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Victims of beauty

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Kate Townshend
WVoN co-editor

As a society, it’s easy to become desensitized to the glossy magazines, large billboards and televised catwalks that serve to objectify women.  We’re used to models with gaunt, pale faces and sunken eyes, jutting collar bones and spindly limbs — a look that borders on anorexic chic.

But how far is too far when it comes to pushing the boundaries of fashion?

Whatever the limit, Bulgaria’s 12, a fashion magazine, could be accused of intentionally reaching for it with their recently published shoot ‘Victim of Beauty.’

Far from a ‘plastic surgery gone wrong’ expose, or even a masochist’s guide to high heels, the truth of the title is both more literal and more brutal.

‘Victim of Beauty’ does exactly what it says. It depicts immaculate, high fashion models sporting slit throats, black eyes and acid burns, all in the name of the artistry of the shoot.

Unsurprisingly, it’s currently riding a huge tide of discussion and controversy, with publications as eclectic as The Daily Mail and Grazia all clamouring to pass judgement.

There’s little doubt that the images are designed to shock.  Aside from their injuries, these are the glamorous, air-brushed elite of  modeling we’re used to, and the contrast between the two worlds is arresting.

But one of the accusations being leveled against the enterprise goes beyond cries of poor taste or tactless attention seeking.

Critics suggest that the spread glamorises domestic violence, fetishising injury and mutilation in a way that contains no more artistic merit than the ‘torture porn’ movement within the film industry.

It’s not hard to see where they’re coming from when examining the pictures themselves. In one, a startlingly beautiful young woman has had her mouth cut into a mutilated, bleeding smile. The rest of the shoot is surprisingly conformist; she still stares directly into the camera lens in helpess invitation.

It is the juxtaposition of the wound with traditional depictions of women as passive and sexually available that is perhaps most disturbing.

Despite the obvious discomfort factor, the magazine itself and shoot photographer Slav Anastasov have come out fighting. In a response to the furor, they explicitly deny glamorising violence, arguing instead that:

“Images such as ours can be seen from various angles, and we think that exactly that is what is beautiful about fashion and photography in general – that anybody can understand it their own way,and fill it with their own meaning. Where some see a brutal wound, others see a skilful (sic) work of an artist, or an exquisite face of a beautiful girl.”

In other words – it’s not just beauty that’s in the eye of the beholder, but apparently misogyny is too.

12 seems to be suggesting that squeamishness about images like these is more indicative of our attitudes than theirs. Perhaps we should be glad that women with injuries such as these are being portrayed as beautiful? Is 12 not in fact challenging the relentless homogeneity of fashion in general?

Well, no actually. I suspect it probably isn’t.

The editors go on to say:

“We do understand why some accuse us of promoting, in a way, violence, but we do not agree with that, and we think that it is (sic) very narrow-minded way of looking at the photographs… Fashion photography is an imitation of real life, sometimes realistic, sometimes delicate, other times grotesque, or shocking.”

The difference of course, is all about context, and the problem with 12’s images is that they float in a de-contextualised vacuum.  There is no campaign here and no grander point.  Bulgaria is a country where one in four women is a victim of domestic violence, so it isn’t as if there is no point to make.

Even 12’s own readers seem to be divided over the photographs. Whilst one commenter applauds them as ‘strange and beautiful,’ many others express shock and distress.

Of course, if all attention is good attention, the magazine is unlikely to care too much what people are saying about it, but only that they are talking in the first place. But perhaps there are better ways to judge artistic merit than its shock value.

These women aren’t victims of beauty. They, and we, are victims of a culture where women’s bodies have become a legitimate canvas for violence masquerading as ‘art.’

  1. vicki wharton says:

    I find it strange how squeamish people are over these images whilst championing violently sexist porn. Where the fuck do they think violence against women leads and what it looks like? I find people’s wish to turn away from these images reflects their wish to look away from sexist violence … it helps them to pretend its not there, or only happens to women who know one values anyway … that’s what’s shocking about these images primarily, we are unused to seeing beautiful, desired women depicted being badly treated, only average and below average women.

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