The power of image

The power of image

"In this picture, I had never actually had a boyfriend in real life. I was totally uncomfortable, and the photographer was telling me to arch my back and put my hands in that guy's hair."

This is the surprising revelation Victoria's Secret model, Cameron Russell, made about the image above - just one of the many sexy-looking shots she has appeared in.

'Totally uncomfortable' ... Not as sexy as it seems.

'Totally uncomfortable' ... Not as sexy as it seems.

"This picture [below]... was the very first time I had worn a bikini and I didn't even have my period yet," the 26-year-old said in her recent TED talk. "How we look, though it is superficial and immutable, has a huge impact on our lives."

Image is powerful. A universal language of sorts, images evoke emotion, can mobilise the masses and even change the course of history.


But, images are representations, not reality. And representations of what our culture deems as beautiful or not can have a profound impact on our lives. The attractive are more likely to be employed, be paid more money, obtain loan approvals, negotiate loans with better terms, and have more handsome and highly educated spouses.

This is a notion Russell grapples with.

"I am a pretty, white woman, and in my industry we call that a sexy girl... I won a genetic lottery, and I am the recipient of a legacy... [that defines] beauty not just as health and youth, but also as tall, slender figures and femininity and white skin," she says, noting that, in 2007, less than four per cent of models on the runway were non-white. "And this is a legacy that was built for me, and it's a legacy that I've been cashing out on."

It's a legacy that comes with all sorts of connotations.

"People ask me... 'What is it like to be a model?' And I think the answer that they're looking for is, 'If you're a little bit skinnier and you have shinier hair, you will be so happy and fabulous,'" she says.

"If you are ever wondering, 'If I have thinner thighs and shinier hair, will I be happier?' you just need to meet a group of models, because they have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair and the coolest clothes, and they're the most physically insecure women probably on the planet."

But so powerful is image and our perception of what it represents, it permeates many people's sense of self-worth. Seductive or repulsive, image has a stranglehold on our society. We know it's superficial, that it's rarely real and yet we are fixated by the image of ourselves and others. And how harshly and quickly we judge it.

"You are a fat, worthless pig." "You're too thin. No man is ever going to want you." "Ugly. Big. Gross." These were the words more than 300 women in a Glamour Magazine survey reported saying to themselves on a daily basis.

We say it to each other, too. In a searingly raw and honest account, writer Ann Bauer said she knew she was ugly from as early as she could remember.

For the offense of not being what society says is sexy, she "suffered nonstop abuse," she wrote in Elle magazine last year. Apart from one "stunningly good-looking and bizarrely kind" boy who told her she was beautiful, none "had ever spoken to [her] other than to jeer."

Her one college boyfriend did not want to be seen with her in public. After leaving parties, where they would pretend they didn't know each other, he'd call. "I'd go to his room - furtively, checking to see if anyone was around before knocking - and climb into his bed."

She had all but resigned herself to the impact of her appearance on her life and the reaction she received, until she met and fell in love. A traditionally handsome man with a "chiseled Baptist preacher's face", her new partner was equally in love and "swooned at [her] large eyes and mouth, prominent nose, and buxom shape."

Soon they were married and, in 2009, she wrote an essay called Finding Love at 40. Alongside the story was a photo of the pair.

The abusive comments started almost instantly. "You're a hag who looks like your husband's mother, and my wife agrees. He will leave you soon," said one. "Are you ever a PIG!" said another.

Of course she deserved the abuse, she told herself. Unattractive people don't deserve love, just like attractive people with thinner thighs are happier. How utterly insane to think otherwise. And so for a time she took the comments on board, distancing herself from her husband and unable to tell him why.

Then one night, after watching a foreign film her husband told her she looked like the people in the movie. "Do you know this is the first thing that attracted me to you?" he said, stroking her face. "It was so, I don't know, exotic - unlike any other woman I knew."

She knew that he was telling the truth.

Her husband's love helped her to see her own beauty and that she didn't have to fit the image of a society stereotype. Thankfully, many people do see that beauty has many faces and that there is so much more to each of us than meets the eye.

But, we also need to recognise the infatuation with image that we have in our culture.

By cultivating more awareness, perhaps we can tend less towards the harsh critiques of ourselves and others. And we can beware of attaching too much meaning to mere image; assuming that 'pretty' means right, good, worthy and that 'ugly' means wrong, bad, unworthy.

Cameron Russell suggests this starts with acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes and our perceived failures.

Sarah Berry

Lifestyle Health Editor

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