Monday, 12 November 2012

Why magazines still matter

Last year I wrote my Honours thesis on the topic of ‘Teen girls and body image: disparities in the photographic and written text in Dolly magazine,’ a title I am yet to be able to recall in its entirety without double checking, so I understand if you just zoned out a little there.
Basically, what it means is that I looked at the way the magazine’s photos (and other images) and articles sent conflicting messages about body image and beauty to its readers and the implications of this.
What I found was that there is a disparity, in that although the magazine seemed to make an effort to include positive messages about its audience, their appearance and overall value, they weren't generally backed up with consistent images that reflect these ideas.
For the record, I studied Dolly because at the time it had the highest readership and circulation for an Australian magazine aimed at teen girls, however, I think what I found is true of the majority of girl’s/women’s magazines.
Although magazines do not necessarily cause eating disorders and poor self esteem, they can have an effect on them, being a particularly visual form of media. So even if a magazine has dozens of articles telling readers that they are beautiful as they are, if the accompanying images are of girls who always fulfil the typical idea of beauty, this does not encourage readers to accept the message that they don’t have to have a model body/perfect hair/flawless skin to be beautiful.
Case in point: one article asking, “What’s your body happy rating?” accompanied by a full page picture of a girl in a bikini. (It’s OK, she’s holding a balloon with a smiley face, it’s totally relevant.)
Even though magazines make attempts to counteract this problem, by including ‘real’ girls as models, pointing out when an image has been digitally altered (sometimes- this whole practice is quite unclear) and including greater diversity of models, there is still an ideal appearance promoted and most images remain altered, especially as magazines can’t control this when it comes to stock or advertising images.
But today’s readers are pretty media savvy. Even if they don’t know all the details about procedures for digitally altering or choosing images, the affect of magazines and other media is widely known.
So why do they continue to be read and bought, even with the increase of digital media?
When it comes down to it, people like beautiful things; they like seeing images and reading articles that are relatable, but also appealing. Writer Rita Felski said that, “(Beauty) reminds us that the enjoyment of mere pleasure is an important element of our humanity.”[1]
Blogger Erica Bartle (who kindly responded to questions for my thesis and has a great blog on issues of media, faith and feminism here) said, We live in an aesthetic, image-based society and we are drawn to things of beauty. I think creativity and beauty can be a positive, but not when it turns into unhealthy idolisation.”
This is why people continue to buy magazines, even though that many of their images of beauty are seen as unrealistic- we are drawn to their aesthetics.
In my thesis I found that there is something about beauty that appeals to us beyond reason and practicality, and what is needed is not to get rid of representations of beauty, but to manage them responsibly.

[1] Rita Felski, “Because it is beautiful: New feminist perspectives on beauty,” Feminist Theory 7 2006, p. 278.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Why the title?

Sometime last year I was reading the book of Philippians with a friend. We came to chapter 4, verse 8, which says, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
It was a verse I’d read many times before, but I suddenly realised that all this time I’d been hearing it in the context of ‘stay away from whatever is untrue, whatever is ignoble, whatever is wrong,’ etcetera, when we actually need to actively replace these things with good things.
That’s a pretty big call. When was the last time you switched on the television and saw something ‘pure and lovely,’ even on the shows that celebrate things like family and friendships?
Which brings me to my choice of title, which I mulled over for some time. I’ve never enjoyed coming up with titles, but a while ago I came across the phrase ‘beauty for ashes’. It stuck out for me and I wondered if it was a Biblical term. Turns out it comes from Isaiah chapter 61 verse 3:
"To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy of mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified."
You may note two things here:  
1)  This isn’t talking about ‘beauty’ as the phrase is used in magazines and such, is it? You are correct. While I assume that definition of beauty will come up often as I talk about the media, beauty can be found not just on people or in tubs of anti-ageing cream, but in everything from nature to people’s actions.
By the same token, brokenness and despair are also found, but what this verse illustrates is the promise that, one day, the Lord will change the bad for the good, our pain for joy. Not that everything that has ever happened to us will be made pointless, but it will be used for His glory and our good. He does that in many ways today, but it’s often hard to see.
      2)  Technically, I called the blog ‘Ashes and Beauty,’ not Beauty for Ashes. Also correct. This was, at first, because other forms of the phrase were taken, but it’s already grown on me. Sometimes, ashes and beauty do seem to be two different things, but ‘ashes’ also indicates it once used to be something whole. 
The whole concept can be confusing, but take for example, Downton Abbey (hey, it’s historical drama at its best). The characters and setting are beautiful on the outside, but plagued by drama inside (will Mary and Matthew live happily ever after? Will Branson be accepted by the family?). Prime example of beauty and pain co-existing, but we also see the good (Edith finds her place during the war, Violet gives Mr Molesley the flower award) 
If you're still with me, awesome, because hopefully this explains where I’m coming from for future posts. Promise I won’t write about Downton Abbey too much.

First things first

Before I go any further I thought I should explain the title and verse that I chose to use. But before I do that, there’s something else I want to say.
I asked you in my last (also first) post to bear with me, and I’d like to ask that again, if the mention of God makes you want to close the page.
I am hesitant to make anyone feel uncomfortable, so for a time I thought I’d just focus on what I knew about the media and telling people about their true worth.
That’s the thing, though. The reason I care about people realising they’re worth more than any ideal image the media can present, even at its best, and furthermore, the reason I believe anything or anyone can change for the better, is God.
I believe every individual is valuable because God loved them first. When He created this world and humans he said everything was “good.” It, and us, are no longer perfect as a result of sin, which would mean eternity away from God, but He loved us too much to let that happen.
So He sent His Son Jesus to be crucified and pay the price of death, meaning we can now have eternal life with Him.
These are words I hear often. I write them often myself. I grew up knowing that God loved me enough to sacrifice His Son. But it’s still pretty hard to comprehend sometimes, while easy to forget that it should change the way I live now.
Maybe, like me, you’ve accepted what Jesus did for you on the cross. Maybe you’ve heard about it but are unsure whether you can really believe it, or have decided it’s not for you. Maybe you have no idea what I’m on about but are still reading because you hope I’ll get to my point.
Well, this is it: If I can have known God all my life and still be susceptible to forgetting where my worth lies, I figure others must be too, especially if they don’t know how much they are loved.
Also, I read back what I’d written before I decided to mention God and it was kind of boring. Technically, it was correct; you could read it and be none the wiser as to the fact that I’d left something out. But you’d also be none the wiser as to what is most important to me and I don’t want that to happen.
So, if we differ in this regard, I hope it won’t put you off continuing to read. My posts will be about all sorts of things, but I thought I’d level with you here before I go on to further explain my motivations. I do hope you’ll keep reading.

Welcome, welcome

Hi all, welcome to my blog.
I've actually been meaning to start this for ages, but the idea of putting my thoughts out there for all to read is a bit confronting, which is an ironic problem for a journalist to have.
With journalism, though, someone else is giving you the go ahead to publish your work, so you know that at least one person thinks it's readable. Also, I stubbornly wanted to give print media a go and prove the naysay-ing "print is dead" types wrong.
I still work in print journalism, I should point out, but I've also realised that, with the rise of digital media, I have a great opportunity to write about things that I'm interested in here and now.
That brings me to the main point of my blog. Overall, what I want to do is create positive media.
Most people, when I mention this, ask what 'positive media' means. For me, it means making sure I write about things that are important, interesting and true, while realising the inherent value of people.
I don't think it means filling people's brains with videos of cute animals acting like people, as adorable as that is, but media that looks at issues and information in depth.
It almost feels like a cliche to say that media promotes negative body image, materialism, or pretty much any societal problem. It is capable of this, but the way I see it, the industry is capable of so much more.
People are doing something about it, as well. It's difficult to see and not always effective, but certain media makers are taking note of increased media literacy and dissatisfaction.
However, I think a lot more could be done. I think we have a responsibility to use such influential methods of communication to benefit others, not tear them down so others can build them up for the price of the latest fad.
There's nothing wrong with enjoying beauty or entertainment. On the contrary, I think this world is full of beauty and joy and interesting ideas. They are rarely found easily, or even whole, but they are there, hidden under discrimination, war, abuse and so many other issues.
So basically, this is what I'm attempting to do, try and balance the struggles we all see with the good I know is possible, at least in an arena I'm familiar with (ie media). On that note, if this all sounds a bit serious, bear with, because I'm also quite fond of looking on the bright side of life. Also, apparently, quoting British comedies. (Brownie points for you if you recognised both references)
Hopefully through this blog I'll share a bit more about what we can do for each other through a very influential part of life.