What is a "real" woman?

I saw an update on Twitter this morning, linking to an article about how the German magazine Brigitte is going to cease using models in favor of "real women." (those two words are used in the deck headline in the Telegraph news article).

This got me thinking: what is a real woman, anyway? Are models, however starved and Photoshopped they might be, not real? Does that mean that models are fake women?

When I read that, I think of this past election when "real Virginia" didn't include any of the DC suburbs where I lived. I may have been a fairly new Virginian, but the state sure took my taxes! Northern Virginia might be more urban and liberal, on average, than the rest of the state, and it might not be what people traditionally thought of as "Virginia" (government stiffs instead of slackjaw yokels, if you really want to dig into stereotypes), but last time I checked, I was a Virginia resident. I was real. My vote counted as much as anyone else's.

So what makes a woman real? Is it like the Skin Horse in the Velveteen Rabbit? Is it the presence of breasts? A uterus? A monthly craving for chocolate? That seems awfully limited. A mastectomy or hysterectomy doesn't dissolve your womanhood- you're still real and you still count. A transgendered person (male-to-female) is a real person, in my eyes. They're not "fake."

What, then, is different about professional models? Their size? I worked with many TB patients who were almost as skinny as I was in the worst of the AN, but for them, it was a microorganism stripping the flesh from their bones rather than a brain disease. They were still women, despite their jutting bones and androgynous figures shrouded by sheets and paper hospital gowns.

Neither my TB patients nor many professional models look like the "average" American woman. And I think it's cool that the magazine is transitioning away from using professional models and using women you're much more likely to encounter on a 3am emergency trip to CVS to buy Midol, Tampax, and a pint of Chubby Hubby. (Not that I have any experience with this...) But even if I didn't encounter some svelte six-foot supermodel at CVS--though luck would have it that I likely would--that doesn't mean she's fake. Just rare.

Our idolization of her shape and size is our problem, not hers. We criticize these models, yet still buy the products they're advertising. It's probably impossible to avoid buying anything advertised by too thin men and women, but we can cut down. And who's to say that Brigitte will use women who look like "average" German women? They probably won't be the ones with zits and excessive facial hair.

I don't know that I have an answer to the question who is a "real" woman. I don't know that there is a single answer (one of the many reasons I avoided philosophy), but I do think that these semantics matter. Professional models aren't a foreign species, and all might not have arrived by their current figures through nature alone. That might make their bodies fake, but it hardly makes them fake.

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Arielle Bair, MSW, LSW said...

I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this post! I've been thinking a lot about this issue lately. Who gets to determine who's real? Like you asked, are the models not real? What about "real" women who are shaped like models? They may not be the "norm," but they are certainly real! Or what about women who are obese? They exist too! And sure, many women fall in somewhere in the middle, but people seem to be using "real" when they mean "normative."

I'm not sure using "real" women is as productive as it seems if there is a certain model of a "real" woman (i.e. in Glamour it seems to be someone really tall, white, blonde, young, and a size 10 or 12). Don't get me wrong, I think this is a *great* step. And I can see why marketing "real" women is catchier than marketing "normative women" or "women who aren't professional models." But I agree that we need to be careful about applying "real" to a select few! I think "diverse" women might be a better way to go.

CeCe said...

Or maybe "realistic" rather then "real" to refer to the shape and size that the majority of women are. Not rare models or airbrushed images that we see in the media.

Marilla said...

Yes!!! and, uh, what about bodies defines reality anyway? Pretty sure my reality about my body isn't how my closest friend considers reality about my body.

Cute Bruiser said...

People really need to stop saying "real" and start saying "average" since that's what we're actually talking about.

Very good post!

now.is.now said...

Totally agree.

Cathy, UK said...

It would be better to exchange the word 'real' with 'healthy' - i.e. 'healthy women' rather than 'real women'. I would be glad to see images of unnaturally thin women removed from magazines and for healthy women to parade on runways.... However, I do feel that these images are too frequently 'blamed' for causing anorexia nervosa. I suffered badly, and for a long time, with anorexia nervosa and have never idolised thin models. Actually, body image issues were not the main driving force in my anorexia nervosa: I could see I was too thin yet I still continued to restrict + over-exercise for a sense of control. (I have huge anxiety, OCD and have suffered major depression).

Our society is in danger of viewing eating disorders as a purely cutlural phenomenon, when in reality, biology, including genetics, have a huge role to play. Eating disorders won't be prevented or beaten by removing inages of thin models from magazines or banning very thin models.

Carrie Arnold said...

AMEN, Cathy!

Would you mind emailing me at carrie@edbites.com? Thanks so much!

Kim said...

I agree with you. Criticizing models (by calling them not real and removing them from magazines) is not the same thing as accepting women regardless of size. Models are real women. My mom and sister are both tall, thin women with very "normal" eating habits. They have no disordered thoughts. I would hate that they'd be scoffed at for the genes they got. Like some other commenters have said, the word "average" may be better than "real."

Unknown said...

Thank you for this.

I have always found the disdain and pathologizing of body types offensive and sad - no matter what size or shape.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments about use of the term "real women." That said, I must say that I was thrilled when I watched "Gossip Girl" last night to see that guest star Hilary Duff, unlike all the actresses regularly on the show (all of whom are gorgeous), actually has a body with muscles and fat.

Alexandra Rising said...

I dont have much to say except: Props! A "real woman" truly is something to ponder and I think you've done a very nice job sharing your thought process. Thanks for sharing with us and allowing us to see your point of view!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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