As Subtle as the Pose


Reprinted with permission from Jennifer Moss

About 10 years ago when the Internet bubble popped, I took up a new career to pay the rent. I had a good camera, back before everyone had one on their phones. So I hung out my shingle and started doing headshots and model portfolios and was fairly decent at it. I was eventually published. I worked with many beginning models, some of whom eventually “made it” in the fashion industry. But the more I learned about the industry, the more I loathed to participate in it.

For one, I found that there is only one body type acceptable for females in standard fashion modeling: 5’10″-5’11″, 34-24-34 (bust-waist-hips, in inches). No exceptions. If her hips were 36″ she’d be told she was bottom heavy. One model who was over six feet told me that she had to put 5-foot-11 3/4″ on her resume. That was “agency code” for models six feet and over. No female model revealed that she was over six feet, I was informed, because that didn’t fit the standard. Do you want to talk plus size modeling? In New York, plus size is no larger than a size 10, preferably an eight. In L.A. it can be up to 14/16, however her body must be “in proportion” meaning no apparent fat.

Another thing that disturbed me was that the top agencies were hiring women younger and younger. I’d look at the “New Faces” portfolios in their rosters and they looked like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby. Girls as young as 14 were being used in spreads depicting adults. And normally, a model will “age out” of the business at 23. Of course there are exceptions to all these rules: Kate Moss is 5’6″ and over the age of 23. But we’re talking about the women in the standard “stable” of the top agencies.

My clients who were new to the industry were sweet, lovely girls with good old 1940s stars in their eyes. They dreamed of the runway, Paris, Milan, and that one ad or spread in Vogue that would launch their career. I couldn’t bear to see these women enter an industry that would ultimately victimize them. During one shoot, I learned that my client was in the process of getting her Ph.D. in rocket science. Gorgeous woman. Everyone told her she should be a model, so she was giving it a shot. During the shoot I wanted to scream, “Stop! Run now and go back to school!”

So what’s in the title of this post? Well, 10 years later the modeling/fashion industry is coming under attack for the depiction of women. Thankfully, the public is now standing up to the non-realistic body types, the Photoshopping, the starvation and the portrayal of women in advertising.

With this renewed awareness, I started noticing that it can be as subtle as the pose. I, myself, told models to hunch their shoulders, lean forward, angle the head. Industry standard. But why was it industry standard? After reviewing a smattering of ads, I realized that the poses were basically designed to keep women “in their place.”

I created four categories of poses in which most of the ads I reviewed fell into one ore more:hunch2

A. SCARED/VICTIM – She’s looking over her shoulder or her facial expression is frightened. She has her hands up in protective or shielding position. She’s pulling away from a man. She’s dead. Any image depicting the woman as victim.

B. POSITIONED FOR SEX/UNDRESSED – She is set up for sex: lying supine or close to it. Her legs are spread. She’s on a bed. She’s in a state of undress in which she wouldn’t (realistically) be allowed in public. Something is in her mouth.

C. NON-THREATENING/DEMURE/CHILDLIKE – Head angled. Eyes looking away, down. The classic “hunch” pose of the upper torso. Body is not square to the camera. Chin is down. Body language depicting submission, weakness.

D. OBJECTIFIED/NON-HUMAN/ONE OF MANY – No face or her face is obscured. A group of women all dressed and made up the same. No individuality. A product.

Do this experiment with me: The next time you see a fashion ad or spread in a magazine, see if it fits into one of these categories. Decide if the photograph helps the female image or hurts it. Here are a couple samples I’ve found:

all balenciaga chanel1 deadbody2 gucci legsapart Marc Jacobs 2014 ad campaign featuring Miley Cyrus object oneofmany protective sex victim1 vuitton vuitton2

A message to the photographers, stylists, ad agencies and everyone else involved with these shoots: Are you empowering women or victimizing them? Won’t it enhance the brand to change this?

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Jennifer Moss is a seasoned web developer, photographer, and author of both fiction and non-fiction books. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @mossifer


  1. Alice Darr says:

    Don’t forget the Victoria Secret fashion show. I usually don’t watch it as they have nothing to offer me. But this year, they didn’t even try to have any diversity in their model lineup. Oh sure, they have women from other countries and women models with different skin color, but they all had the same underweight body type with extra long thin legs, stuffed bras, too much makeup and most had the stringy “blond” hair look. No women over age 35 or 40, no women who wore anything over a size 6 or had any fat or shape at all. Certainly no one with Kim K’s body type. It was a sad affair for most women, to see no one who even remotely looks like them.

    • There are good points to the article, but you name those poses something more confident and it totally changes the outlook of the photo, art is subjective and you see what you want, moody, controversial, and even offensive is an easy eye catch and that’s the purpose of print advertising to stop and make you look, and all advertising is objectifying weather it be men or woman in the print maybe in slightly different ways but the motivation is the same to get people to see the brand and spend money. lso for the record, shoulders forward with or with out arms wrapped naturally brings your eye into the subject which is a natural way to trick your eye to look at the photo which is why its an industry standard when it comes to photo composition though there are lots of technical reasons for positioning subjects that way you do brains have evolved to work in certain patterns you eye moves by default, so positions can be very formulaic, the too thin Photoshopping models I am strongly opposed to and always have been but yet again that door swings both ways if you look at the men in thos ads they are all 2% body fat very young and a very thin frail body type, so articles that only show the objectification of the female models always bug me because its simply not true. its a problem with the industry on the whole its not gender specific. the next thing that really bothers me about that article is that Jennifer Moss (the author) writes it from the the experience and knowledge of a professional photographer, which she is not, its very misleading, she may have shot some armature models and got published but shes a writer and web developer, she never went to film school or apprenticed or assisted under any known photographers as far as I can find so that’s why she doesn’t understand the science behind photography but she still criticizes it out of ignorance Now I’m done sorry for ranting.

      • I am a photographer and I happen to agree with her. As a woman, I find these ads appalling. Every time I flip through a fashion magazine, I can always pick out the male photographers versus the female photographers. The males are more “Maxim” shots. It’s all about the T&A, regardless of what the ad is selling or the layout is showcasing. Female photographers focus more on the clothing, jewellery, shoes, etc. Male photographers focus on the models’ sexuality. When I shoot models, I shoot strong, beautiful girls, not half-starved, frightened waifs. And I refuse to exploit them. There is sexy and then there is porn. Fashion photography done by male photographers has slowly crossed the line into softcore pornography. I don’t need to see a woman spread-eagle to purchase an item. That’s not sexy. And I shoot a lot of models and I hear a LOT of complaints from them about male photographers. The industry has always been male-dominated and it consistently has shown that women are treated as nothing but objects.

  2. Love this! So very true. I was at my peak in modeling around the same time and those things were part of what I tried to be conscious of and avoid. Also part of what inspired me as a photographer to later be drawn to photographing strong women.
    Great piece.

  3. Look at the way women & girls are standing in your basic Sunday advertising circulars (Target, Kohl’s, etc): feet turned inward. Humans do not stand like that. Of course, the boys/men are standing normally. I imagine that this is to make women’s feet look smaller. But it also makes women look infantile. And it probably hits a much larger number of people than the (more exclusive) ads given as examples in this excellent article.

  4. I don’t mind “one of many.” It really is all about selling clothes and I never look at an ad for a product to get an actual story about the model. Nor with men’s fashion. So I don’t care if all the models also look the same. But the rest-wounded or timid or scared. The days of showing an ankle when trying to sell soap in 1900-quaint.
    The Victoria’s Secret models all appear to have breast
    Implants because I don’t think anywhere on this
    planet do women with breasts that large also have no hips and legs as thin as my arms. I’d rather see clothes
    on a hanger because that’s how we see them when we
    shop. The American Apparel ads were the worst. Because the owner of the company was also sexually harassing his employees.

    • I couldn’t believe the American Apparel ad with the model completely spread eagle and the camera positioned directly above her genitals. The fact that she is a WOC and overweight doesn’t make it progressive!

      You are right about the icky breast implants on Victoria Secret “angels”. Very thin women do not have huge, perfectly round breasts. This is because breast tissue is fat ,and once body fat % is low enough to have defined abs, breast size is normally A or B-cupped. I hate that fakery!

  5. Thank you for this post. I advise a GSA where I teach, and we’re going to do a project on gender stereotypes in advertising. I think this would be a great resource for pushing our lesson just a little further!

  6. Chamaigne says:

    Well, I guess I can stop being mad at Mom for thwarting my big opportunity to get into modelling at age 14.

  7. Sheila A. Donovan says:

    It enrages me so! Models must starve themselves to maintain their jobs. They suffer from bulimia and various psychological and physical diseases created by the demand for “skinny” people. I remember when “skinny” or “thin” meant sickly. Slim was healthy. Slim is too fat these days. Women are manipulated to the point of mental and physical destruction. Not to mention legs wide open, or whimpering in the corner. THIS MUST STOP!

  8. Wow. Scary. Thank you for shedding light on this.

  9. Very insightful. I suspect I’ll be looking at fashion spreads differently for a while.

  10. karen3224 says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. Glad you included the American Apparel advertisement as an example. Yes, it is a more realistic body type – frizzy hair and such. It is a person you would see on the street or in a supermarket, but it’s offensive just the same. The media (all media!) must learn that it’s not just the unrealistic body types that are offensive – it’s the entire message that is offensive. The advertisements sent harmful messages to women and girls, and even more harmful messages to men and boys.

  11. Naming and examples of the poses seem accurate, but I think the author makes a mistake assuming an impersonal agency of the industry – “to keep women in their place”. Who’s goal is that in particular? Models? Photographers? Photoshopers? Marketing people? Editors?

    No. Every person involved in the industry is just trying to do their stuff “well” that is in a manner that sells. People like seeing women in poses that emphasise their vulnerability, submissivenes, sexual objectification etc. Women like to see themselves in these poses because it makes them feel appropriate, that is sexy and feminine.

    It’s worth noting that girls and women voluntarily pose in similar manner. This could be explained by the fact that they’re exposed to similar images from early childhood. That, however is in my opinion far older than “the industry”, or any industry.

    If you ask “who benefits from that” you get a useless answer – “patriarchy” – a notion without an entity under it, a notion that is not an agent.

    If you ask “why people feel like this about such and such portrayals of women” you end up with evolutionary psychology, which is far more interesting, although doesn’t allow blame, which would be easy.

  12. Great article. Would add the shoes they have them wear that are impossible to walk in, especially on runways where they fall because the shoes are so ridiculous. Reminds me of the Chinese lotus foot–where they bound young girls feet so the toes were bent under and sometimes other severe measures, so they were barely able to walk, and definitely couldn’t run to defend themselves. They’d literally be helpless. This was a status symbol, necessary to get a man. Sounds familiar…

  13. please tell me you have seen these: and — fashion magazines are insane but certainly full of opportunities for humor!

  14. william o says:

    Stop reading fashion mags. Stop supporting them. I barely look at any ads these days.

    • I agree, but so many of these ads permeate beyond fashion mags. Unrealistic sexualisation of the female body is ubiquitous.

  15. Genevieve says:

    In 2014 I opened my latest issue of Elle Decor and settled in for some design inspiration. I came upon an ad for carpeting. It showed a model(woman) lying on the floor, obviously having been attacked in some way.
    ‘Killer Carpeting’…I was horrified and immediately wrote to the editor. I received a prompt reply, saying it was a West Coast ad only, and they had expressed my reaction(horror) to the company. It never appeared again.

  16. The image of the women in the vending machines is very reminiscent of the women being prostituted in the European red light districts like products in shop fronts. Challenging the ideas born out of male entitlement–women as sexual commodities for male consumption is a good place to start and how this plays out in no more blatant way than in the prostitution of women and how it is very much connected to how women are portrayed and represented in media. It is the oldest oppression.

  17. As I was searching the website for a blog to use for my Intro to Global Gender and Women’s Studies class, I knew this one was the perfect choice. We recently watched the movie “Killing Me Softly” and had an activity in which we had to search for an advertisement which we saw as sexist/racist/offensive towards women. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of these pictures you posted, but I still found way too different examples to use online. So many ads that show women in a negative way. Being a housewife, seen as submissive towards men, merely seen as faceless bodies.. while men are shown in a strong and powerful way, women are shown as second class citizens who are nothing more than objects to be used for housework and sexual pleasure, or delicate little fairies that can’t defend themselves and must be protected at all times. There needs to be a few major changes in the advertisement business. First, diversity needs to be represented more. When I say diversity, I don’t just mean ethnic diversity. Diversity also includes women with all kinds of body shapes, not just the tall, thin women which we see far too often. These women shown in the ads are not representative of the many colors and shapes that women come in. Second, they need to stop showing women as faceless, frail little sex objects. It may just be an advertisement, but we are constantly surrounded by advertisements everywhere we go (social media, shopping malls, etc.), and people’s mind are subconsciously taking these pictures in and are being affected by them without realizing it. Marketing companies must take careful consideration into the message they are showing in the ads they make. It is now 2017 and we still have a long way to go for women to be shown in an equal light as men.

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