Tracy Clark-Flory, a senior writer at Salon, wrote of anxieties running high as subjects squeezed into uncomfortable shoes and deceptive shapewear at a photo shoot for More magazine’s November 2010 feature on young feminism, which both Clark-Flory and I participated in. Her conclusion? “There isn’t much that’s feminist about a feminist photo shoot.”
The problem with fashion spreads, of course, is that they’re subject to economic considerations which contradict feminism. The publications behind these spreads work with advertisers and designers that sell garments which are unattainable in size and price range to the average woman. (My photo shoot attire, for example, cost around $1,445.) Given their limitations, it’s not surprising that they end up perpetuating a very narrow definition of beauty that doesn’t exactly embrace individuality or diversity. But while I agree with Tracy that photo shoots are rarely, if ever, feminist affairs, I think ours was far more positive than most that make the pages of glossies. And perhaps there are a few lessons that editors and women can learn from it.For one, there’s nothing that’s a “de facto feminist no-no”, as Shelby Knox, a women’s rights activist, puts it. You can don heels, forgo razors, tease your hair, or chop it all off. The important question isn’t what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. So when Shelby asked a wardrobe assistant at the shoot about Spanx and he admitted that “he’d been scared to offer them to feminists,” she reasoned, “If designers refuse to make clothes that flatter every woman’s curves and bumps, why not use a woman-designed product from a woman-owned company to help out the clothes, not the body?”
Not to reduce feminism to what is essentially a piece of pantyhose, but you can wear Spanx because you think your body is inadequate for not meeting the thinness ideal or because you think the fashion industry is inadequate at accommodating all sizes and shapes. Just because there are a lot of women who fall into the former camp doesn’t mean that all women wearing Spanx are doing so for anti-feminist reasons. But even if they are, it’s only natural. If faced with the prospect of appearing before millions of strangers, who wouldn’t want to present their best self? “We beat ourselves up as being bad feminists if we get insecure about our bodies when we would tell any other woman that she’s reacting to external influences telling her to feel that way,” says Shelby.
And since the subjects of this photo shoot were being heralded as representatives of a movement (one that isn’t always associated with the most pleasant stereotypes), it made for an even more nerve-wracking situation. Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious, told me post-shoot, “You know that you’re going to be more scrutinized as a feminist. Even if you’re confident about how you look on a daily basis, there’s always that insecurity there, that no matter what you do or say, you’re going to come up against this stereotype of the Ugly Feminist.”
Luckily, if there ever were an appropriate time and place to have a body image-induced freak-out, this photo shoot might’ve ironically been it. The crew, despite being frazzled, wasn’t pushy about what we should wear, and there was a general feeling of sisterhood between the women since we shared the same passion for gender equality. While we spent plenty of time trading clothes and commenting on each other’s outfits, there wasn’t any “Mean Girls”-style back-stabby competitiveness, perhaps because we all knew we had a lot more going for ourselves than our looks. In the end, I actually thought the experience confirmed a lot of my feminist beliefs: that being accepting and loving toward each other is the first step to feeling that way about yourself.