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Normalising the Abnormal

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Particularly unfortunate was her own relationship to the media—the self appointed role model remained complicit in selling an agreed upon lie. She also admitted at the It’s Our Turn conference, “Weight is still a struggle. Every video I’m in, every magazine cover, they stretch you; they make you perfect. It’s not real life”. As living proof, see the photoshopped cover of the September issue of Vogue (includes a before and after image reversing the order of conventional diet photos) and behind the scenes video of the photo shoot documenting Gaga’s digital makeover. Perhaps what is most revealing is that Vogue saw fit to openly admit to the lie—and Gaga’s role in stretching the truth speaks volumes, too. If one thing has become increasingly clear, it’s that reality is never ‘real’ enough for a consumer culture: we prefer to be sold a bill of goods.


Images are obviously not only used to sell fashion magazines—they’re instinctively drawn upon to sell (other) fashionable lifestyles and values. Consumers are encouraged to buy into an image of themselves through their association with something else. Witness the way healthy and vibrant lifestyles have somehow become associated with the consumption of junk food. Obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is being marketed to children onwards via false imagery. Equally troubling are the mixed messages consumers are constantly force fed. On the one hand, they’re encouraged by images of anorexic models to indulge themselves because they deserve another treat. On the other hand, overweight people get their just desserts by being held up as bad role models for indulging themselves in the first place.


Lady Gaga, of course, is especially famous for using outrageous images to draw attention to herself and the artifice of imagery. Such a self conscious ‘look’ supposedly makes Gaga’s claim to fame more real. While she might be famous for changing her image on a regular basis — Gaga has been a virtual shape shifter and famously taken the notion of image to extremes —there had always been one constant: images of her body shape.


Gaga had implicitly relied on conventional standards of beauty to get her freak out. Gaga has been stereotypically female in that she plays dress up (or down) in order to turn heads, and always tried to look ‘sexy’ in whatever she iss (not) wearing. As far as we know, she’s never worn a fat suit: that would have pushed everyone over the edge. By this stage, however, Gaga’s blatant attention seeking was starting to wear a little thin — which is why putting on weight turned out to be her most outrageous stunt yet.


Part of the lie Gaga has been selling was projecting sexual confidence as she masked deep rooted anxieties about her own sexual identity. Body image has remained a measure of female self worth, or the standard in which to weigh her options (relative worth and strategic value). Indeed, Gaga’s aesthetic value transcends experiences of her music. Like many young women before her—and many more women after her—she learnt that in order to attract attention and succeed at her goals , she must first embody other visible qualities. Everyone already knows what an attractive and successful woman is supposed to look like — images of their exposed (and thin) bodies are everywhere. This similarly sends a message to women everywhere: the best way to get someone’s attention is through body image. It’s no wonder women learn to become uncomfortable in their own skins and compete with each other (and unrealistic images) for attention. Normalising the abnormal has had an unhealthy effect on men, too. Unless a real woman measures up to the desired image, men are led to believe that they are selling themselves short or are a big fat loser, too.


The question is whether Gaga’s Body Revolution merely displaces the issue of self worth and reinforces the way women look at themselves. Young women are, of course, being encouraged to upload images of their bodies in order to tell each other they’re beautiful (sexy, desirable, etc). The revolution continues to make the female body the main site of public scrutiny and self validation. Gaga’s revolution therefore merely brings things full circle: women see themselves through other people’s eyes and/or the sexualisation of the female body through images.


The problem, however, is obviously much bigger than Lady Gaga’s latest attempt to sell acceptance to the insecure through a self serving and exploitative media. As the 2007 Report of the Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls documents, young girls are made to fit into a image through their rite of passage.


“There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Healthy sexuality is an important component of both physical and mental health, fosters intimacy, bonding, and shared pleasure, and involves mutual respect between consenting partners. In contrast, sexualization occurs when:


1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;


2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;


3. A person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or


4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.








Rest in Peace


The tragic suicide of Amanda Todd has drawn widespread attention in the last week. Amanda was a 15-year-old girl defined (and destroyed) by an image of her own body. The three year old photo was taken when she was just 12 years old, and circulated online without her consent. Amanda’s experience was not an isolated incident or specific to young girls. Self proclaimed creepshots of women are an internet phenomenon. The images are creepy because they’re usually taken without a woman’s knowledge or consent in order for men to gawk at them online.


During the course of the same week, an infamous creep was independently outed by Gawker for using his anonymity and right to free speech to hurt women with images of their own bodies. The outing has proven to be controversial and divided the internet over an age old question: which is more important -— the right to free speech or the right to privacy? Amanda’s story, however, was different from most (young) women: she knew what was happening to her and is even being publicly blamed for her self destruction by other creeps online.


As Amanda documents with flash cards in the Youtube video that will also outlive her indefinitely “In 7th grade, I would go with a friend on webcam to meet and talk to new people. Then I got called stunning, beautiful, perfect etc… then he wanted me to flash, so I did” (TheSomebodytoknow, “My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide, Self Harm”, 7th September, 2012).


Within a flash, Amanda’s life was destroyed. Her secret ‘admirer’—recently outed by Anonymous as a 32-year-old Facebook employee with a thing for impressionable young girls—clearly preyed on Amanda’s insecurities. The creep increased her susceptibility via flattery and then threatened to use the still image against her unless Amanda put on a real “show” for him. When Amanda refused to be blackmailed by him, he slut shamed her via cyber bullying and stalking. He sent out the compromising image to family and friends, and made it his profile image on Facebook. Amanda became increasingly anxious and depressed: she was now in/famous for showing her breasts. Amanda was forced to move schools to escape the bad word of mouth, but her ‘reputation’ proceeded her.   


Her second mistake was trusting another male online. This “old friend” took advantage of Amanda’s fragile state and invited her over for sex while his girlfriend was way. When the girlfriend found out, Amanda was attacked by a young group of people: Amanda was publicly shamed and humiliated even further.


While much has been made of the creep that drove her to suicide, we appear to be missing the bigger picture. We are also to blame for her death. The sexualisation of young women — through images and advertising—is not only a cultural norm: it’s an initiation rite. It’s the standard in which females view (and construct) their identities. As a rite of passage, they also have to learn the hard way about double standards: be ‘sexy’ but not sexual. We’re all free to look at women’s breasts of course, but women are not really supposed to show them to us of their own accord.


And then, of course, there is the other standby regarding the double standard of sexual behaviour: men are free to indulge their sexual appetites while women should constantly be ‘dieting’ or in starvation mode. Although women are cast into the role of sex object from an early age, they would ideally not be subject to sexual innuendoes or experiences.


The fact that that this creep could threaten Amanda with an image of her own body illustrates our own double standards. The internet merely amplified her shame because it made it possible to intensify Amanda’s humiliation through the act of sharing.


Amanda Todd

Amanda Todd, 15 years old


Equally illustrative is the girlfriend’s response to the boyfriend’s cheating: apparently it was Amanda’s fault that he cheated on her. Instead of finding a more reliable boyfriend, she (and a group of friends) tracked Amanda down and assaulted her in front of other young people. The question is how the girlfriend leant about their “hook up”—either the boyfriend was bragging about what transpired between them or other young people had nothing better to do than gossip about Amanda’s sex life. So while girls are meant to feel shame about their sexuality—or at least, not advertise their sexual activities out of fear of being publicly shamed—his bragging rights and/or salacious gossip helped seal Amanda’s fate.


We’re not trying to diminish Amanda’s role, here —  her own video indicates that she was an attention seeker. Amanda was like many other people in this regard: she needed to feel ‘liked’ and connected through social media. Nonetheless, there was something inherently tragic about a 12-year-old girl from a broken home—Amanda’s parents were separated and she lived with her mom —trying to receive validation from an elder male. Then again: what was Amanda doing talking—and flashing her breasts—to an adult stranger online? Where was her Mom or other adult supervision? How was it even possible for these two people to share the same social place online? Since a 12-year-old girl was able to interact with an adult male in a webcam chat group, how was their conversation not subject to internal monitoring or constraints?


Equally troubling is the way Amanda tried to cope with her situation: she cut her own body in order to relieve the emotional suffering and inscribe her distress. Amanda was not only punishing the very body that caused her so much trouble, makeshift imagery helped readdress painful feelings. There can be no denying that self harm/mutilation is a genuine cry for help. Her other mistake, though, was taking photos to show how much distress she was in.


We also need to acknowledge another painful fact about her public image: many people knew that she had attempted suicide before. When she swallowed bleach after the assault, a private experience became another matter of public record and ridicule. Allowing herself to be seen as a victim was akin to painting a target on her back. We obviously prefer our drama queens to project a more positive image of themselves.


It’s difficult to know which was more harmful: Amanda’s tendency to over share or people using shared information against her. The less said about the people that continue to defame her online, the better. Nor would we want to encourage a lynch mob against the ‘monsters’ that were so intent on harming Amanda in the first place: that would only make us look like them. We’ll simply leave the final word to Amanda and voice our disquiet at how much she’s liked now.


 





Would you like to write for Flash Points? Do you think you can do better than Steven or would like to call him on his own bullshit via a right to reply? Or maybe you also like the sound of your own voice and would like to be heard online? Apply here.


Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at bonnee01@gmail.com when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".


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