What came first, the chicken or the egg? Does the objectification and oppression of women in modern culture stem from advertisement portrayal or do we portray women in advertisements as objectified and oppressed because of our modern culture? Does it matter which comes first if we are not willing to admit this phenomenon exists, much less consider changing either?
It is no secret that advertisements impact our perception of the world. That is after all, their intent; to convince, convey, persuade, interest, tempt us into paying money for whatever it is they are advocating. You can argue the philosophical morality of persuasion but ultimately it is happening almost every second of every day. Advertisements bombard us on billboards, buses, social media platforms, television, magazines, benches, t-shirts, digital screens of all kinds. Advertisement is not a new concept by any means, it’s been happening as long as entrepreneurship has existed. However, we have never had more constant exposure to this pressure.
In advertisements, we see a female portrayed as young, beautiful, thin and typically white. If all of humanity was to be wiped out and millions of years later, a life form came to earth and found all of our advertisements, they might assume that human females were never older than 25, never more than 120 pounds, never of color, and never in control. This is the way that we have portrayed women for almost the entire history of our nation. It is inaccurate and isolating of every woman who does not fit that small, select demographic—which is most of us.
We are visual creatures with eyes that take in incredible amounts of color, shape and depth. This is a crucial aspect of our evolution that allows us to create art, build buildings, escape predators and navigate our beautiful planet. However, this need for visual pleasure leaves us with a human flaw of a deep craving for visual perfection. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, society at large decides who that beholder is for us all. The western definition of beauty is accepted as fact by many of us. We are not taught to question this concept of beauty for much of our young lives. It is not inherently wrong to love beautiful and wonderful visuals, this very longing is what built the Taj Mahal, gave inspiration for the Mona Lisa, painted the Sistine Chapel. However, defining what beauty means for an entire continent is a limiting and dangerous concept.
We have idealized thinness in our country for the past 40 years. Our perception of the ideal body type has ebbed and flowed with the time period. In a country facing the worst obesity epidemic of all time, it is either ironic or very rational that we romanticize extreme thinness. To be thin in America is to have conquered the ultimate enemy—food. But when we demonize food, the very thing that keeps us alive and moving and glowing, we create problems that have and will kill people. Anorexia, bulimia and other similar disorders are on the rise in our country. We have fat-shamed to the point that even perfectly healthy people see themselves as undesirable in the light of day. The thing we don’t often talk about is that perfection can sometimes quite literally kill you. As children, we do not question if our bodies are perfect. We are running and jumping and swimming and pretending and playing and imagining. We are too busy, happy and full to question whether our thighs are too big. Eating disorders do not solely impact women, another stigma we must fight to overcome. But the number of women that suffer from eating disorders is disproportionate to that of men. The common denominator? Exposure to media and images that put this singular idea of beauty into our young and impressionable minds.
We harm women not only in the choice of the type of women that we choose to portray in media, but also the way that we portray women in media. Docile and dominated, women are used as props and objects to sell product. Submissive pose after submissive pose, ingrained into female and male minds alike.
We continue to wonder why sexual assault on college campuses is an epidemic. We question why domestic violence occurs again and again. We are horrified when a husband violently murders his wife after a long pattern of abuse. We berate women for scandalous outfit choices. We let rapists walk free. We do nothing to change the laws that allow these occurrences to go unreported, unnoticed, unknown. And we continue to pose strong women in a position of vulnerability. We have made victimization beautiful. The romanticization of the thin, starving, sad model permeates modern fashion modeling. I am not trying to prove causation. But it is difficult to deny a level of correlation.
In advertisements, women’s body parts are used as props to sell. When we cut women into pieces on an ad spread, we segment women into parts rather than a whole. Bodies become decoration rather than human beings with souls and laughs and lives. These body parts become our defining characteristics. Not only does this lead men to believe that women are nothing but the sum of their parts but it also convinces women of this falsehood as well. Physicality becomes a measurement of our worth.
I’ve heard the counterarguments. The same sentiments that perpetrate any contradiction of feminist theory. “It happens to men too.” “We all are attracted to beauty, why is this bad?” “Just ignore it, it’s not a big deal.” But it is a big deal, a huge deal actually. When the narrative is switched, it is not the same. We notice it. We look at it and realize something looks wrong.
Why don’t we see that the other way around? It is undeniably different. Power plays a large role in the significance of perception. Women have been overpowered by men for centuries, physically and politically. This context gives momentum to the destructive manner in which women are portrayed. One is not independent of the other.
I argue that we cannot continue to blame the media for all of our societal problems. We cannot continue to point fingers and then plug our ears when responsibility must be taken. These are not “they” problems, they are “us” problems. Companies advertise to sell their products and increase their profit. They are not doing it out of malice or hatred. This is the nature of a capitalistic society. A private company’s objective is to make money, to sell goods. I think it is time we look ourselves in the mirror and ask why is this selling? Why is it so effective?
The media is us. We are society. We are choosing to consume these products, to buy these magazines, to believe the narrative that they are selling to us. It is a conscious decision and as conscious consumers we must protest, speak out, draw attention to redesigning the appeal. In a patriarchal society, this is not a simple demand. But I believe the tides are capable of changing, that the wind is blowing from a new direction. I choose to believe this because I have to believe this. Because it is too terrifying to think anything otherwise.
[photos property of Vogue]