This month, Kate Hudson graces the cover of Glamour in all of her topless (but sexily covered up with her cupped hands) glory. Kat Stoeffel of The Cut points out that this is the second time this year that the women's publication has used a topless female celebrity to sell magazines, the first being Lauren Conrad and her sideboob in May. So what gives? Why are lady-mags suddenly using toplessness to up their sales?
Stoeffel surmises that "a new breed of topless women is making having one's totally average tits out seem aspirational." She groups Hudson and Conrad's cover shots with Lena Dunham's frequent nudity on "Girls" and points out that the made-for-men boob-focused enterprise "Girls Gone Wild" recently filed for bankruptcy, optimistically concluding that these images of topless women for other women might make obnoxious "OMG BOOBS!" shticks like Seth MacFarlane's on Oscar night less relevant. I hope she's right, but I have a slightly more cynical take on it.
I'm not sure that Glamour's topless cover shots are appealing to women because the cover models' breasts are "average." As much as I'd love and applaud it, I don't see mainstream women's magazines putting a shirtless Dunham -- or any other female celeb who isn't skinny -- on their covers anytime soon. The bare-breasted covers are appealing because they allow us to see more of the ostensible bodily "perfection" women's magazines showcase so much closer up. It's something that lady-mags have been doing for decades (see any issue of Cosmo), just with more skin. Having cover models bare even more makes the images that much more aspirational -- here's the boob ideal in addition to the face and skin and arm/thigh/waist ideal. You're welcome.
The jury is out about exactly how seeing the airbrushed images of female celebrities impacts women's self-esteem and body image. Studies have suggested that they negatively affect the way women feel about their bodies, but they've also found exceptions. (For example, if women feel some sort of likeness with or admiration for the woman they're viewing, they're more likely to feel good about themselves.) Regardless, I think that many women are drawn to any image presented as the ideal female appearance. We've been taught that those bodies -- and the public images that celebrity women have constructed for themselves -- are what female beauty is. We're attracted to and interested in examples of that perfection, no matter how unattainable it might seem. Women are interested in being the best they can be, and they like to know what the expectations are in any role, including their roles as physical and sexual beings, which are connected to their roles in existing and potential relationships, as well as their ability to get and succeed at their jobs. Women's magazines depend on this interest in order to sell their product. (In case you haven't heard, print media isn't doing so hot these days.)
When Lena Dunham gets naked on "Girls," the mission is completely different, and women enjoy and appreciate it for different reasons. Some simply admire her guts for showing us a different standard of beauty than the one we normally get shown on our television screens. Some see themselves in her. As writer and producer Kate Spencer wrote, "Every time Hannah/Lena takes off her clothes, every time she establishes that she is, for the most part, comfortable in her body, it gives me a little bit of hope for myself."
Some might consider this trend of toplessness to be women's magazines joining in the general objectification of women. But let's face it, women's mags have been doing that both through images and stories on how to be the "perfect" girlfriend or wife for ages. I agree with Stoeffel that there's no need for any outrage about magazines like Glamour using topless images to sell magazines -- after all, they're just boobs. Let's reserve our ire for more important matters, of which there are many. But I also don't think seeing skinny models' sideboobs, underboobs and perfectly-toned abs on our newsstands is so revolutionary.
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