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Cosmo and Positive Body Image: When a Stopped Clock Is Right

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I'm not a Cosmopolitan reader. I've rather aged out of their target readership, the words "'rents" and "vacay" set my teeth on edge, and I know plenty of ways to Make Him Moan that I've learned the fun way. There are endless reasons to leave it on the magazine rack: heterocentrism; excellent suggestions for changing yourself in pursuit of a promising lay and, of course, a ring; a parade of tall, slender, white, cis, "perfect" models; "tips for a "killer body image" that largely focus on ways to not want to eat; some seriously questionable sex tips; and, of course, their swell article about "gray rape".

And then there's Cosmo fashion editor Charles Manning, who is both a dude and the fashion editor for Cosmo. In an editorial on the magazine's site, Manning points out that teaching women to "fix their figure flaws" and camouflage their bodies to fit traditional standards of perfection doesn't exactly promote a positive body image.

These stories break the body down into a set of problems that need to be solved, and more often than not, those "problems" have to do with largeness and the "solution" involves creating the illusion of thinness. It's not that I object to making someone look slimmer, if that's what the person wants. I just don't think that should be the goal of fashion. Fashion should be about self-expression and having fun, not how best to obscure your body.

Of course, the language in these stories is always very carefully constructed to avoid judgment-laden words like "fat" or "thin," but that doesn't mean their presence isn't felt. Words like curvy, round or pear-shaped are employed to describe what ultimately still boils down to different versions of "not thin" and the goal becomes "lengthening" and the creation of a "leaner" and "more toned" silhouette. It's still a value judgment, but one that gets delivered in a gentler fashion.

Despite the body-positive message these articles claim to deliver, I worry that stories like these could be doing more harm than good since they validate people's insecurities by framing them as legitimate issues and then suggesting ways to fix them. As if hips and thighs (or whatever parts of the body you are focusing on) are problems that need to be dealt with. Furthermore, making a single page or issue of a magazine (or blog post, for that matter) specifically about addressing people with non-model body types gives the impression that all other content is somehow not also for these same people, which simply is not true. Trends are not body-specific, although they can seem that way when only one body type is used to present them.

(And, for that matter, the same can be said for women whose bodies fall on the thinner end of "perfection," whose figures are labeled "boyish" and who are given tips to create the illusion of "womanly" curves.)

Manning says that showing a more diverse range of body types in magazines -- something he claims Cosmo is trying to do -- is a positive step. And indeed, studies show that seeing a wider range of body shapes in media creates more reasonable and positive perceptions of women's bodies. Manning also says that it's important that magazines and blogs back away from the concept of named body shapes and "figure flaws" to focus on fashions that are just fun to wear, whether or not they make you look taller and thinner. I'm for it.

It doesn't work universally. I can't really shop at Old Navy, not because the clothes don't make me look thin but because even their "curvy" jeans are still straight-up-and-down enough to leave half of my bodacious behind uncovered. And women with the dreaded "apple shape" that Cosmo is so happy to hourglassify often face difficulty finding pants that don't cut painfully into their midsection. Trends may not be body-specific, but clothes certainly can be, and that's up to designers to fix. Some are doing it -- legitimately plus-sized models walked the runway during Mark Fast's show at London Fashion Week in 2010 in clothes that weren't exactly slenderizing but looked like a lot of fun, and Cabiria's showing in fall of this year was the first plus-sized line in New York Fashion Week history.

But magazines can -- and need to -- do their part. Charles Manning, I hate to say this, but you brought it up, so it's on you to get the ball rolling: Less "figure fixing," more fun fashion. Finding yourself pinning the hell out of a dress to fit it on an extremely slender model? Try a larger model. Photoshop creating unrealistic, unattainable images? Stop doing that. Do away, as proposed, with "flaw fixing" features and, while you're at it, advice for "dressing your age." You're the fashion editor of the most-read women's magazine in the U.S. I may not be a huge fan of your content, but as your magazine goes, so goes, to a certain extent, the 18-to-34-year-old female nation. Trends are for everyone. So start one.

Caperton is an advertising copywriter and blogger for feministe.us, where this post first appeared.