Lessons About Women Gleaned from Stock Photography

Maybe we need more female photographers to contribute to stock photo sites.

I’m putting on my feminist hat (okay, it’s a crown) for this post, so be forewarned.

I was looking for pictures for the cover of my next book yesterday and I noticed that you can really draw a lot of inferences about our culture just by looking at the way women are portrayed in stock photography.

To give you context, I was looking for a middle-aged woman with a sword for the final installment of my trilogy. The original mock up my designer and I came up with has been bugging me for months and I finally figured out why: the model we used is too young for where Guinevere is in life in this story. So I’m looking for an older one.

You would think there are stock photos out there of queens, right? Yeah not so much, unless you want one who is maybe 18 or you can pay thousands of dollars to a photographer period images. I can’t, so I used Adobe Stock and ThinkStock, which produced some rather…interesting results. What I found was pretty consistent on both. I realize that this likely has more to do with the specific searches I was doing than the diversity of images overall on those sites, but my results were still pretty telling:

  1. Keywords: Woman with sword. Many of the women with swords were very young and most were scantily clothed. Some were licking the swords in what I guess was supposed to be a seductive manner. (Eww…) This clearly comes from some sort of male fetish and is obviously meant to cater to the male gaze. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, given the lack of strong female historical role models, but you would think with all the fantasy novels out there, there would be more images that were appropriate for books that aren’t anime-like or erotica.
  2. Keywords: Dark haired woman. Finding pictures of middle-aged women is very hard. I can find young models and elderly woman in spades, but like with Hollywood rolls, women in middle age are ignored. This makes me feel like our society wants to hide the period of life when women are no longer traditionally desirable, yet aren’t the crones we like to trot out at Halloween and ignore for the rest of the year. As someone approaching 40, I find the lack of representation of women near my age very troubling. I know I no longer look like I did when I was 18 so I don’t want a child representing me or subconsciously conveying I should still look like her. No. I earned every one of my wrinkles and age spots. I want my characters to be able to show the beauty of aging, too.
  3. Keywords: Middle aged woman. When you do find middle-aged women in pictures they are smiling. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but when you’re trying to find one in which the woman looks like she wants to be taken seriously, this is a problem. I began to think about the types of products these happy images might accompany and most of them were intended to solve some sort of “female” problem: child-rearing, cleaning, eating healthy so they can look young (see above). Then I remembered the old idea that women should always be bright and happy for their men; looks like that is still alive and well. God forbid we show a woman who could go toe to toe with a man! We’d rather have vapid, smiling Barbie dolls.
  4. Keywords: Middle aged woman serious. If you ask for serious faces, most of the images you get are women who aren’t wearing makeup. Um…what am I supposed to do with that? Does that mean that photographers think serious women are ugly or plain? Or that a woman can’t be desirable and serious at the same time? Are the only ways to be serious and female to be sick, tired or depressed? Because that’s what these search results look like.
  5. Keywords: Fierce woman. Fierce women apparently like to bite things: chains, whips, pens, hot peppers (don’t ask, I don’t know either, but it was there). And they like to exercise and yell. That’s seriously (no pun intended) all you get in this type of search. Where are the businesswomen, pissed off mothers, and women thinking deep thoughts? Where are the warriors, military women, doctors, police women, etc.? The message this sends to me is that I can only be considered fierce if I’m a dominatrix or I’m working out, both of which end up feeding into ideals put in place by men for how women are supposed to be. And that is bullshit. I’m fierce every single day, even when I stay in my pajamas!

As a feminist, I find these results deeply concerning. If women ever want to be taken seriously we need to break through the stereotypes that run rampant in these images.

Right now I really wish I was a photographer so I could start consciously integrating more positive and diverse female images into my work. But I am a writer, which means I’m going to have to keep writing strong female characters who demand a different image on their book covers. Write enough of those and the pictures will change. Or at least that is my hope.

Gray Hair: Trend or Political Statement?

This is a different kind of post for the Spellbound Scribes, but it reflects what I’ve been thinking about lately, so you’ll have to bear with me.

Gray Hair Games
Gray Hair Games

I got my first gray hair when I was about 23 years old.

I started coloring my hair at 24.

Once when I was in my early 30s, I was getting my hair done, and the woman in the chair next to mine started talking to her stylist about “a friend” who plucked all her grays. My stylist looked at me through the mirror and said, “Don’t even think about it, sweetie. You’d be bald.”

That was over twenty years ago.

I let my hair go natural when I was thirty five and pregnant with my first child. FWIW, I didn’t want to expose the fetus to any potential toxins in the hair color. Two years later, when I was pregnant with my second child, I did color my hair. Twice. Because thirty six was too young to be invisible.

When I was in my early forties I gave up on coloring my hair for the second time. I was sick to death of trying to hide the roots and negotiating appointments with popular stylists and paying $150 every two months to look like myself.

Except, without hair color, the combination of mostly-gray hair, fair skin, and light blue eyes made me feel like a ghost.

I mean, it’s sort of a fact of life. Most middle-aged women tend to fly under the radar. As a whole, society values youth – an attitude so pervasive, I don’t feel like I need to justify or validate it. And, for all the progress towards equality women have made, men still hold the power cards. So what happens if you’re neither young nor particularly powerful?

No one really takes you seriously. No one pays  much attention to you at all.

If you’ve got a minute, scroll through this slide show of Hollywood actresses who are between the ages of 50 – 60. They all look terrific, but only one – Jamie Leigh Curtis – has gray hair. Most of them have a sentence or two under their pictures, where the prevailing theme is, “but she looks so YOUNG!”

Because god forbid a woman in her 50’s actually look her age.

An actress in her 50’s may be beautiful, but she’s not likely to be cast as the movie’s love interest. Those roles go to actresses who are under 35 – regardless of how old the hero is. Check out this link for a look at the twenty-five largest age differences in movie couples. Or better yet, just ask Johnny Depp how old his costars are.

In the interest of bringing some actual science to the discussion, I found a paper from the journal Frontiers in Psychology that examines facial attractiveness as a perception of an individual’s value or worth. Their study sample was relatively small, only 60 people (30 men & 30 women) but their data supported their three hypotheses:

One study with a small sample shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but if nothing else it makes me feel like I’m not completely crazy. There’s a reason women work so hard – sometimes pathologically so – to look young. And if aging is bad and gray hair is associated with aging, why would a woman decide to go gray?

“They” say gray hair is trendy these days. Here’s a link to an In-Style article with some pretty pictures of twenty-something girls who have “gone gray” (which means they bleached out their hair then put on a silver toner – though I’ll give Kate Moss partial credit as she’s actually old enough to have some gray hair). They look really pretty, but it’s not my mama’s gray hair.

I will say, though, that articles about celebrities who are aging gracefully generally feature women who are ten, fifteen, or twenty years older than I am. Seriously. Except for Jamie Leigh Curtis, no celebrity close to my age has gray hair.

Because yeah, a couple years ago I gave up on all-over color and went with chunky high- and low-lights to blend my almost-completely-white roots. And then about six months ago, when the time for my appointment came around, I sorta forgot to make it.

I can’t decide whether I’m old enough to have internalized the expectation of invisibility, or if the silver-white thing is more striking than it used to be, or if I just don’t give a damn.

The other day at work, I ran across someone I hadn’t seen in a while, and she greeted me with, “hey, it’s another silver fox!”

She’s about my age and her hair is lovely, a glossy, silver, shoulder-length bob. I said something lame about, “well, you got the silver right”, because it’s not in me to admit to being a fox. But maybe I am.

Or maybe there’s some secret bonus to aging that I have, as yet, not appreciated.

Only time will tell.