Revisiting The September Issue: Vogue Magazine and Body Image
On the making of "The September Issue," fashion, and eating disorders
Posted Oct 10, 2011
Recently I caught up with the 2009 documentary The September Issue on DVD. In it, director R.J. Cutler follows Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and her staff leading up to the magazine's most important issue of the year, the advertising-stuffed September issue.
Wintour last addressed the subject of eating disorders and body image at a March 2010 public forum at Harvard Business school alongside Michael Kors and model Natalia Vodianova. Speaking at the event (put on by the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital), Wintour said, "Each and every one of us needs to realize we are all responsible for models' health," and called on designers to reverse the "tyranny of [sample] clothes that just barely fit a 13-year-old on the edge of puberty." Michael Kors noted the proliferation of underage girl models in fashion, and vowed not to use models under age 16. Sixteen still sounds pretty young to me.
In any case, having read the accounts of this high-profile public meeting of the fashion and eating disorders worlds, it was interesting to watch a scene in The September Issue in which creative director Grace Coddington does battle (as she does throughout the film) with Wintour. It comes toward the end of the movie, after the viewer has come to see Coddington as the artistic soul of the magazine, and Wintour as the coldly efficient manager who brings the issue in on time and under budget.
Yet another shoot of Coddington's has been killed, and she's looking for inspiration. She spies a cameraman named Bob in Cutler's crew, and asks him to spontaneously jump up and down while holding his camera, face-to-face with a jumping model. It's fresh and unexpected, and Coddington loves it. When she stops by to look at the shot, Wintour suggest "a little bit of retouching." Patting her stomach, she notes that the cameraman "needs to go to the gym."
Coddington's firm response to Bob the cameraman: "I think it's better that you're not skinny-skinny. It makes the point that you're real people, not models. Everybody's not perfect in this world. I mean, it's enough that the models are perfect. You don't need to go to the gym." Then Coddington calls the magazine's art director and says "Please do not retouch Bob's stomach. I don't want him to look like a skinny male model."
If only each page of Vogue included an adaptation of Coddington's words at the bottom--"Real people aren't skinny-skinny; you don't need to feel bad about yourself"--like the surgeon general's warning on a pack of cigarettes! The world would be home to a lot fewer cases of body dysmorphic disorder, disordered eating and eating disorders. It did occur to me that Coddington was simply in love with the real-sized cameraman because he was an exotic prop, like folkloric looking people in Peru, or the python to Nastassja Kinski in Richard Avedon's photo. But I think she genuinely wanted to make the statement that models are not like you and I, and that's the way it's supposed to be.
Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto are co-authors of The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders. Marcia is the author of Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders