Images of female bodies can be seen everywhere. Women’s bodies are seen on commercials and billboards selling everything from food to cars. Popular actresses on television and in movies are becoming younger, taller and thinner. We hear many stories in the news about actresses fainting on set from lack of food all the time. Gender and body image is portrayed negatively in many different ways throughout the media in today’s society.
It is estimated that we are exposed to over 3,000 advertisements every day. This makes advertisements a very powerful educational force in society. It can be seen that advertisements sell more than just products. They sell values, images and concepts, love and sexuality, and popularity and normalcy. They ultimately tell us who we are and what we should strive to be. Men, women, teens, boys, and girls all identify people by how they look, to body size and shape, to clothes, as well as hairstyles. Therefore, the way we view our body and image can have a large impact on the way we feel about ourselves. For the most people, especially with adolescents, body image is strongly influenced by mass media and advertising. When looking into advertising within media representation and self body image one can see how powerful of an outlet advertising can be in our current society (“Advertising: It’s everywhere”, 2010).
Advertisers emphasize body image and the importance of physical attractiveness in order to sell products. They hope to persuade society that something needs to be “added” or “fixed,” because what we have is either not enough or good enough to meet the high demands that society puts on satisfaction. Women’s magazines are full of articles convincing women that if they can just lose those a little more weight, then they can have the perfect marriage, loving children, great sex, and a rewarding career. The standard of beauty that is imposed on women is difficult to achieve and maintain and therefore, the cosmetic and diet product industries are sure to profit and grow off the high beauty standard. It is no surprise that youth is increasingly promoted, along with thinness, as an essential criterion of beauty in today’s society. Aging is looked at in the media as an issue that needs to be dealt with and ultimately stopped all together (Gerber, 2010).
Adolescents are the main target for most media outlets because they are particularly vulnerable and inexperienced consumers. They are still learning their values and roles and developing their self-concepts. “Most adolescents are sensitive to peer pressure and find it difficult to resist” (Kilbourne, 1999, p.129). This constant exposure to negative body image advertisements may influence individuals to become self-conscious about their bodies and to obsess over their physical appearance.
The beauty industry is an extremely large industry that profits off the negative self-esteem and body image of many women in today’s society. Women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, and diet aids. It is estimated that the diet industry alone is worth anywhere between 40 to 100 billion dollars a year selling temporary weight loss products (Cummings, 2005). On the other hand, research indicates that exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls.
The American research group Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, Inc. says that one out of every four college-aged women uses unhealthy methods of weight control, such as fasting, skipping meals, excessive exercise, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting (“National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders”, 2010) . The Canadian Women’s Health Network warns that weight control measures are now being taken by girls as young as 5 and 6 years old (The Canadian Women’s Health Network, 2005). Another study conducted by Marika Tiggemann and Levina Clark in 2006 titled “Appearance Culture in Nine- to 12-Year-Old Girls: Media and Peer Influences on Body Dissatisfaction,” notes that nearly half of all preadolescent girls wish to be thinner and as a result, they have engaged in a diet or are aware of the concept of dieting (Clark, 2006). In 2003, Teen magazine reported that 35 percent of girls 6 to 12 years old have been on at least one diet, and that fifty to seventy percent of normal weight girls believe they are overweight (Gibbons, 2003).Overall research indicates that ninety percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearance in some way (The Canadian Women’s Health Network, 2005). Media activist Jean Kilbourne concludes that, “Women are sold to the diet industry by the magazines we read and the television programs we watch, almost all of which make us feel anxious about our weight” (Kilbourne, 1999, p. 47).
Many of the media images of female beauty are unattainable a majority of women. The media continues to set unrealistic standards for what body size and appearance is considered “normal.” If you look through any magazine or turn on the television, you would see collarbones, hipbones, cheekbones and rib cages as the overall trend in Hollywood. Celebrities like Mary-Kate Olsen and Nicole Richie, both of whom have been reported to have eating disorders, can be seen in designer clothing with designer handbags and gorgeous men along with them. This is the model of success for many adolescent girls. Most of these girls look up to and admire these celebrities and are therefore taught at a young age that Barbie is how a woman is supposed to look; tall, blonde, big breasts, and extremely thin. Barbie in reality is so thin that her weight and body proportions are not only unattainable, but also unhealthy (Gerber, 2010)..
Researchers have generated a computer model with Barbie-doll proportions and have found that her back would be too weak to support the weight of her upper body, and would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and a few centimeters of bowel. A real woman built that way would suffer from chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition. Jill Barad president of Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie, estimated that ninety nine percent of girls between the ages of 3 to 10 years old own at least one Barbie doll (Greenwald, 1996). Still, the number of real life women and girls who seek a similarly underweight body is epidemic, and they can suffer equally devastating health consequences (Gerber, 2010).
Researchers report that women’s magazines have more ads and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines do, and over three-quarters of the covers of women’s magazines include at least one message about how to change a woman’s bodily appearance through either diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery (Gerber, 2010). Television and movies reinforce the importance of a thin body as a measure of a woman’s worth. Canadian researcher, Gregory Fouts reports that over three-quarters of the female characters in TV situation comedies are underweight, and only one in twenty are above average in size. Heavier actresses tend to receive negative comments from male characters about their bodies and eighty percent of these negative comments are followed by canned audience laughter (Gerber, 2010).
Billboards are one of the largest forms of advertisement. Advertisers tend to make these advertisements especially memorable so they don’t go unnoticed. Sometimes, they overlook and take it too far. An example of this was a billboard advertising one of NBC’s popular television shows, Friends. The billboard glamorized anorexia by picturing the three female stars of the show and beside them the phrase “Cute anorexic chicks.” The caption was originally meant to be looked at as a joke regarding the accusations towards the three women of having eating disorders and unhealthy exercise habits, which all of them denied. Although the billboard was removed immediately, it illustrated a spectrum of ads promoting harmful body ideals (Smith, 1999).
What may really make a difference in this unhealthy trend are organizations that promote fighting back against the standards that the media presents. An organization that has helped do just that is the About-Face Organization. About-Face is a San Francisco based media literacy organization that concentrates on the effect of the mass media on the physical, mental, and emotional health of females. About-Face encourages personal activism against the thin body ideal. Since 1995 About-Face has been providing education and resources on this subject through research that indicates a relation between exposure to the idealized female in the media and the occurrence of eating disorders (About-Face, 1996). Another organization to promote positive body image is Dove. In 2004, Dove launched the very successful Campaign for Real Beauty which features real women, not models, advertising Dove’s products. The advertisement is composed of six women all with perfect skin, hair, and teeth. The only thing that is looked at as not perfect is their weight. The women within the Dove advertisement are supposed to portray real women instead of extremely thin models in in hopes to offset the unrealistically thin and unhealthy images associated with modeling and advertisements in an effort to widen the stereotype of beauty and boost sales in the process. The slogan “real women have curves” as well as the campaign’s Web site, which features quotes from each of the Campaign for Real Beauty models, does a great job of capturing the overall message of real beauty (Dove, 2010) .
The Campaign for Real Beauty has had a huge impact and response throughout the world. The six women in the U.S. ads are featured in national television spots, magazine advertisements, print advertisements and billboards in major urban markets in North America and similar campaign ads are being run throughout the world by Dove as well. The campaign and its influence on body image have been the topic of many newspapers and blogs, receiving mostly praise, but like any other media outlet, some criticism as well. Some question the legitimacy of “real beauty” messaging through commercial beauty products along with how the ads might affect women who still do not fit in with the portrayal of beauty in the Dove advertisements. Although the women are not touched up, the models in the series are still smaller than the average American woman at size 14. These women can be paid far less, but they can also break the “sameness” of advertising (Corbett, 2006).
All of this attention is what Dove was really striving for in order to get the message across. According to a press release, Dove wants “to make women feel more beautiful every day by challenging today’s stereotypical view of beauty and inspiring women to take great care of themselves.” The use of women “of various ages, shapes and sizes” is designed “to provoke discussion and debate about today’s typecast beauty images” (Prior, 2004). According to a study conducted by Dove, only two percent of women describe themselves as beautiful. Sixty three percent strongly agree that society expects women to enhance their physical attractiveness. Forty five percent of women feel women who are more beautiful have greater opportunities in life. The study also looked at the degree in which mass media has played in portraying and communicating an unrealistic view of beauty. More than two thirds of women strongly agree that the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women could not ever achieve. Women feel they are surrounded images unrealistic beauty. The majority wish female beauty was portrayed in the media as being made up of more than just physical attractiveness. Seventy five percent went on to say that they wish the media did a better job of portraying women of diverse physical attractiveness, including age, shape, and size (Dove, 2010).
Other advertisers have also been departing from the idealistic body type. In the Just Do It campaign, Nike features muscular, disembodied thighs and butts, labeled “Thunder Thighs” and “Big Butt.” These advertisements are very important to understanding the media representation and body image of the direction that society will be heading. It is important to take action with the media and society like represented with the Dove campaign, in order to try and change the trend and get women to love being who they are, no matter what their size, and love the uniqueness of their own body (Corbett, 2006).
Another media outlet that should not go unnoticed is the digital media. In today’s society this plays a very important role. A great example of this is shown through Dove’s Evolution video. The video starts off with what appears to be a “normal” woman and is magically transformed into a beautiful supermodel and placed on a billboard. By using a computer, the woman’s face is geometrically changed and made to look perfectly proportioned. The video shows people that absolutely perfect faces and bodies are not only rare but nonexistent in many cases (Postrel, 2007).
In Madrid, one of the many popular fashion capitals, thin models were banned from the runway in 2006. Spain has recently undergone a project with the aim to standardize clothing sizes through using a process in which a laser beam is used to measure real life women’s bodies in order to find the most true to life measurement. This project is hoped to help fight the perception that thin equals beautiful. Milan has also jumped on the idea and also banned ultra thin models from fashion week in 2006 in hopes that models will start to become more healthy sizes (Woolls, 2008).
Twenty years ago, the average model weighed eight percent less than the average woman. Today’s models weigh twenty three percent less. Advertisers are convinced that thin models sell products and that thin is “in”. When the Australian magazine New Woman recently included a picture of a heavy-set model on its cover, there was an instant backlash of grateful readers praising the change. The advertisers were less then pleased however. They complained and the magazine soon returned to featuring bone-thin models. Advertising Age International concluded that the incident “made clear the influence wielded by advertisers who remain convinced that only thin models spur the sales of beauty products” (Gerber, 2010).
Mainstream media representations also plays a role in reinforcing ideas about what it means to be a “real” man in our society. Most media sources portray male characters as rewarding for self-control and controlling of others, aggressive and violent, financially independent, and physically desirability. Although distorted body images have been known to affect women and girls, there is a growing awareness regarding the pressure for men and boys to appear more muscular. Many males are becoming more insecure about their physical appearance due to advertising and other media images that raise the standard and idealize well-built men. Advertising images have been accused of setting unrealistic ideals for males, and men and boys are beginning to risk their health to achieve the well-built media standard (“Eating disorders: Body image and advertising”, 2008).
Another issue is the representation of ethnically diverse women in the media. A 2008 study conducted by Juanita Covert and Travis Dixon titled “A Changing View: Representation and Effects of the Portrayal of Women of Color in Mainstream Women’s Magazines” found that although there was an increase in the representation of women of color, overall white women were overrepresented in mainstream women’s magazines from 1999 to 2004. An experiment was designed to view the effects of counter stereotypical portrayals on readers. The research showed that exposure to articles featuring counter stereotypical depictions of women of color tended to evaluate the occupational expectations of women of color among white readers but not people of color (Covert, 2008).
In article on African American women and beauty ideals, it is stated that “Black women are less vulnerable than white women to reacting negatively is they don’t match the ideals pervading prime-time television shows and magazines, according to studies” (Smith, 2004). African American women pay little attention to thin images of white women and have better body images than white women, though heavier and unhealthier. African American women have disregarded the idea of thin, pretty white woman as “unattainable for themselves and as unimportant to others in the black community” (Smith, 2004). It is also found in research that black women were less likely to exhibit signs of bulimia (Smith, 2004).
When you think of sexy black women in the media, many would instantly think of Beyonce, Rihanna, or Tyra Banks. However, some would argue that though they are ethnically black, they are “whiteified.” Their hair has been dyed blonde, straightened hair, and even skin lightened. This is sending a negative message to the darker skinned African American women that they are not beautiful (How the media destroys black beauty, 2010). Some other examples of media sources lighting the skin of African American celebrities by using Photoshop and special lighting techniques is recently shown in Gabourey Sidibe’s Elle 25th Anniversary Cover. Though the magazine denies the accusations, this is not the first time this has been brought to everyone’s attention (Everett, 2010). Beyonce Knowles has also been represented several skin shades darker in her L’Oreal Paris magazine advertisements. Even after the company made a statement claiming this was untrue, many find this hard to believe (Guardian News & Media, 2008). Other celebrities to undergo the supposed Photoshop skin lightening include OJ Simpson, Mariah Carey, and even President Obama.
The message that media gives about thinness, dieting and beauty tells “ordinary” women that they are always in need of adjustment. The female body is looked at as an object to be perfected (Gerber, 2010). Jean Kilbourne argues that the overwhelming presence of media images of painfully thin women means that real women’s bodies have become invisible in the mass media. This statement implies that the constant exposure of images and texts suggests the idea that the thinner a woman is, the better she is. This has a strong influence on women which then contributes to eating disorders and low self esteem issues. Kilbourne concludes that many women internalize these stereotypes and therefore judge themselves by the beauty industry’s standards (Kilbourne, 2010).
Some may blame society for accepting negative representation of media. However, it is going to take the media to make a change through better marketing choices and a better view of body image and self-esteem. We are bombarded with images of perfect women and men everyday, whether it is on our favorite television shows, movies, magazines and music. The majority of the women are tall, thin and beautiful and the men are muscular, tanned and seductive. People who do not fall within this media induced norm are left without models to look up to. Instead, they give in to the cosmetic and diet product industry and try to alter their bodies to what they have been told is beautiful. Adolescent girls and boys are constantly striving to acquire an unattainable physique. Across the nation, millions of teens struggle with eating disorders and borderline conditions. With the help of Organizations like the About-Face Organization and programs like the Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, body image can soon be embraced by men and women of all ages, sizes, and skin color.
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