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Empire of Images: The Body Collage Project
Empire of Images: The Body Collage Project

By Melanie Klein-- I wasn’t trying to make a political or intellectual statement when I decided to get rid of my television in college.

I was trying to send a message to my live-in boyfriend, the one who was perpetually tuned in to sports channels and too distracted by video games to do his share of household chores. My message was simple and practical. Like, hey, pick up your wet towel off the bathroom floor. Or, hey, time to make dinner for me.

I’d been a pop culture junkie since girlhood and when I broke up with the TV, I felt like my best friend and I had broken up. But I noticed something extraordinary in a few short months. For the first time since I was 8-years-old, I felt good about myself. I wasn’t as critical, meticulously evaluating and judging every inch of my body. It took me a few weeks to figure out how the usual “fat talk” had diminished.

I didn’t completely cut media out of my life. I still enjoyed movies, read a weekly tabloid or two, and of course I continued to be subjected to the usual onslaught of media messages on virtually every cultural space available; billboards, buses, check-out stands, the free “postcards” (ahem, ads) in restaurants etc. But just that one effort to minimize my level of exposure had produced some important results: an increase in my self-esteem and a broader, more inclusive image of beauty- one that was less defined by unrealistic standards and Photoshop.

I’d always known that I didn’t fit the cultural beauty ideal, but it certainly didn’t keep me from making endless dangerous attempts to squeeze myself into that narrow definition. But it wasn’t until I stopped watching television that I realized the monstrous amount of images I had been exposed to, their negative consequences and the incredible difference between what is expected and what is real.

Years later when I began teaching a college course called Women and Pop Culture, I wanted to create a similar experience for my students, an opportunity for them to come face-to-face with the barrage of unrealistic expectations that profit from our insecurities and the reality of female beauty. The result was a project called the Body Collage. Each student was required to fill a poster board with images of beauty from mainstream magazines. I took each poster and covered 2 walls from floor to ceiling and then photographed my students in front of this “empire of images.” The results were striking.

 

"The power of the body collage was, not to sound redundant, powerful. Being able to stand in front of the endless images of "real" women and realizing that I myself was the real woman, was beyond inspirational."- Chandler R.

 

"My mom and I have probably have about 4 different (fashion) magazine subscriptions so each month as I browse through them I am shown what is the 'ideal' and what the media considers 'beautiful.' It was so easy to get these images because these magazines are half ads. The first section is just a parade of these women's "perfect" bodies. Then there are the actual fashion spreads. Standing in front of the wall filled with these images was like standing in front of my months subscriptions. The only thing missing was the occasional article. It pretty ridiculous how these ads force and coerce people into believe that this is the 'standard'. Seeing the bodies all put together only illuminates the fact that the size 0 frame is anything but normal, average or the 'standard'" --Devin R.

 

 

"It made me upset when I looked at my finished collage and I didn't even see one person who looked like me. I've always felt like I am the one who looks different and that there is something wrong with me, but I was wrong because I didn't realize that these images in the media are fake and altered and in no way reflect what real women look like.- Charlene G.


"Looking at all the collages together,  you can't help but feel overwhelmed by all the images that are plastered around you and it's amazing how we think we can ignore it but we can’t."- Diana S.

 

"When viewing the wall of images that the class created with everyone, I realized that not a single person in the room looked the way that all of the models did. It really emphasized just how unrealistic and altered the images really are. Everything from the models' waist sizes, breast sizes, and perfect skin are in some way altered through Photoshop, the makeup they have on, or the extreme measures most models take to become so skinny. There was really no diversity, which is ironic because the United States is probably the most diverse country in the world. The high, high majority of real women were not represented in any of the collages, which shows how cultivated our media really is." -Kaila M

 

 

"The wall of all these fake women that have been altered to look 'perfect' was an eye opener for me. None of the women in the class that stood in front of the wall looked like none of the women on the wall yet those are the images that are bombarding us to say how we need to look. When I was doing my poster I started to get mad of how I was cutting out all these women from all these different magazines and I couldn’t relate to none of them. I had a Spanish magazine were Latina women were being shown in it and it got me even more pissed because Latinas are known for having curves and not being stick thin yet every single woman I cut out was changed to look skinny and flawless." -Maribel M

 

Watch a slideshow of The Body Collage Project

Check out the video students made documenting the Body Collage Project: "This Is What a Real Woman Looks Like"

 

About this blogger: Melanie Klein is an Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College, teaching Sociology and Women’s Studies. She attributes feminism and yoga as the two primary influences in her work. She is committed to communal collaboration, raising consciousness, media literacy, facilitating the healing of distorted body images and promoting healthy body relationships. She has worked with the new citizen journalists of the LA Academy of Global Girl Media and the peer-educators of J.A.D.E (Joint Advocates on Disordered Eating) on ways to tap into the power of their own voice. She is the adviser of the Santa Monica College Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and founder and co-coordinator of WAM! LA.Her work may also be found at Feminist FataleAdios Barbie, Elephant Journal, Ms. Magazine's blog and WIMN's Voices. She is featured in the forthcoming book, Conversations with Modern Yogis and the documentary, The American Housewife.

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Comments

Thu, 10/24/2013 - 22:57.
Limonglim4 says:
Cool! It really did look good on some new models it just didn't match what was made last year. - Feed the Children
Thu, 05/09/2013 - 18:51.
Ritzo123 says:
Its profoundly uncomfortable the standard at which media has created to feel, be, and look beautiful. We are exposed to millions upon millions of images, captions, advertisements that tell and show us who we should look. If as a group of people we are able to break down these messages, be aware of the media, and actively take charge of what we see, maybe we can be a happier group of people. Your right, even something as simple as taking away a TV can make a big difference! Yes, we are still exposed to tens of millions of images everywhere else, but that shouldn't stop us from cutting somewhere. Either we work passively or take charge and become media literate. We can't escape the media, but we can be conscious of its effects.
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 03:27.
Kelly says:
Hi JasmineGh, What great insight! It is "what we do with our bodies that will make us happy". I agree that the cultural ideal of beauty is unattainable, but each of us has the ability to attain personal health and happiness.
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 02:44.
JasmineGh says:
The messages that the social media spreads is harmful to the young minds. As young men and women, we tend to compare ourselves with mages we see on a daily basis. These images reflect what we think is the ideal male or female. We try to dress like them, look like them, and even maintain the same bodies. Most times, these are unrealistic expectations of beauty. As a culture, we should learn to accept our bodies no matter how big or small we are if we are healthy. We are blessed with such beautiful bodies though we may be different, but no matter the size of our waist, it is what we do with our bodies that will make us happy.
Thu, 12/06/2012 - 08:42.
JasmineG1 says:
Like I've mentioned previously, my Women Studies Course has made me manifest love, to myself and others. For a long time I was unconscionably always comparing myself to these mainstream magazine ads. I have always been thin, so when I see images of these women with double d's and sexy waves, i couldn't help but feel bad. But now, as I get older and realize that these images are Photoshop, I realize that I'm beautiful, no really I am. I've felt overwhelmed at times when I'd see these reality stars, looking great all the time. I naively believed that their look is attainable because, it's "reality TV" now I know that its the lights they use, that make them look idealistic. most of the people on television also have had a lot of work done, it has become almost normative to apply botox every so often. the idea of being perfect is killing us softly like the video we watched in class. i'm glad to see that professors like Melanie Klein and sites like these are educating women and providing support virtually.
Thu, 12/06/2012 - 08:41.
JasmineG1 says:
Like I've mentioned previously, my Women Studies Course has made me manifest love, to myself and others. For a long time I was unconscionably always comparing myself to these mainstream magazine ads. I have always been thin, so when I see images of these women with double d's and sexy waves, i couldn't help but feel bad. But now, as I get older and realize that these images are Photoshop, I realize that I'm beautiful, no really I am. I've felt overwhelmed at times when I'd see these reality stars, looking great all the time. I naively believed that their look is attainable because, it's "reality TV" now I know that its the lights they use, that make them look idealistic. most of the people on television also have had a lot of work done, it has become almost normative to apply botox every so often. the idea of being perfect is killing us softly like the video we watched in class. i'm glad to see that professors like Melanie Klein and sites like these are educating women and providing support virtually.
Sun, 12/02/2012 - 20:13.
AliciaB says:
Though magazines and the media don't CAUSE eating disorders they certainly don't discourage them or a negative body image you might develop. Throughout my own recovery, I stopped buying fashion magazines and replaced them with something else I really loved, interior design. I now have 4 different house/home magazine subscriptions and rarely think about the so-called ideal body. My mind is too busy having fun creating room schemes and something more worthwhile than wasting my time being unhappy about my body. Its amazing how much these images infiltrate our subconscious without even trying--they are everywhere. I don't think you can stop them completely but you can build up a confidence and self worth in order to not let them affect you as much. Did anybody else switch out magazines like I did?
Sun, 12/02/2012 - 18:47.
JoseB says:
After reading this it reminded me on the topics of cultivation and beauty that we had in our class discussion. Since the media has depicted uniform images of perfect bodies and beauty it has corrupted the mindset of many women who learn to value themselves based on the way they look. Cultivation is all about stability the building up of images. We live in a mediated culture as discussed in our class because the media shapes and creates a lot of values and norms in our society. Media is the number one agent of socialization and the most influential, which has become a danger when the media displays unrealistic images of bodies and beauty. I felt like the media does not like for us to accept who we are and love ourselves when they display distorted images that don’t exist and try to convince us that we should look like those unreal and unattainable images.
Mon, 11/26/2012 - 02:15.
Danny S says:
I had no clue how much the media and television could affect and impact our lives and how we see eachother in todays society because of the media and the images we consume daily. Which was pretty shocking to me because i never really payed attention to the messages the media was really sending out to our society. But overall i did come to realize that the media and television actually did brainwash people and affected how they think and see other people in our society. And as a result of the media and televison messages, we have came to a society where people are judged and descriminated by how they look and dress which is sad and harmful to people in our society because not all people are fortunate enough to be or look a certain way.
Wed, 07/25/2012 - 16:25.
JazminM says:
I took your women and pop-culture class last fall 2011 and when we did this project it was truly eye opening. I had some knowledge on how the media affected the way I looked at myself and felt about myself, yet I never realized how immense the effect was when I added magazines, Tv, Movies, advertisements, and the internet all together. Media and what is in the mainstream media is so normalized that it took the body collage project and a whole semester taking a women and pop culture class to even realize the real effect it really had on me over the course of my life time. I have now gained some very useful media literacy skills thanks to you and I am way more conscious of what I watch on TV and the types of media I see in my every day life.
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