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It’s Not About The Models

April 15th, 1998

Fairly often, people get confused about the point of About-Face and think we are bashing the models themselves. The other day we got another email asking what we have against thin women and reminding us that “models are paid to look that way.” We don’t have anything against thin women. Actually, we don’t have anything against any women. The whole point of About-Face is to try to provide a place where a woman’s worth is isn’t weighed in weight; where we begin a discussion where all of us participate in creating more inclusive, healthy images and messages about women. It’s so radical, I realize…

When I produced the first poster with an image of supermodel Kate Moss from the Obsession perfume campaign, many people wrote graffiti on the poster that said things like “Leave Kate Alone,” or “I think Kate is beautiful!” Every day on my way to work I would walk by the row of defaced posters becoming more and more anxious about the misunderstanding. I wanted to find all those people and explain the message that they had so clearly missed. The poster wasn’t about Kate Moss! Hey, I think Kate Moss is a beautiful young woman! It seemed that people were making a leap which went like this: If Kate Moss is beautiful, and this is a picture of Kate Moss, then this picture is beautiful. It appeared that some people were completely unable (or unwilling) to separate the existence of Kate Moss the beautiful young woman from the very negative version of Kate that was the cornerstone of the Obsession ads. (Perhaps this is why advertising works so damned well. And why a shocking number of people think soap opera characters are real people.)

Calvin Klein’s Obsession campaign took the beautiful Kate Moss and made her look weak and scared, cadaverously thin, and above all, sooo vulnerable. I would argue that never before had such an emaciated ideal been used to peddle product. Kate is thin, no doubt, but there are plenty of photographs taken of her in the same period as the Obsession ads that show her in a healthier light. The Obsession campaign used severe lighting and vulnerableposes to elicit a very specific look. The finished product was completely manufactured. At the time, I created a visual to illustrate my point. It juxtaposed two images of Kate Moss side by side in almost identical poses. The image on the left was one of the Obsession ads; the one on the right was from the “drink milk” campaign with famous people wearing milky mustaches. The milk ad is a direct spoof on the Calvin Klein ad. The copy reads, “Bones. Bones. Bones. Maybe so, but unlike 75% of women today, there’s one way I’m taking good care of mine. By getting lots of calcium. How? From drinking lots of milk. 1% ice cold. And besides, haven’t you heard that the waif look is out?”

In my visual, above the two photos, I wrote, “Even Kate Doesn’t Look Like This.” with an arrow to the Calvin Klein ad. Looking at these ads side by side, it is downright remarkable how different this same woman looks. If only About-Face can broadcast this one important message: These images are completely manipulated. Most of the “ideal” women you see (or the images of them) are retouched, enhanced, amplified, reduced, elongated or implanted. Did anyone see the recent Miss USA contest? I have never seen such a parade of “enhanced” beauties in my life. It was really scary noting that these very young women had felt the need to invest in so much plastic surgery. And additionally scary that little girls and boys watching the show might have been thinking that this processed pasteurized form of beauty is the version to aspire to be, or to desire. I have heard since the pageant that of the 51 contestants, 40 of them had breast implants. If this is true, this is the scariest thing I have EVER heard. If I heard that 20% of them women had implants, that would blow my mind, but 80%? That just breaks my heart. If anyone has a legitimate source confirming this, please send me a copy.

So back to the Kate Moss comparison. In the Obsession ad, Kate looks weak, scared, cold, tired, vulnerable, lonely and any number of other really depressing adjectives you can think of. In the milk ad, she looks more tough, wilder, angrier, more in charge, with a distinctly “don’t fuck with me” look in her eyes and the firm set of her lips. Eyes are so expressive that the slightest change in what a model/actor is thinking will change the expression of their entire face. The models are coaxed to “think weak” or “think strong” so that their eyes will capture the look they seek. Kate thought “waif” and she became the street urchin used to sell overpriced perfume.

Calvin Klein and his in-house agency produced an emaciated version of Kate Moss to get our attention. We in a first step toward About-Face said “Emaciaton Stinks” and guess what? Emaciation does stink! The word emaciation is not synonymous with thin! In my dictionary, the definition of “emaciation” reads: abnormal thinness caused by lack of nutrition or by disease. “Emaciate” reads: to make lean by a gradual wasting away of flesh. It is the advertisement itself that we have a problem with. And the company that chose to glorify the “waif” look. Not the model herself.

A few weeks ago, I was in New York City with other About-Facers, Barbara Hanscome and Shannon Brueckner. We had been invited by Jane Bogart, Director of Health Education Services at NYU to do an event during Women’s History month. I had proposed that, with the students, we create a giant collage that would give students the opportunity to make statements about the ads they see. We set up a table in the Student Union for two days with all manner of art supplies and scores of those free postcard advertisementsyou find in cafes. We encouraged the students to make whatever statements they’d like to on the postcards and to mount them on the foam board. They could change the messages, add to them, draw on them, whatever.

The postcard selected more than any other was the ad with supermodel Christy Turlington on her hands and knees wearing a bra and underwear. (Another Calvin Klein ad as it happens!) It was by far the most disturbing ad of them all. There is something soäI can’t even put my finger on it, but whatever it was, it made people (mostly women) choose it over and over again. It was chosen 25 times and the commentary was varied. One woman scrawled “What’s with the ‘do me’ pose, Christy?” across the card. Another added a pink construction paper tutu to cover her back end and wrote “CK inTutu” mocking Calvin Klein’s new nickname “CK”. Because I will now get mail that we are a bunch of prudes and accusations that our thrust is to stomp out all sexualized ads, I will tell you that not every commentary was negative or even very serious. The students had a lot of fun with the project. However, critics should also allow that ads can give a woman an uneasy feeling in her stomach not because she’s uptight about sex/nudity/erotica or whatever else, but because any raw exposure of a person (seeing someone singing poorly in a school play for instance) can make you feel uncomfortable. It sometimes (not always) makes women (and men too) uneasy to see a hardly clothed woman on her hands and knees larger than life across Times Square or Market Street because you too feel exposed or embarrassed or shy. This has everything to do with the individual’s feelings about privacy and intimate moments and our own choices about who sees us in our underwear!

Our first day, a student stood poring over the pile of postcards and said to us “You know she’s a student here.” I looked down and he was pointing at Christy Turlington, on her knees. “She was in my class this morning.” Oh my god!” I said, my mind whirring. Over the next several hours, Barbara, Shannon and I went through all sorts of thoughts and emotions spawned by the fact that Christy Turlington the supermodel, is also Christy Turlington the student right here at NYU -right here where her classmates are choosing her image above all others to rant about advertising. It was the most bizarre confluence of realities. Supermodels have become ours like actors are ours. College boys create website altars to them. Little girls pin their pictures to bedroom walls in hopes they’ll one day be like them. Activists use their pictures to try to rewrite the messages. Models are ours to do with and say whatever we want because they are not presented as real people. We can say/think/dream what we want because we’ll never meet them anyway. This woman whose face and body are so objectified in our culture (her face loomed over Times Square and her barely clothed body was depicted in ads on the NYU shuttle buses as well,) became a real person to us that day.

And so we struggled. Do we take the cards of her out of the pile? What if she walked in here? Would she be hurt? What would we say? What makes the cards with Christy Turlington different now than the cards depicting all other models? And what is it about the particular ad she’s in that makes people choose it over and over again? Do we take away the ad that’s prompting more emotion than any other? Don’t all the people involved with the advertisement – right down to the model – have some responsibility for the image and the reactions it elicits?

In the end we decided to leave the card in the stack, (although on day two we did bury them deeper) Ultimately the ads speak for themselves and we think consumers ought to have an opportunity to respond to ads too. Probably even Christy Turlington and Kate Moss view the ubiquitous images of themselves from a very removed position. In much the same way that I might catch a reflection of myself in a store window and not readily recognize that it’s me, Christy Turlington might happen unexpectedly upon an image of herself and think “Whoa! Is that me?” and then on closer examination, “Who put that construction paper tutu there?”


Kathy Bruin is the founder of About-Face. She didn’t even know the names of models before a couple years ago.