22 September 2014

Lads' mags and nude films. A lesson in appearance diversity.

Part one

This isn't a piece to examine or to criticise the intent, it's writing out my feelings. It's exploring why I feel this way. I've sought permission from Adam to run this post. It also contains a little nudity.

I don't believe women's bodies should be objectified, and I don't believe men's should be either. I stopped buying women's magazines years ago because there was too much direction of the reader to be something they're not. Get thinner, wear this, make sure you're having sex five times a week to keep your boyfriend, you won't get a boyfriend looking like that, don't eat this, aspire to be like that celebrity. I just wasn't that person women's mags were targeting.

And so I was surprised when I got home to see Zoo Magazine sitting on the coffee table. A bright yellow cover featuring a young woman in a skimpy bikini and maybe a truck and some shouty headlines. I don't know, I didn't look that hard.

"Why is Zoo Magazine here?" I asked.

"I'm going to read it", he said. If I had proper eyebrows, I would have raised them.

"But not for that stuff", he added.

You mean you can read those mags?, I wondered.

I stormed off to the kitchen, giving him the silent treatment while I went to make a potato bake. With cheese and bacon. Clearly to ensure I will never feature on the cover or inside the magazine.

I thought about why I'm angry that there was a Zoo Magazine sitting on our table. Sure he's a man and can watch or read porn if he chooses - perhaps on his own electronic device, away from my eyes. And so can I. But it's confronting to see it sitting on my table among magazines filled with food and journalism and wedding ideas. It's literary snobbery I know. And it felt like an invasion of my space - even though we live together now. But this is mostly about my appearance activism work. And also, my own appearance. I can't be strong all the time.

I want people of all appearances to feel good about themselves, and I want there to be more diversity in the media. These types of magazines aren't representative of diversity.

Zoo Magazine and others goes against everything I believe in. It contains near naked women, airbrushed, posing and portraying a sense of ideal perfection.

Didn't he want to look at me anymore? Why did he need women in a magazine like that?

He's looking at women that I'll never be - taut stomachs, smooth tanned skins, long hair, bikini clad bodies and cosmetically enhanced faces. For a minute I was reminded of that - I didn't feel normal enough. I didn't feel good enough.

And I wondered if my activism work has been enough.

Paper ladies can hurt.

I realise that I'd come across as controlling and slightly overreactive, and perhaps held misinformed prejudice because I really did judge a book (using that term loosely) by its cover, but I wasn't expecting the feeling I'd have when I saw that magazine in my house, bought by my fiancé. Adam and I talked about the Zoo Magazine later that night. His intent was not to disrespect me or other women.

Part two

Fast forward about a month later and I was invited to see Exposed at the Girls on Film Festival. Exposed is a documentary about eight burlesque performers. It's a story of appearance diversity, self acceptance and celebrating difference. It was so good!

I took Adam along, and a few other friends were there - including the director and the publicist of the festival who warned us there was LOTS of nudity and body parts at different angles. I joked to Adam and those around us that this is our first nude film, and I hoped that the winner of the ticket giveaway on my Facebook page would enjoy the film and not hold bad feelings towards me if she was scarred by the content (she loved it! Phew!).

The film contained so much nudity and swinging around of breasts and penises. It was certainly eye opening. However, the burlesque performers in Exposed were not on stage for the male gaze, rather for the universal gaze. They'd created characters that they feel comfortable with, exploring issues wider than just a naked body on stage.

Mat Fraser - an English performer who has a show called The Arms (because of his short arms due to the effects of thalidomide) - spoke about how he is able to push out a political statement by being funny and pushing boundaries of conformity. For years he didn't feel in - until he became a disability activist and then a performer. He said "I became normal by highlighting my difference". And you know, I feel this way too. I feel a part of some incredible communities (the blogging community and the disability community) because of the way I've told my story and highlighted my difference on my own terms.

The World Famous *BOB* (above) - a female drag queen who, for years, identified as a gay male, also spoke about being proud and highlighting difference. She said that women ask her how to conceal cellulite. "How do you hide cellulite? Cover it in glitter and shine a fucking spotlight on it", she said. I love this!

I realised that I was so much more comfortable watching these bodies and sexuality with Adam because the subjects in the film are in control of their appearance. They're proud and empowered and showcase their self professed imperfections - which I call diverse beauty. It was easier to watch than reading the lads magazine due to the diversity within.

Even though more graphic to watch than the content of Zoo Magazine. these people had a purpose of showing off their bodies proudly - even though they didn't fit the mould of perfection. Exposed showed representations of diverse bodies - non normative and non conforming. There was no airbrushing. The performers were in their natural state - laughing, educating and being vulnerable.

While watching Exposed, I was furiously taking notes, thinking back to the day I found the Zoo Magazine. This isn't about who's more of a real woman or degrading their employment choices. The women on those pages must be every bit of in control of their appearance as the burlesque performers. Yet for me, there was something much more powerful seeing the performers in Exposed really owning and loving their image, bringing their identities to life in a three dimensional way, and giving people who don't fit the perceived beauty ideal permission to do the same. I felt connected to these performers, knowing that I'd have a place on 'Misfit Island' (as Exposed performer, Tigger called it) if I wanted, too. I could never be in Zoo Magazine.

* I promised Adam that I owe him a movie of his choice after watching Exposed. His choice. I will sit through anything!



  1. Just wondering,does this mean you've shamed Adam out of ever buying Zoo again or does he still buy the magazine?

  2. Inspirational post Carly. I think I'd have reacted the same way finding Zoo magazine on the coffee table and I don't have to deal with the kinds of issues you do (which you do so bravely). Even so, I hate the philosophy behind these magazines (and many magazines actually) that objectifies the body, esp. the female one and constantly reinforces the implicit message - you have to be young, beautiful and just about physically perfect to be taken seriously. Beauty is about far more than smooth tanned skin, lithe bodies and shiny hair but it's hard to remember this in view of the media onslaught that says the exact opposite.

  3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles here you come!

  4. I definitely agree with you Carly! Decades ago I discovered an old school equivalent of Zoo and felt uneasy. Recently I've seen live performers similar to those you describe in the film and I'm fine with it. Yes, I think it's largely the motivation for doing what they do, whether or not they're empowered and in control and especially if they're out there looking happy without conforming to a visual stereotype. (Donna)

  5. Sounds like a great movie - love burlesque.
    Models in mags are not at all in control of their image - they get styled, posed and then photoshopped. They are in control of turning up to a job, but not much after that.

  6. A really thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing your stories here

  7. I think I'd react the same way to an unexpected Zoo on the counter at home. (Later, I'd probably be glad it wasn't a hidden-at-the-bottom-of-a-drawer-Zoo). Great post Carly, thanks.

  8. I like that you made the point about people being in control of their image and how it is portrayed. I am very open minded about sexualised images of women being in my man's orbit. The only rule is that he show me what he looks at and we discuss it all. In a funny way, I think it has helped him to look beyond the image and be a conscious observer of the bigger issues. For us though, visual stimulation of the sex organ that is the mind can be helpful. Sex itself is really challenging in the context of illness.
    I admire that you two continue to have the conversations, Carly. That's what keeps your relationship strong, talking through everything. Getting to the heart of the issues and finding resolution. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  9. I once came home to find a Zoo magazine calendar on my kitchen wall that my male housemate had put up. My immediate and audible reaction was to ask, "what the hell is this?!" He said he got it for free so we might as well use it. I don't necessarily find the hypersexuality of men's mags wrong so much as the fact that they objectify women solely for the way they look and the services they can offer. But obviously there was a visceral, subconscious response to seeing it in my own home. I told my housemate he could put the calendar up in his room as I did not want to see it. Next thing I knew, it was in the recycling...


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