To the Editor in Chief, Elle Magazine
Last week I was waiting in the doctor's office and I picked up a copy of your publication. I must congratulate you on your global reach. The headlines were in English, but the text was in an alphabet you've probably never had seen before. You appear to be doing a top-flight job at peddling your conceptions of beauty to the developing world.
I leafed through the glossy pages. I couldn't help admiring the models' glowing complexions, their artfully tousled hair, their slender bodies frozen in artful poses, baring a golden midriff here, a creamy thigh there. Their ripe, half-open lips suggested breathless excitement, possibly of a sexual sort. (I am, by virtue of my vocation, sensitive to such cues.) They were perfect, every one of them, page after page without the slightest trace of cellulite or sag. No birthmarks, bellies, knock knees, or flat feet. Any woman, gazing on their unblemished beauty, would feel a mixture of awe and envy. Any man would feel desire.
Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Have you ever considered the worm of evil coiled in the heart of this perfection?
How many women look in the mirror and lose hope, because of the false visions you sell? You and your colleagues teach us that we're fat, ugly and undesirable. We're all flawed. It doesn't matter how many hours we spend at the gym, how many jars of anti-wrinkle cream we buy from your advertisers. We will never achieve the ideal presented in your pages, regardless of how hard we work or how much money we spend. Meanwhile, our men are equally dazzled by your images of sleek flesh and limpid smiles. When they leave us for younger women who more closely approximate perfection, we blame ourselves, not you.
For much of my life, I hated my body. My hair was kinky. My stomach bulged. My full thighs were slabs of lard. I liked my breasts, for the most part—some versions of perfection incorporated cleavage like mine—but I looked odd in most fashionable clothing. I was too short. I had no arches; high heels sent pain shooting up my calves. And of course I wore glasses with lenses like coke bottles.
Toward the end of my teens, I tried to mold myself into the perfect, slender woman I thought that I should be. I dropped from 120 pounds to 75 pounds. Alas, I still wasn't beautiful, though I was proud of my self-discipline. My hair started to fall out in clumps. My clothes hung on me as though I was a skeleton. I understand now that I came perilously close to death in my pursuit of perfection.
You can of course defend yourself, claim that it's not your fault. Nobody told me to starve myself. Everyone knows that fashion is a fantasy. How silly of me to take those images seriously!
You are right, in a sense. The blame is not yours alone. All those companies trying to to sell us things we don't need conspire to make us feel inadequate. We're missing out on happiness and satisfaction, they tell us, because we're just not good enough. But if we purchase this product or that, we'll set ourselves on the road to perfection. It's depressingly easy to make us believe this. You're not completely responsible.
Now that I'm older, I've built up some immunity. I can flip through your lavish photo-spreads, admiring the art that has created such luscious, unattainable beauty, with barely a pang of regret. I'm at home with my own imperfections, despite the fact that they multiply with the years. I find it deliciously ironic that I like my body better now, with my wrinkles and flab, than I did when I had the smooth skin, taut muscles and sexual vitality of youth.
I worry, though, about the young women and men, innocents who don't recognize the falseness in what you offer. You tell them that what matters most is how they look. They learn that in order to look attractive they must have money, to buy the products that will perfect them. They wear away their lives pursuing the material, lusting after an unattainable dream.
I do think that the term lust is appropriate. Underneath it all, you're selling sex, even with your flat-chested models reminiscent of teenage boys. Be beautiful and you will be desired, you whisper, like the snake in the garden. The message might be disguised, but I recognize it loud and clear. I am, after all, an expert in evoking desire.
I don't know why I'm bothering to write this letter. Even if you read it, it will have zero impact. After all, your very reason for existence is to sell these visions. Even if you took me seriously (a wholly improbable outcome) and closed down your publication, there would still be Glamour, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Self, Seventeen and dozens more titles—not to mention Playboy, Hustler, Maxim and their ilk. Perfection is a potent adversary.
My time would be better spent writing to my local paper or my congressman, about marriage equality or universal healthcare, immigrants' rights or reproductive choice. In these cases I might have some tiny chance of making a difference. In writing you—well, I'm just asking to be dismissed as a crank.
I shouldn't waste my energy on letters like this. What I should do instead is get to know some young women. I should try to share my knowledge, gleaned through the painful experience of anorexia and its aftermath. I should be telling them that they're beautiful as they are, helping them to understand that material things and physical attractiveness will never, by themselves, convey happiness.
Will they believe me? I can't say. Perhaps they'd trust me more if I weighed fifteen pounds less and had a face lift.