Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Drive to be Thin--Women in Advertising

There have been countless studies and articles written about the effects of the portrayal of women’s bodies in the media and self-image. It’s a hot button topic that never truly gets resolved. Even in the last few week, Ashley Judd slammed the media for speculation over her “puffy” appearance after a TV morning show appearance. 
I think many of us would agree that models in the media and used in advertisements are “too thin,” but what is keeping us as an industry from making a change? Through television, magazines, billboards, and other media, women frequently encounter images of female beauty that are highly uncommon and largely unattainable. Physical appearance is clearly important to women’s lives. Attractiveness is linked with higher popularity and better relationships (Gurari, Hetts, Strube, p 273).
We discussed this at some length as we reviewed articles on visuality in the mass media era. What sparked an additional interest in this for me was Jean Kilbourne’s article, “The More You Subtract, the More you Add.” As we watched a video on Kilbourne in class, I was shocked to see my own patterns of describing my relationship with food in a way that she identified as so common.
As an advertising professional, I appreciate when a creative strategy pinpoints the vital message of a product. However, I often feel as if I’m looking at advertisements through a critiquing lens. Are those of us in the advertising industry facilitating knowingly or unknowingly this unrealistic expectation of women. And on the flip side, how do these ideals and affect the concerns women in advertising have with their own bodies?
In Can’t Buy My Love, Kilbourne argues that many of us feel “immune” to advertising and believe that it doesn’t affect us. Admittedly, I believed that I felt that way as well, especially working in the industry. What struck me was her analysis of the connection in advertising between food and sex. Kilbourne states:
When food is sex, eating becomes a moral issue—and thinness becomes the equivalent of virginity. The “good girl” today is the thin girl, the one who keeps her appetite for food (and power, sex, and equality under control. It used to be that women who couldn’t say no were talking about something other than food. Women were supposed to control their sexual appetites. Now we’re supposed to control our appetite for food. If a woman comes back from a weekend and says she was “bad,” we assume she broke her diet, not that she did something sexually. In the old days, bad girls got pregnant. These days they get fat—and are more scorned, shamed and despised than ever before. Prejudice against fat people, especially fat women, is one of the few remaining prejudices that is socially acceptable. This contributes mightily, of course, to the obsession with thinness that has gripped our culture for many years, with devastating consequences for many women and girls (p 115).
No wonder it is hard to find a woman, especially a young woman in American today that has a truly healthy attitude toward her body and toward food. According to Kilbourne, advertising does promote abusive and abnormal attitudes about eating, drinking, and thinness (135). Beyond just advertising, these same images are present throughout many different media outlets—movies, blogs, pages of celebrity magazines, television shows, etc. 
          Media-portrayed images, especially those presented in the context of advertisements for dieting and weight-altering products promote the idea that body image and size are flexible, and that achieving the thin ideal is relatively easy. The media images appear realistic, despite their heavy editing and refining with computer software (Monro and Huon, p 85).
You don’t have to look far to find examples of food and sex in advertising. Below is a comparison of various fast food advertisements:

             In an American culture that is struggling with the effects of obesity, these images perpetuate an already distorted perspective on body image. Another problematic aspect of the cumulative impact of food advertising is that many ads normalize and glamorize harmful and often dangerous attitudes toward food and eating. About eighty million Americans are clinically obese, and nearly three out of four are overweight. Indeed, in a culture seemingly obsessed with thinness and fitness, Americans are fatter than ever and fatter than people in most other cultures. Eight million Americans suffer from an eating disorder and as many as 10 percent of all college-age women are bulimic. This is a common way that women cope with the difficulties in their lives and with the cultural contradictions involving food and eating (Kilbourne, p 116). 
             There are many documented studies indicating that body dissatisfaction and mood both before and after exposure to idealized magazine or television advertisements is greater in the groups tested than in the control group.
To test these same effects on women in the advertising industry, I conducted several in-person interviews and a survey of women in advertising who work all across the country. Women in this industry are familiar with the abundance of effort put into the creation of images used in advertisements. For example, models have clothing and hair stylists who draw attention to and enhance their most flattering features, models are photographed under the best lighting conditions, and photographs are airbrushed to accent and conceal unattractive features and body parts (Gurari, Hetts, Strube 280). Does this knowledge allow women in advertising to look past the unrealistic expectations of women portrayed in ads, or are they too, looking to be something unattainable?
Below is the survey summary of results:
When asked if women today are accurately represented in the media, 83% responded no, and 17% responded yes. Furthermore when asked if there is a certain image that women are expected to live up to, 88% responded yes, and 12% responded no.
Not surprisingly, the women surveyed listed family and friends as the biggest influencers above various media outlets.
I also asked the women when casting for commercial shoots, do they look for women of a certain type? Why or why not?
Below are their various responses:
“Yes - We are looking for a 'premium' women, which is based mostly on appearance, because they reflect our clients in a positive way.”
“Skinny, pretty women.”
“Most models that are used in shoots are tall, very thin and beautiful. So of course these are the models that are used for commercial shoots. Society has made females ‘believe they should all look this way.”
“Yes, they have to be relatable, personable, and boost the brand.”
“Yes - based on client input/request. There is a certain image they want conveyed for their brand and they want the women to represent their brand well.”
“Women in commercials are cast because they are the "ideal" woman. Tall, skinny and beautiful.”
“Of course. Women who are average or above average looking sell more in today's economy. It’s just the way marketing works these days.”
          They all indicated they were casting women that “fit the brand,” and most often that means a tall, thin ideal even that’s not the mold of the majority of the target audience. The millions of dollars in advertising research indicates that women don’t want products that cater to who they are, but rather who they can be. Turning it back on their own body image, I asked how many would consider surgically altering their bodies through plastic surgery. 

          I thought this was one of the more telling questions of the survey. 84% of women surveyed have thought about plastic surgery to alter their current appearance. In addition 37% indicated they were on a special diet and 66% agreed that models in media sources they used were “too skinny.”
            There is a major discrepancy between what these women believe and the action taken on a daily basis. The women know that many of the models used are too thin, and are artificially retouched, but still choose to cast those types of models for shoots because they “fit the brand.”

          More than half of the women interviewed equated thinness to happiness. At the same time 66% of respondents believe that models used in media today are too skinny. To dig into this issue a little more, I conducted in person interviews with a couple women that currently work at an advertising agency. I asked them: 
          I've uploaded uploaded their responses on YouTube and linked the questions to their answers. Sarah and Jesseca's responses are consistent with what I found through the survey research. Women in advertising have a greater knowledge of the process that goes into a commercial shoot and the amount of retouching done in editing, but it still perpetuates the same insecurities even with this rational information. 
          Through this study, I believe that Kilbourne is correct in her comparisons of advertising and it's destructive effects on body image among women and girls. I also found that even among women working within the advertising industry, a lot of that pressure to be thin is is driven by major influencers in their lives which we found to be family and friends. In many ways, women drive other women to strive for this thin ideal. Kilbourne would argue this competition between women is linked back to advertising. I agree, but I also think this relates back to the increasingly networked society that we have become. Every time we go to the grocery store, there are racks of magazines with cover photos of celebrities that have drastically lost or gained weight. We have reality television shows like the Biggest Loser and thousands of "healthy living" blogs where even the average person can document when they ate in a day. There is no time for disconnect because we are bombarded by these images at every turn.
          Yes, women working in the advertising industry know the ins and outs of great lighting and retouching, but that doesn't make them immune to many of the same insecurities. The big question is how, as a industry, do we make a change? We discussed this a great length in class, but I think the change has to come from within the industry and through regulation. This idea of "thin = power" and "thin = happy" is so deeply ingrained in the minds of women across the word, that I honestly don't know what it will take to make a change. 
          This passage stood out to me in Kilbourne's, Can't Buy my Love:
When girls in the nineteenth century thought of ways to improve themselves, they almost always focused on their internal character and how it was reflected in outward behavior. In 1892, the personal agenda of an adolescent diarist read: “Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously…To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.” A century later, in the 1990s, American girls think very differently. In a New Year’s resolution written in 1982, a girl wrote: “I will try to make myself better in every way I possibly can with the help of my budget and baby-sitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got a new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories," (p153). 
Until women are comfortable looking inside themselves for their self-worth, this trend will continue. As our network media outlets continue to increase and change, it will be interesting to see how the diary of a young girl in 2090s might look. Will it lean more closely with the first young girl or the second? It is my hope that women in this industry begin to see themselves as agents of change and push the industry’s boundaries when it comes to the portrayal of women in the media. 

Gurari, I., Hetts, J., & Strube, M. (2006). Beauty in the "I" of the Beholder: Effets of Idealized MEdia Portrayals on Implicit Self-Image. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 28(3), 273-282.
Kilbourne, J. (2000). Can't Buy my Love: How Advertising Changes the way we Think and Feel. (2nd ed.). (pp. 108-154). New York , New York: Touchstone.
Monro, F., & Huon, G. (2005). Media-Portrayed Idealized Images, Body Shame and Appearance Anxiety. Int J Eating Disord, 38(1), 85-90.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting paper. I especially appreciate how you chose to focus on the viewpoint of women who themselves work in advertising. One might think that because they see first-hand the inaccurate portrayal of women they would be more immune to the effects of advertising but it seems like because they are surrounded by it, it may be even worse for them. I wish there was a clear solution to how we can change the portrayal of women in mainstream media. Even though more women seem to be gaining top-level positions in the business world, this does not seem to impact advertising. What will it take?