Malala Yousafzai has achieved a new status in her role as global figurehead, activist celebrity and teen leader as Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year. It’s a tribute to the editors, who see the value of her work and the need to support her. And it’s also a somewhat puzzling irony — the young activist fighting to make the plight of girls visible is being honored by a magazine that makes real women invisible, airbrushing an impossible beauty standard onto models and celebrities. How do we resolve this paradox of representation, given Yousafzai’s assigned leadership role as “girl hero?”
The editors used a quote by Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, to explain their choice: “By targeting her, extremists showed what they feared most: a girl with a book. Malala embodies the power of education to build peace. She is truly a role model for the world.”
It’s an ironic twist on Yousafzai’s career. Lady Gaga, who said she would have gladly given Malala the cover shot, has criticized the cover shot she did get as airbrushed, softened and distorted. In a Huffington Post interview, Lady Gaga said, ““It is fair to write about the change in your magazines. But what I want to see is the change on your covers… When the covers change, that’s when culture changes.”
Yousafzai’s message is all about cultural change, claiming traditional values at the heart of her argument. In the magazine’s tribute, they asked “what she wanted Glamour’s 12 million readers to know,” and Yousafzai told a story about God’s creation of women. “God chose woman [to bear children]. And this is the big evidence that women are powerful. Women are strong. Women can do anything. Come out and struggle for your rights; nothing can happen without your voice. Do not wait for me to do something for your rights. It’s your world, and you can change it.”
Lady Gaga, a performance artist, celebrity musician and activist in her own right, fights against traditional ideas about women, beauty and art. She said “I believe my true mission is to inspire young people to fight back against forces that make them feel like they’re not beautiful or important. I do not look like this when I wake up in the morning.”
While we don’t expect models to look like they do before their morning coffee, the tricks that make them look younger, more voluptuous where it counts, and disproportionally thinner, are well documented.
Henry Farid, a Dartmouth professor of computer science who specializes in digital forensics and photo manipulation, believes “the more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible. We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery. It’s moving towards the Barbie doll model of what a woman should look like — big breasts, tiny waist, ridiculously long legs, elongated neck. All the body fat is removed, all the wrinkles are removed, the skin is smoothed out.”
The Beauty Redeemed blog argues, “What we see in media, and what we may be internalizing as normal or beautiful, is anything but normal or beautiful. It’s fake. It’s a profit-driven idea of normal and beautiful that women will spend their lives trying to achieve and men will spend their lives trying to find. But until we all learn to recognize and reject these harmful messages about what it means to look like a woman, we all lose. And I don’t want to lose. Are you with us in taking back beauty for females everywhere?”