by Julie Steiner  <>


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We have long grown accustomed to the fact that the versions of women we see in the media are unreal. The complaint against the unnaturally thin model has been made (and remade) in the editorial column of every women's magazine. Yet the difference between models and "real" women is not merely an issue of dress size. It's a much bigger difference between the contrived world of the glossy magazine and the world we live in, and in our pursuit of a "media ideal" we too often fail to cultivate the true style that reflects who we actually are.

What we fail to consider is the extent to which each advertising image is an artistic composition designed to sell a product. Even before the retouching that makes models appear sanitized, odorless, and devoid of sexuality, most fashion photographs depict a world that doesn't exist--a world invented solely for the camera, usually in a closed, highly controlled studio. Everything from the model's clothing to her facial expressions, gestures, and even posture are carefully styled to create highly artful, yet unreal, scenarios. Any individuality the model has is suppressed so that the designer's (or even the product's) "style" can be superimposed on her to create a composition for the camera. What we see has little to do even with the model herself, a woman who, outside the studios and off the catwalks, may have a thousand individual qualities the camera can't portray, or that don't coincide with the fashion editor's particular purpose.

Every model, musician, and movie star, like every one of us, has had snapshots taken that show her blanched to nothing in a flashbulb, with red photo eyes. Yet very few women outside the fashion and movie industries get to be primped, styled, posed under perfectly reflected light, and then edited. Somewhere between these two extremes is the real beauty, the sexy, earthy, realness of women we know, the women we are, the women we want to be.

Real-life women live without makeup assistants to rush in at a moment's notice to powder away any shine, and yet still manage to be indescribably beautiful. They dress themselves, without designers to bring in an armload of clothing for every occasion. What's more, they live active daily lives that stretch over a wealth of situations impossible to duplicate in a studio. Real-life beautiful women are laughing women, women who think and speak: women with complex ideas and unexpected emotions, whose faces and bodies are in constant animation, impossible to distill into a single image.

Because of this, real beauty encompasses more than the photographable shell. Real women are still sexy on bad hair days. They also sometimes have wrinkles and cellulite, but even beyond that, they have a lot more creative, individual style. Real women with style know it's pointless to compete with two-dimensional representations, or meticulously copy the styles designed in and for that fabricated world. Real style lies in a woman's ability to use her features to their own advantage, to play them up, to recognize them as part of the whole. It's this woman who moves through flattering moments and the not-so-flattering, and comes out ahead in the end, as a sexy, complete, beautiful whole.

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