Celebrity blogshop models – performing cyber-femininity

img_1632Crystal  is undertaking a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Western Australia, Perth. She is passionate about gender equality, feminism, percussive music, and penguins. Read more of her blogs  and follow her via @wishcrys

Celebrity blogshop models

Within the commercial blog industry in Singapore, blogshops are undoubtedly raking in the highest profits. The network has launched the careers of dozens of industry models who started out as blogshop models. Many formerly amateurish blogshop owners have honed their art and emerged as local designers over the years. Some blogshops, like mds for example, have even grown into full-fletched retail stores with chains island-wide.

Amidst the hundreds of blogshops in operation today — and thousands more that are now defunct — one would often find models and owners of high profile blogshops growing into online celebrities in their own right. Many of these women go on to become ambassadors and spokespersons of beauty and fashion lines in the mainstream commercial industry. I attempt to trace one of the routes in which such micro-celebrities are produced — modeling.

Via their personal blogs — many of which are commercial blogs — some blogshop owners are recognisable as the ‘face’ of the shop despite having engaged models for their wares. For this reason, I refer to these high profile owners and their hired models as blogshop models collectively.

In order to stimulate desire and motivate customers to purchase from their new collections, blogshop models engage in a cycle of modeling, role-modeling and role-playing. These modes of modeling are sequential steps, though not isolated nor discreet steps, in stimulating desire.

Modeling, role modeling, role playing

Modeling is the first step, both in presentation of the model herself and in any given instance of product presentation. Modeling establishes the presence of both the model and products within the space of the blogshop website. Modeling is the most straightforward step in stimulating desire. Blogshop models pose for and post photographs of themselves modeling apparel for sale.

After modeling is achieved, it continues simultaneously with role-modeling, through which blogshop models aim to set standards and impart to their readers skills of “gender competence” (Connell, 2002:81). Finally, in tandem with and building upon modeling and role-modeling, blogshop models engage in role-playing, in which they enact their femininities (Butler, 2005), further kindling desire among readers and customers. It is particularly through role-playing that blogshop models produce commercial intimacies in relationship to their customers, a point we return to below, after first elaborating the modes of modeling, role-modeling and role-playing through which blogshop models perform their cyber-femininities.

1. Modeling 

In modeling, blogshop models pose for photographs of themselves, modeling the apparel for sale, and post these photographs to the blogshop website. The photographs are accompanied by simple descriptions of the apparel including the fabric used, color, measurements and a price tag. We can observe several “bodily practices” (Turner, 1984) in modeling, all of which become “spectacles” (Richards, 1990) through the hyper-visual nature of blogshops seeking to entice and hook readers. Blogshop models carve out niche appearances to differentiate themselves from competitors. These distinctive elements vary from hairstyles and make-up varieties to highlighting distinctive bodily characteristics to poses and facial expressions.

‘Gemma’, for example, is known for the styling her hair up in a ‘bump’ and for her defined collarbones;
‘Heather’ is known for her polished smile and ‘crisscross’ leg poses;
‘Elaine’ is known for her fair complexion and pouty lips.

Repeated emphasis of these body parts helps models to distinguish their appearance in the market. In addition to their niche appearance, models deck themselves in luxury brand shoes, bags or accessories to complement the blogshop apparel, which is the only item actually up for sale. Blending of high-end branded goods with cheap(er) mass-produced clothing flatters and lends some prestige to the latter, persuading buyers to look beyond its often cheap(er) substandard quality.

Mass media celebrity

Blogshops also trade on mass media celebrity to stimulate desire in readers. Here, it is Hollywood or other mass media celebrities who are role-models, while blogshop models act as a conduit of cultural taste between international celebrities and customers. Blogshops pick out trends and styles from well-known celebrities and produce similar mock-ups for sale, creating a middle ground between seemingly unobtainable celebrity “high-life” and mass culture. This practice results in a wide array of “inspired products” — the blogosphere’s euphemism for imitation goods. Blogshops afford customers the opportunity to own a garment “as seen on” a particular celebrity.

Whereas practices of modeling in the mainstream catalog and runway industry are largely passive, with the body of the model acting as the site of display or conduit of desire, models in the blogshop community take on more active practices in role-modeling and role-playing. In practices of role-modeling, blogshop models aim to set bodily, beauty and behavioral standards for their readers. Across all blogshops performing different cyber-femininities, models are predom- inantly tall (above 1.65 m), slender (under 50 kg and UK size 6 to 8), fair-skinned (either of Chinese, Eurasian or European descent) and have long hair (beyond shoulder length).

2. Role-modeling

Blogshop models subtly shift from modeling to role-modeling by setting the core benchmarks of body image across cyber-femininities. Alternative body sizes such as shorter, plumper, dark-skinned, shorthaired models are seldom seen, and even when evident, are not as popular among readers judging by their visibility and lifespan in the scene. It is a norm for blogshops to include their “model stats” (short for model body statistics) in their blogposts, with these figures closely conforming to a largely unspoken industry standard. Most blogshop apparel, though tagged “free size”, is actually tailored to fit body proportions of blogshop models.

“[name], 1.67 m tall, uk size 6–8”
“[name] stands 165 cm, uk 6–8”
“Model [name] is a UK6–8, 166 cm”

The “halo effect”

Blogshop models are objectified when their attributes come to be detached and perceived as “objects of exchange” (Radin, 1996:156). Certain models utilize this strategy most often by overtly showing off their curves in the skin-tight apparel, implying that customers who purchase and don these outfits can likewise channel the same sexy vibe. Blogshop models also play role-models by offering beauty tips and fashion advice to readers. Through the “halo effect” (Dittmar, 2008; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), readers perceive the model’s choices and guidance as coming from women “in the know,” having successfully achieved the unusual mergence of “beauty and brains” as evidenced by their economic success in blogshops and feminine attractiveness (cf. Fletcher & Greenhill, 2009; Perrin, 1921; Prather, 1971).

Performing heterosexuality

In addition to setting body-standards and fashion trends, blogshop models role-model the performance of their (hetero)sexuality by giving readers relationship advice. Advice meted out is usually framed in terms of the models’ own personal experience and supposedly private relationships. They give detailed descriptions of dates with their boyfriends before branching out into discussions on how girlfriends and boyfriends ought to be treated.

3. Role-playing

Role-modeling is accompanied by role-playing, in which blogshop models perform their femininities in a variety of ways to kindle desire among readers. One aspect of role-play and performance are instances in which blogshop models engage in playing dress-up to draw out social scripts of femininity (Laws & Schwartz, 1977; Wiederman, 2005). They suggest appropriate occasions for different types of attire and adjectives connoting particular features of the models’ projected cyber-femininities are found in text accompanying photographs of feminine performance.

For example, “power blazers” are intended for the workplace and channel the look of “strong” and “independent” women; tight-fitting “bodycon” dresses are meant for clubbing and portray “sexy chic”; and maxi dresses are great for relaxing days at the beach and intended to conceal tummy bulges on “fat days.” When blogshop apparel is personified and marketed as the dominant modes of adornment socially accepted by other women, the message is that readers’ bodies too should conform to performances of emphasized femininities.

Online and offline personas

Role-play by blogshop models blurs the distinction between their online persona and real life identities. At times, models’ activities offline are directed to manufacturing blogposts for readers online. In other words, models appear to be “on stage” all the time (Goffman, 1969) in order to produce something to blog about. As role-models, the lifestyles of blogshop models are objectified for readers’ consumption when the models market apparel in theme with their private lives. Life offline, at least as it is reflected on the blogshop websites, becomes a stage for performing (role-playing) the model’s persona such that online/offline distinction blurs or seemingly disappears.

Online reality is not a simulation of offline reality (cf. Baudrillard, 1994). Rather a model’s role-play offline, motivated by online representations of her persona, produce a reality in which the online–offline persona of the model appears fused, one-in-the same, and therefore authentic. For instance, planned face-to-face meet-ups and random en- counters between blogshop models and readers are often fed back into the social medium through photographs and blog posts.

Accessible celebrities

Apart from their captivating looks and quality posts, much of the success of blogshop models hinges on their interpersonal relationships with readers. Interactions between models and readers are framed as egalitarian friendships as opposed to hierarchal and distant celebrity–fan relationships in the ways they attempt to address each other. Blogshop models’ portrayal of their online persona is crafted through the narrative accounts of their everyday life, in contrast to celebrity models’ staged performances on the runway or at media appearances. Authenticity, in turn, is an important element that dilutes and masks the commerciality of each transaction, sustaining the success of celebrity blogshop models.

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Cyber-femininities

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Crystal  is undertaking a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Western Australia, Perth. She is passionate about gender equality, feminism, percussive music, and penguins. Read more of her blogs  and follow her via @wishcrys

Cyber-femininities

cyber femininitiesImagine a world where we traded on intellect, circulated ideas, and communicated textually to convey our ‘inner selves’, where others evaluated us based on our ideal self-perceived identities… In this world, visible bodily markers that used to distinguish race, gender, and age would no longer penetrate our exchanges as fervently… Would this ideal world be a place free of racism, sexism, and ageism? Perhaps, an age of non-embodiment?

Apart from being a biological interface that maneuvers technology behind the screen, the physical body is not a necessary entity on the inter-webs. After all, one may craft avatars, pseudonymous personas, and entire standalone life course profiles to interact with other users without any reference to their actual physical appearance.

As appealing as this seeded thought is, users are more often than not bringing their physical bodies into the forefront of cyber-worlds, often intensifying particular bodily features and aspects of personality that they imagine to be their truest selves. We’re talking about self-trained artists in digital manipulation who erase fat, enlarge eyes, insert pecs, alter skin tones. We’re talking about the use of language, emoticons, and social media interfaces to convey an entire digital profile of a finely crafted individual. A re-embodiment on a digital interface. Perhaps even a hyper-embodimentin a bodiless world.

In my study of commercial bloggers in South East Asia, bloghop models tended to follow a handful of gendered scripts to convey their ideal mode of femininity. As gendered performances that are practised on and intensified via the Internet, I term these scripts cyber-femininities.

These modes of cyber-femininities were sieved out through textual themes, repetitions or recurring regularities in blogshop launches and the blogposts of owners and models.

As with other, recent work on femininity and masculinity, this analysis of blogshops moves away from a simple dichotomy between hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity on the one hand and subordinate masculinity and femininity on the other (Connell, 1987, 2002; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) toward a more nuanced view of diverse and complexly hierarchical femininities (Schippers, 2007).

At least six different sorts of femininity became evident in analyzing the online content of blogshops.

The ‘family girl’ portrays herself as a loving daughter and stresses the importance of her tight-knit family.

The ‘material girl’ emphasizes branded goods and other possessions in her online presentation of self.

The ‘globetrotter’ blogs about her travels and adventures.

The ‘fashionista’ updates readers on the latest and upcoming trends in apparel and accessories as well as beauty tips.

The ‘party girl’ showcases her sensational nightlife and provocative (hetero)sexuality.

The ‘rebel’ claims to reject social norms, including female body image, and expresses herself through verbal rants and expletives.

These femininities – or modes of feminine expression – are not mutually exclusive, though certain blogshop models are known for highlighting one or more through their online persona.

One blogger, for example, exudes the qualities of a ‘family girl’ with frequent references to her mother’s sacrificial love and supreme culinary skills, her tight-knit and doting family, and a consistent reverence towards God as the provider of all.

Another blogger paints herself as a ‘globetrotter’ with a plethora of past and future holiday destinations pictorially catalogued and communicated in pixels. Although she has a life partner, a close-knit family, and a day job in a corporate firm, the blogger focuses on her independence as a young sojourner in search of exotic adventures and exciting escapades.

Yet another blogger openly flaunts her ‘rebel’ image boasting a punk lifestyle taking on conventionally masculine sports like skateboarding and surfing, and a grunge fashion slant with multiple tattoos and piercings. She is also liberal in conveying her frustration and anger through harsh words and tones, though often being passive-aggressive in addressing everyone yet no one in particular.

While these and other blogshop models perform diverse cyber-femininities, in contrast, for instance, to a singular hegemonic femininity or masculinity (cf. Connell, 1987; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005), their position within the commercial sphere produces powerful and disciplining effects for both blogshop consumers and the models themselves.

More on this another time!

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