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Every morning I have a ritual: scanning the press (American, British, French and Italian) for news about the beauty industry, mass media, and advertising. Recently, I jumped on the Google Alert bandwagon and now my job is far easier: emails about “plastic surgery,” “dieting,” “airbrushing,” and “KGOY” (Kids Getting Older Younger) neatly make their way into my inbox, sending me off in unexpected directions, making me check out sites all over the blogosphere and from small newspapers I didn’t previously know about.

This morning, I received an alert about “breast implants” that directed me to a blog – Boy Culture – which had a post about unretouched photos of Madonna from a Steven Klein photoshoot (original post here). By digging through the site’s archive, I found a previous post with more photos from the same photoshoot (you can find it here).

Now, what impressed me the most was not Madonna’s unsightly appeareance – the blog author doesn’t spare compliments, saying, ” Madonna looked like sh*t in a freezer.” I didn’t gasp at the uncomfortable poses, age-inappropriate outfits, or at her wrinkles. No. What shocked me the most about these photos was a palpable sense of vulnerability: she looked raw, exposed, weak, offering herself up to the photographer’s lens. Her eyes just about killed me. They seemed to be pleading, “I’m 50, please make me look good.”

I remember how fiery and feisty she was throughout 1990s. Then came a revolution in Hollywood and a newfound cultural obsession with teen stars. And Madonna, chamaleon-like, kept reinventing herself to appeal to a young public. And she hasn’t stopped. Now at 50, after a career of extraordinary commercial success in the music world, and iconic status for many followers, she is still selling herself as a sexual object. And looking increasingly out of place.

When I saw the photos, I though of an Ariel Levy quote (from her book Female Chauvinist Pigs):

“There is a disconnect between sexiness or hotness and sex itself. […] Our interest is in the appearance of sexiness, not the existence of sexual pleasure. […] Passion isn’t the point. The glossy, overheated thumping of sexuality in our culture is less about connection than consumption. Hotness has become our cultural currency.”

Why? Because I remember Madonna’s controversial statements in the 1990s, her provocative music videos, her book Sex, her album Erotica. Back then, she was talking about sexual pleasure. For marketing purposes, sure, but still, her message was about sex itself – just think about her video for the song “Justify My Love.”

Well, now I feel she is virtually indistinguishable from other musicians thumping sexuality in a completely superficial way, merely selling the appearance of sexiness for visual consumption, as Ariel Levy would say.

At 50, she should have known better.


I’m eagerly awaiting for a day when girls will have a young positive female role model who is not a singer or an actress. Someone known for her intellectual acumen – not her body. Somebody fostering a real change in the world. (I nominate Naomi Klein).