Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In organization are still trending, and while I’m not excited about everything she and her organization are doing for women — see bell hooks’ critique — the new Lean In Collection with Getty Images, “a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them,” is heartening, especially in the face of recent female disembodiment in the news media.
TIME didn’t start the disembodiment, but they did name it. In a rundown of recent visual advertisements depicting “headless women,” writer Laura Stampler describes and calls the occurrence of headless women a “trend,” reducing women’s bodies to objects for consumption.
To be sure, “headless women” in advertising is not new. Take for example a 1990s ad for BodySlimmers that depicts a woman standing provocatively in what looks like a black swimming suit. Her head is not visible in the image. Or think back to an advertisement by Axe for shower gel that depicts a woman’s body covered in mud, with “wash me” written with a finger across her stomach, her head is not visible in the image.
However, announcing a “headless woman” trend in 2014 is as absurd as it is dangerous. Picture all the female contestants on “The Bachelor” without heads. Imagine female models on catwalks without heads. Now picture your female coworker without a head, or prominent female leaders — Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton or Janet Yellen — without heads.
“By cutting out the head you are immediately saying her personality and brains aren’t important in the slightest. We are just interested in her body. It doesn’t matter who she is,” said Lauren Rosewarne a professor at The University of Melbourne who writes, researches and comments on sexuality, gender, feminism, the media, pop culture, public policy and politics.
In effect, choosing to describe this disconcerting development as a “trend” belies the seriousness of the injustices being perpetrated and further demeans the individuals or groups who are being treated with contempt. Women are reduced to objects for consumption, to be used and thrown away.
So instead of elevating women with “over 2,500 images of female leadership in contemporary work and life,” TIME missed the opportunity to critically confront the issue of “headless women.” They could have named the growing and disturbing pattern of “headless women” in advertising an epidemic. Perhaps they were not satisfactorily disturbed.
I am, because too often advertising and pop culture bleed into real life. Symbolically, beheading a female leader takes her away from her embodied power with finality – Marie Antoinette anyone?
You need only watch Miss Representation, a documentary film that “challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself,” to understand the gravity of the impact of objectification.
Statistics from the film are vast and telling: “In Nancy Pelosi’s four years as Speaker of the House, she has been on the cover of zero national weekly magazines; 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. That number increases to 78 percent by age 17; and women hold only five percent of clout positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing, and advertising.”
Just last year, the Women’s Media Center in their Status of Women in the U.S. Media report reiterated that, “Story framing and descriptions of women still too often fall into lazy stereotypes, from coverage of the Olympics to the resignation of the director of the CIA over the revelation of an extramarital relationship.”
It could be easy for some to dismiss these statistics in the face of a “headless women” “trend”, but the thing about pop culture is that it delivers a “trend” as something we want to follow or at the very least, gaze at from a distance.
Stampler, to her credit, does note in her article, “Although there is an element of artistic digital dexterity in these images, it is hard to ignore their basic element of objectification. While some [advertisers] could be making a cultural statement, others (with names like “Headless Hot girl twenty-whatever does X sexy thing”) are clearly for aesthetics.”
Advertisers make the aesthetic choice to remove women’s heads – sending the message that women’s heads are not pleasing or even wanted. Women should never be “clearly for aesthetics” from a cultural perspective.
Unfortunately, Stampler’s take on “headless women” invites a passive response to the ongoing and pervasive problem of objectifying women’s bodies in advertising and pop culture. Claiming that advertisers are making a cultural statement with “headless women” is disingenuous. At best, this is careless journalism, at worst naming “headless women” a “trend” signals complacency with a culture that supports the objectification of women.
An article that I wish would have disappeared quietly into the night instead set the stage for more female disembodiment, this time the perpetrators were the news outlets themselves.
Headless women leapt from the advertising pages to the front cover of TIME, where Hillary Clinton appeared disembodied on their cover—a single high heeled foot and suit pant-covered-leg are visible. Had the copy not contained Clinton’s name, you would never have known who it was supposed to be.
Since the issue’s publication, there have been various forms of critique from feminist writers, but after TIME ran their cover, the New York Times Magazine turned Clinton’s head into a planet, floating in outer space on the front cover of their Sunday weekly.
I understand that not all trends are positive for women, but many objectifying trends become popular and without critique, like in TIME’s case, they perpetuate female disembodiment. I don’t want to live in a world where “headless women” is a trend, let alone a popular one. What should be trending is how incredible women are succeeding every day and making great strides against tremendous odds.
Depictions of women that are real and complete are needed fully embodied, especially as we move into the next election cycle in which a major contender for the presidency of the United States may be a woman; we watch women win medals at the Olympics; and experience the work of everyday women doing extraordinary things—think Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was incidentally shot in the head for her activism.
In 2014, I hope that we change our consumption habits to fully embody women. Together, LeanIn.org and Getty Images are taking a positive, fully embodied, first step.