The fantasy / comparison model of fashion image processing: A prospective model of viewer engagement

Photographs in the Paper Dolls series confront the viewer with fundamental questions of viewer agency and power central to the critical investigation of visual culture. A feminist critique of visual culture, especially the culture of fashion magazine consumption by young women, is suggested by the selection and treatment of the six images comprising the exhibition. Identifying the precise methodology, intent, and commentary of the artists, and ultimately being able to identify whether or not the work falls within the realm of feminist praxis, is complicated by the works’ collective authorship, generally destructive treatment of the original source magazines, the translation of the collages into digital and analog photographs, and their eventual transmission via social media. 

Whereas the task of the curator is to present a body of work to an audience and create a space for viewer engagement consistent with the artist’s vision, the roles of the critic and art historian differ significantly – in the degree to which they regard the artists’ intent or success, offer interpretation of meaning, deal with issues of reception, and attempt to locate the work in an historical context. The purpose of this exercise is to provide a critical perspective, focused on proposing a possible theoretical model for engaging with the Paper Dolls capable of teasing out answers posed by the art or of identifying and fixing certain of the artists’ methods, intended meanings, or unintended effects. The reader is encouraged to test the theory’s efficacy against example photographs by Colleen and Justin Shull and drawings by Nancy Hamon by asking how each artist incorporates the social comparison or fantasy image processing techniques, to what degree, and whether or not the artists’ work may be regarded at critical feminist practice.

Untitled, ca. 1933-1942 by Nancy Hamon.

Colleen Shull has stated that the experience of being pregnant in southern California, an image-conscious social environment, inspired her personal reevaluation of the beauty ideals and gender stereotypes promoted in the fashion magazines she typically uses as source material for her collages and abstract paintings. Fashion magazines and the fantastical image of perfection they attempt to naturalize expose themselves to a feminist critique which Jacqueline Rose argues “stress[es] the particular and limiting opposition of male and female which any image seen to be flawless is serving to hold in place.” Thus, we may form an elision between Rose’s notion of the “fantasy of sexual difference” and a more recent notion of fantasy in young women’s consumption of fashion magazines as explored by psychologists Marika Tiggemann, Janet Polivy, and Duane Hargreaves, which will seed fertile new territory for inquiry.

Their collectively-authored study, “The processing of thin ideals in fashion magazines: a source of social comparison or fantasy?”, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in January 2009, successfully identifies a primary motivation for young women’s consumption of fashion magazines – the positive mood altering effects of “fantasy”. In the study, 144 undergraduate women were asked to examine fashion magazine advertisements representing thin ideal women and either asked to compare themselves to the woman represented or to imagine themselves as the woman in the photograph. The study is consistent with other literature arguing that women read fashion magazines for “inspiration, self-improvement and pleasurable fantasy”. Previous literature, however, emphasizes the negative effects of the ‘social comparison’ processing method of reading (“I would like my body to look like this woman’s body”) on general mood, body dissatisfaction, and appearance self-esteem. This study, on the other hand, showed that fantasy offers women readers sufficient positive mood effects completely independent of body dissatisfaction cognitions (“It would be great fun to be this woman”; “This woman has an exciting life”). The study concluded that women use both the comparison and fantasy processing/reading methods to different degrees when consuming fashion magazines showing the thin ideal body type. The study also concluded that the immediate short term positive mood effects of fantasy encourage young women, over the long term, to “internaliz[e] an increasingly unrealistic thin ideal for themselves and become at increased risk for body image and eating pathology”. 

As viewers, can we appropriate themes and insights from the Tiggemann et al study in the field of psychology and develop a workable theory for looking at the Shulls’ Paper Dolls and Nancy Hamon’s drawings? By asking whether the artists deploy the fantasy or comparison model to their reading of fashion images, and how their work represents their attitudes and emotions, can we gain greater understanding of their work and how it functions to create meaning? If, as Jacqueline Rose argues, feminist practice aims at rupturing or destabilizing the visual experience of the ostensibly flawless, fantastical image of perfection, does the Shulls’ or Ms. Hamon’s art conform to definition of critical engagement? If not, to what degree is the artists’ work complicit in promulgating the social ideals of fashion and consumer culture, or ambiguous in its lack of making definitive statements or providing alternative representations of women?

To test your theory, attempt a comparison of images by two contemporary women artists who draw on fashion imagery as source material, Marilyn Minter and Wangechi Mutu. Minter is a painter who hires fashion models and deploys the visual tropes of fashion in her images; Mutu uses collage elements from fashion and erotic magazines to create cyborg female characters. 


Tiggemann, M., Polivy, J., & Hargreaves, D. “The Processing of Thin Ideals in Fashion Magazines: A Source of Social Comparison or Fantasy?” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2009, pp. 73-93.

 Mutu, Wangechi, Trevor Schoonmaker, Kristine Stiles, Greg Tate, and Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. 2013.Wangechi Mutu: A fantastic journey. Durham, N.C.: Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University.

Bancroft, Alison. 2012. Fashion and psychoanalysis: Styling the self. Vol. 23. New York; London: I.B. Tauris.

Thanks to Scott Gleeson of the Hawn Gallery Exhibition Committee for this guest blogpost!

Follow the Paper Dolls series on Instagram: #paperdolltransmission@justinshull@colleenshullstudio

More information on the exhibition


Featured image: Paper Doll Transmission 140 by Coleen Shull and Justin Shull.

Untitled, ca. 1933-1942 by Nancy Hamon, Courtesy of the Jake and Nancy Hamon Papers, Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University.

Deluge, 2011, C Print by Marilyn Minter.

Ghouls On My Back Celebrate Murder by Wangechi Mutu.

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