The editor of UK Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, gave an interview this weekend and revealed very candidly how people who create fashion magazines like Vogue think. In an interview on BBC Radio 2, Shulman — who has been editor of UK Vogue since 1992 — spoke about what makes for a successful magazine cover. Here she is quoted by the UK’s Telegraph:
“If I knew exactly what sold it would be like having the secret of the universe, but I’d say broadly speaking, if you’re going to talk about a model or a personality, it’s kind of a quite middle view of what beauty is. Quite conventional, probably smiling, in a pretty dress; somebody looking very ‘lovely’. The most perfect girl next door.” … People always say ‘why do you have thin models? That’s not what real people look like’ But nobody really wants to see a real person looking like a real person on the cover of Vogue. I think Vogue is a magazine that’s about fantasy to some extent and dreams, and an escape from real life. People don’t want to buy a magazine like Vogue to see what they see when they look in the mirror. They can do that for free.”
Exactly how does Shulman actually know that “nobody really wants to see a real person” on the cover of Vogue? The magazine has never actually had a “real person” on the cover. I perused a bunch of old UK Vogue covers online and surprise, surprise, most of the cover women are supermodels and actresses. Usually they are skinny, white women, or sometimes only a teenaged girl; they’re pretty equally split between brunettes and blondes/redheads. (Although somehow “heroin chic” Kate Moss seemingly makes an appearance on, like, every other issue.) Occasionally Vogue features some diversity, sort of: plus-size singer Adele and women of color including Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé, and Alexa Chung have all appeared on covers. But it seems like what Shulman is really saying is that “nobody” wants to see other types of women — despite the fact the magazine has barely tried anything else.
Shulman has drunk the Kool Aid that women want these distorted, perfected images staring back at us from the check-out line. Yet it’s understandable why she’d think that way in her line of business: a lot of lifestyle magazines (fashion, food, architecture, decorating, travel) are by nature “aspirational.” Creating a consumerist need is at the core of their advertising-based business model. Readers are supposed to want to buy the products written about in the magazine, many of which pay for the ads that line the pages.
But here’s what’s different about fashion magazines: it isn’t just the clothing that’s “for sale.” The celebrities and models themselves are on display, too: their clothes, yes, but also their hair, their skin, their nails, and most importantly, their bodies. Shulman freely admits that models are are very thin; in fact, the Telegraph notes that Shulman has said in the past that the tiny sample sizes (what models, who are often teenaged girls, wear on the runway) are “insane.” That makes me wonder what these editors think women readers truly aspire to. Can something be “aspirational” if it is impossible? At the very best, it’s Sisyphean.
I think Alexandra Shulman misjudges what women actually want. Some day, I may be able to own a Le Creuset French oven or go to the Maldives, but I’m never going to look like Karlie Kloss And more importantly, I don’t want to. Why? Because I know it is futile. I know enough about makeup, skin care, and even weight loss to know that I’ll never look like someone on a Vogue cover and therefore, I can’t really relate to them. They may be pretty people, but they’re just hollow images to me. I don’t have a desire to look like them; I have apathy. And thank God that I do have apathy, because I know so many women my age and younger who struggle with eating disorders. If editors like Alexandra Shulman seriously think women like me want to aspire to look like those women, likely knowing as full well as I do that it’s never going to happen, then they are hugely complicit perpetuating the negative body images of so many women in the Western world. I can appreciate that Shulman was being honest about how the business of fashion magazines may think. But as a woman and a consumer, I think she’s totally wrong.
Follow me on Twitter. Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com.
[Image of Alexandra Shulman via Getty]