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The Not-So-Sexy Truth About ‘Sexy’ Magazine Covers

I can’t say that modern day magazine covers surprise me. Somewhere along the line, probably decided by men in suits, the notion that ‘sex sells’ was born. Sexualised photos of successful women frequent the mainstream media. Women’s HealthCosmopolitanSports Illustrated, Elle, Vogue, Paper, Rolling StoneMaxim, and a huge host of other popular magazines regularly feature sexually explicit content and imagery.

In a 2008 study of 1,988 advertisements from 50 well known American magazines, researchers from Wesleyan University found that half of them show women as sex objects. A woman was considered a sex object depending on her posture, facial expression, make-up, activity, camera angle and amount of skin shown.

While the shock value of nudity featured in magazines in recent decades has dwindled, this is still a relatively recent phenomenon. The degree to which women are sexualized in magazines, in song lyrics, on television, in video games, on the Internet, in advertising, and in music videos today is above and beyond anything of the past.

Dawn Hawkins, the vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, sums it up by saying, “Yesterday’s pornography is today’s mainstream media.” Somehow, we have gotten to a point where a topless photo of a well-respected woman on the cover of a women’s health magazine barely raises eyebrows. Whether or not this is a positive development is a subject of much debate.

From the infamous Break the Internet shoot with Kim Kardashian for Paper magazine or Megan Fox’s Rolling Stone debut there are countless examples of glossy mags highlighting only the sexual in their female subjects as if that is the sole source of their worth, instead of their raw talent that spawned their fame. (In Kim K’s case perhaps that is what she is famous for..) The recent magazine covers below are just a small handful of what is littering our shop fronts and newsagents:

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While not writing off the fact that men too have become much more sexualised in modern media it needs to be noted that when Sociologists at the University of Buffalo reviewed more than 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades they found that sexualized representations of both men and women have become more common over time. In the 1960’s 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers were sexualized while in the 2000’s, 17 percent of men and 83 percent of women were sexualized. However, they concluded that women were much more likely to be “hypersexualized” — showing a combination of multiple sexualized attributes.

Often times I have found that discussion of sexuality often hits a roadblock when the conversation turns to how the female body is represented in the media. For starters, the issue divides feminists. On one side, there are those who actively campaign against any censorship of the female body—saying it’s not women’s bodies but rather society’s tendency to objectify them that’s at issue. Female sexuality should be celebrated, and nudity in magazines encourages open discussion that empowers women.

On the other side, there are those who would say that it is disingenuous to think that the naked human body can be wholly separated from its sexual aspects, and that even if it could be, I’m not sure we’d want it to be. Sexual attraction is good and serves a great purpose, and I don’t think desensitizing ourselves to it does us any favors.

These magazine covers, such as Adele’s recent portrait for Rolling Stone or Rihanna’s defiant, dagger-eyed i-D Magazine cover portray a strong sense of femininity without sexualising the subject. See, it wasn’t that hard now was it?

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Certainly there is a degree of freedom in the ability to dress the way you like, and the freedom to do something always carries with it a power of sorts. “But when nudity becomes a requirement for attention, when sex appeal becomes a prerequisite for airtime, and when one’s physical assets determine whether or not her achievements will be recognized, sexual liberation becomes sexual subjugation. As women—who are so much more than just our bodies—we deserve better than to be enslaved by our sexuality.”

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