Taken from The Guardian, by Carrie Dunn
“It felt like the right time to do it, and right for us, really,” says Jules Barton-Breck, editor of Essentials. The October issue of her magazine, already on sale, is claimed to be a UK first – a glossy that’s entirely model- and celebrity-free.
Despite the fanfare, rejecting models and celebrities in favour of “realness” is nothing new. Dove launched its Campaign For Real Beauty in 2004, using “real” women in its ads, and tying them in to a global awareness-raising project of promoting female body-acceptance. Debenhams now bans airbrushing in its swimwear ad campaigns, claiming the aim is “to help customers make the most of their beauty without bombarding them with unattainable body images”.
Other magazines claim the same commitment. Last year, Tesco’s customer magazine started to feature readers on its covers; and Alexandra Shulman, who has spent most of her 18 years as editor of British Vogue arguing that clothes look better on slim women, expressed her outrage that sample sizes were getting smaller and smaller, writing in a letter to designers: “We have now reached the point where many of the sample sizes don’t comfortably fit even the established star models.”
And it’s not only in the UK that this media backlash against models is becoming increasingly widespread. This year, the bestselling German glossy, Brigitte, began using only amateur models in its shoots. Andreas Lebert, the editor-in-chief, criticised the trend towards thinner models and declared: “For years we’ve had to use Photoshop to fatten the girls up, especially their thighs and decolletage. But this is disturbing and perverse and what has it got to do with our real reader?”
Even US Vogue, that bastion of haute couture, while sticking adamantly to the principle of using professional models, bowed to reader pressure and began using plus-size women for its annual Shape issue.
“People [in the UK] have done this on the cover, or for their fashion, but not all the way through,” points out Barton-Breck. “That’s what’s different about Essentials’ October issue. It’s not just the cover, it was everything inside. There wasn’t even an agency model shot, just pure readers – ordinary women.”
That includes a “naked body confidence” feature. “We have a health feature about three women – one woman who lost a leg in a motorbike accident, another had a double mastectomy, and another had lost all her hair,” she says. “They were very positive and confident, and just reading about them, they were just such inspiring role models. You think, what on earth am I moaning about? And they look so fantastic. They’re brave enough to take their clothes off and say, ‘Hey, I’m great as I am’.”
“Real women” is a phrase that Barton-Breck avoids: “It sounds like, well, what are these other women made of? It’s unfortunate in this day and age that it’s a catch-all phrase. We do try to avoid the words ‘real women’ in the magazine and refer to them as ‘women like you’ or ‘readers’. What we’re talking about is non-celebrities and non-models. That’s what the issue’s about, really.”
The nationwide search for the October cover stars started with Essentials asking readers, and other women via a social media campaign, to tell the magazine why they were amazing enough to appear on the front cover. Hundreds of women applied and a shortlist of 30 were invited to a casting session with the editor and style director for the selection of the winning trio. They wanted “a range of ages and sizes”, and “who had the best story” was also taken into account.
Even though all future issues will feature readers on the cover, inside you will find the same models as usual. “From November it will be an Essentials reader on the cover. Inside, no,” says Barton-Breck. “Logistically, we’re a very small team, and it’s taken about three months planning this issue, and it costs a fortune. It’s actually more expensive than if we used models because of all the travel and hotels. We can’t really do that. If things change in the future maybe we would. Going forward, we’ll just have our reader cover star.”
Barton-Breck is adamant that the reader photographs won’t be subject to the cosmetic retouching usually associated with glossies’ images of celebrities and models. “I am categorical. I will swear on the Bible that there was not one bit of airbrushing – nothing. If you look at them, they’ve got their wrinkles, they’ve got their bags and sags. There is no airbrushing, no Photoshopping, no tweaking, no making anyone look slimmer, no getting rid of anything. They are there warts and all. That will be the same with our reader covers.”
This stance is likely to be popular – last year, US Glamour gained plaudits for refusing to retouch an image of the plus-size model Lizzie Miller. Even so, Barton-Breck doesn’t see herself or her magazine as part of a larger movement towards projecting a healthy body image for women. “We’re not on a campaign here, but our aim is to show realistic images of women in Essentials. That means keeping them looking like themselves. People are probably trying to get me to go down a campaign route. I’m not. This was never about an anti-model, anti-celebrity campaign.”
Since taking over at Essentials six years ago, Barton-Breck has been committed to “celebrating our readers and women like them”, and she sees this development as just as the next step in a natural progression. The sales figures demonstrate that it’s been a successful path to pursue – Essentials is the fastest-growing magazine in the women’s monthy mag market, with an ABC circulation of 115,432 for the first half of this year, up 12.9% on 2009. “What I’m pleased about with this magazine,” she concludes, “is it gives women on the news-stands more choice and it differentiates us from our competitors as well. Positively, I hope.”