Is Cindy Crawford's cellulite photo empowering?

Story highlights

  • An unretouched photo of supermodel Cindy Crawford was posted on Twitter by journalist Charlene White
  • Peggy Drexler: We don't like Crawford's image because it's "real," we like it because it's a little unattractive

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)A few days ago, when British journalist Charlene White posted on Twitter an apparently unretouched photo of supermodel Cindy Crawford, she launched a firestorm of debate over what women's bodies should look like as they get older.

The image showed the 48-year-old Crawford looking sultry, but imperfect, in black lingerie, her bared stomach and thighs characterized by what appears to be some cellulite, wrinkles and sun damage. "Take a bow, Mrs. C," White tweeted.
To many, this was a welcome change from photos of the latest celebrity who'd gone the cosmetic surgery route. Over the last year, when Hollywood stars like Renee Zellweger and Uma Thurman appeared in public with new faces, there was speculation that they got plastic surgery and the public reacted with harsh judgment.
    So it's no surprise that when photo of Crawford was shared all over social media, many people commended White for making it public and Crawford for having "the guts" to open herself up to such scrutiny.
    White told CNN, "Women come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. I think it's important to see all sorts of body shapes on our screens and in our magazines so that people have a true reflection of what people look like."
    Peggy Drexler
    But the photo was not, it turns out, from Marie Claire, as White acknowledged. It's an unpublished outtake from a 2013 photo shoot from Marie Claire Mexico and Latin America, which is owned by a different publisher. The image was shared by White without Crawford's knowledge or permission.
    The irony here, of course, is that White took ownership of an objectified version of Crawford's body in exactly the same way she set out to criticize others of doing. White said to CNN, "I want people to feel like magazines aren't responsible for their happiness when it comes to their bodies, but magazines also have a responsibility to show us an array of images. ... No one has the right to tell other people how to feel about their body."
    And yet, isn't that exactly what White did?
    If White had done her journalistic due diligence, shouldn't she have made sure the woman in the photo actually felt comfortable having such an intimate photo of herself broadcast to the world?
    White doesn't know how Crawford feels about that image, and we still don't know. (The supermodel has not yet commented on the photo.) In releasing the image, White made an example of one woman's body to satisfy a personal agenda -- that magazines should show more "realistic" images of women. On "Good Morning America," White said, "I thought I would tweet the picture because I found it incredibly empowering to see someone as beautiful and iconic as Cindy Crawford in her natural form."
    To be sure, there is some comfort to be found in that photo. One of the world's most famous models has cellulite! One of the most recognizable female icons grows old and ages just like the rest of us!
    But in praising this photo, are we implicitly saying that we respect the aging process only when it mirrors our own or when it shows some imperfections? After all, what we like here is that Cindy, in fact, doesn't look all that amazing, and to say she does resonates as more than a little condescending. She is beautiful, to be sure, but what we're celebrating as "real" are her flaws.
    The release of the photo and the response it has generated is quite the opposite of inspiring. The message it seems to convey is that the only way we celebrate a woman's aging body is when we bear witness to its flaws.
    After all, we call women like 32-year-old Australian model Erin McNaught, who released photos of her toned body four weeks after giving birth, "vain," "insecure," and "attention-seeking" because we don't find any comfort in seeing those photos.
    So let's call a spade a spade. We don't like Crawford's image because it's "real." We like it because it's a little startling and a little unattractive, and therefore makes us feel better about ourselves.
    But that isn't what empowerment is -- using others' faults to downplay or justify our own. We're also not cheering Crawford's bravery in showing the world what even the most genetically blessed 50-year-old women look like, since the photo was very likely shared without her permission.
    We're using her to make ourselves feel better. Which, of course, could not be more unattractive.