Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women

I know that I am really late to this video by Jean Kilbourne, but it really struck a nerve and I thought there might be some who have not seen it.


Sometimes people say to me, “you’ve been talking about this for 40 years, have things gotten any better”?  And actually I have to say, really they’ve gotten worse.  Ads sell more than products, they sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important of normalcy.  To a great extent they tell us who we are and who we should be.  Well what does advertising tell us about women?  It tells us as it always has, that what’s most important is how we look. So the first thing the advertisers do, is surround us with the image of ideal female beauty.

Women learn from a very early age that we must spend an enormous amounts of time, energy and above all money striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail.  And failure is inevitable, because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness. She never has any lines or wrinkles, she certainly has no scars or blemishes, indeed she has no pores.  And the most important aspect of this flawlessness is, that it cannot be achieved. No one looks like this, including her (On the screen is a beautiful woman with no wrinkles or scars, with long blond hair), and this is the truth – no one looks like this.  The supermodel Cindy Crawford once said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.”  She doesn’t, she couldn’t, because this is a look that’s been created for years through air brushing and cosmetics, but these days it’s done through the magic of computer re-touching.

Keira knightley is given a bigger bust. Jessica Alba is made smaller. Kelly Clarkson, well this is interesting, it says: slim down your way, but she in fact slimmed down the photo shop way.  You almost never see a photograph of a woman considered beautiful that hasn’t been photoshopped.  We all grow up in a culture in which women`s bodies are constantly turned into things, into objects. Here, she`s become  the bottle of Michelob.  In this ad, she becomes part of a video game and this is everywhere, in all kinds of advertising — women’s bodies turn into things, into objects.  Now of course this effects female self-esteem. It also does something even more insidious, it creates a climate in which there’s wide spread violence against women. I am not at all saying that an ad like this causes violence – it’s not that simple, but turning a human being into a thing, is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.  We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism; it’s always the same process, the person is dehumanized and then violence becomes inevitable, and that step is already and constantly taken with women.  Women’s bodies are dismembered in ads, hacked apart, just one part of the body is focused upon, which of course is the most dehumanizing thing you could do to someone.  Everywhere we look women’s bodies turned into things and often just parts of things.  And girls are getting the message today so young, that they need to be impossibly beautiful, hot, sexy, extremely thin, and they also get the message that they’re going to fail, that there’s no way to really achieve it. Girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they’re 8, 9, 10 years old but they hit adolescence and they hit a wall and certainly part of this wall is this terrible emphasis on physical perfection. 

So no wonder we have an epidemic of eating disorders in our country and increasingly throughout the world. I’ve been talking about this for a very longtime and I keep thinking that the models can’t get any thinner but they do.  They get thinner and thinner and thinner. This is Anna Carolina Restin who died a year ago of anorexia weighing 88 pounds, and at the time she was still modeling.  So the models literally cannot get any thinner, so photoshop is brought to the rescue.  There are exceptions however, Kate Winslet has been outspoken about her refusal to allow Hollywood to dictate her weight.  When British GQ magazine published this photograph of Winslet, which was digitally enhanced to make her look dramatically thinner, she issued a statement that the alterations were made without her consent and she said, “I don’t look like that and more importantly, I don’t desire to look like that.  I can tell you that they’ve reduced the size of my legs by about a third,” bless her heart. 

So, what can we do about all of  this? Well, the first step is to become aware, pay attention and to recognize that this effects all of us.  These are public health problems that I’m talking about. The obsession with thinness is a public health problems, the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty, violence against women, these are all public health problems that effect us all and public health problems can only be solved by changing the environment.

This following video while not containing new information to me really struck me.  It was a great reminder to challenge the everyday images of women in the media.  What did it make you think and how did it effect you?

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