller than I am. Short is difficult to find, and they fit length wise. Petite stuff is too tight in the crotch ( I have an ass and hips, guess that confuses them) and petite shirts dont fit at all. Clothes manufacturers must think short women are built like 9 year old girls, tall women are all straight bodied no curves, and regular women all have certain curves in certain areas, no variations. Makes me wonder if theyve ever actually seen a woman. I bought from the junior section until my 30s and those wide leg, flare leg crap dominated everything. Flared jeans make me look like a fucking hobbit. I found a pair of size 7 short jeans with mid rise waist and straight leg, right before Christmas. They had 4 pair and I bought all 4. Again, in the junior section. I cant tell you how foolish I feel at 40, having to buy junior clothing. I can feel the judgey eyes accusing me of trying to dress like a teenager. So to find something that fits I get to commit the sin of not ” dressing my age”. And thats just for pants. I head to the plus size for shirts, and get looks there because we all know what the world thinks about plus sized women. I don’t own a dress. Shopping for a well fitting dress is something I gave up in my 20s. I hate clothes. I hate shopping.

      • pheenobarbidoll says:

        I can still clearly remember being so excited when I finally made it to 5’0 tall. I had been stuck at 4’9 and then 4’11 forever and truly believed 5’0 was a more common height and I’d be in clothes heaven. Then I discovered ropers would give me another half an inch and promptly lost all contempt for cowboy boots. I spent my senior year of high school in a ratty Metallica shirt, skin tight jeans ( with carefully razored holes) and cowboy boots. Everyone thought I was a huge ministry fanatic lol

      • Esti says:

        I think most pants are made longer than the average person would need them because they know people can hem them but tall people can’t add length. So if they want to sell to the maximum number of shoppers, going a little long makes sense.

        I’m 5’5″ and rarely need to hem pants that I plan to wear with heels. So while I sympathize with how frustrating the length issue is for shorter people, I also sympathize with taller people who just wouldn’t be able to buy pants at all if the standard sizing was any shorter.

      • pheenobarbidoll says:

        Beyond sewing a button I’m out of my league. Hemming is not a skill I posses. And I cant afford having it done, nor do I have a clue who could do it here. The only places I know of are mens tailoring places. Its probably assumed that women know how to sew. All I know is that these 4 pairs of jeans will last the next 20 years, because I hate shopping.

      • Fat Steve says:

        Beyond sewing a button I’m out of my league. Hemming is not a skill I posses. And I cant afford having it done, nor do I have a clue who could do it here. The only places I know of are mens tailoring places. Its probably assumed that women know how to sew. All I know is that these 4 pairs of jeans will last the next 20 years, because I hate shopping.

        Everywhere I’ve ever lived, Dry Cleaning establishments offer tailoring for women (Mrs. Fat does know how to sew but she doesn’t enjoy it,) at reasonable prices. But I’ve only ever lived in cities, where those places are kind of ubiquitous, so YMMV if you live in a really rural area.

      • Fat Steve says:

        …I’d also imagine a men’s tailoring shop would do the job for you…

      • kittehserf says:

        You can FIND high-waisted pants? We’ve been hearing for years they were the Next Big Thing and the low-cut things were on the way out, but I’ve yet to see any sign of it here.

      • Fat Steve says:

        You can FIND high-waisted pants? We’ve been hearing for years they were the Next Big Thing and the low-cut things were on the way out, but I’ve yet to see any sign of it here.

        Yes, they are here, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. This summer the ‘bare midriff with belly button covered by trousers’ look was all over the place. Still see plenty of high waisted trousers on young women in public places. I’d be happy to take a photo for ya, Kitteh, but I don’t want to be arrested.

      • pheenobarbidoll says:

        If you find jeans labelled vintage, they sometimes have higher waists. Maurices has them here. And if you can afford it ( I cant) western stores carry them. The western stores here all carry the 180 dollar jeans but I cant pay that much. In jc penny, if you find their Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, they have high waists.

  4. Christian says:

    It has to start much earlier… :(
    A very interesting study on this: The global girl’s body

    • ldouglas says:

      What I really like about that link is how it acknowledges that there are problems with the way men are portrayed as well, while not falling into a false equivalency. That’s a balance a lot of studies don’t seem to be able to find, so it’s nice to see it done so well.

  5. Angel H. says:

    I wonder what would happen if someone tried living by all if the tips and “rules” in Cosmo. It would be like “A Year of Living Biblically”, but “A Year of Living Cosmopolitan(ally?)”

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