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
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 Fatale, Adios 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.