Women in Media: Unhealthy and Unattainable Standards | Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies
University of Pittsburgh

Women in Media: Unhealthy and Unattainable Standards


Growing up in an age with a heavy focus on advertising and media, it's hard not to compare ourselves to the images that are projected onto our lives as ideals of what we should aspire to be.  In fashion magazines, the body types shown are that of large, muscular men and tiny, waif like women.  This week's readings dealt with the effects of advertising on body image of both men and women.  

Alissa Quart's book Branded is a great commentary on how teenagers often fall prey to using their bodies as advertising, especially by wearing clothes emblazoned with company names.  I actually own this book and I highly recommend reading it if you've ever questioned this practice in young men and women.  But she also writes about a different, more dangerous type of branding, what she calls body branding. In this practice, the young people in question take to heart the advertisements that they see all around them, internalizing  the model representations of ideal body types.

Men in Abercrombie & Fitch Ad

For young men, images of beefed up male models and bodybuilders are everywhere, creating as Quart says, "a greater sense of inadequacy among boys about their bodies than ever before."  This sense of inadequacy can lead to kids taking steroids and nutritional supplements at a very young age, as they try to lose fat and gain the muscle that they see in male celebrities. She mentions a few teenage boys for whom obsessive dieting and weightlifting has become a lifestyle.  One mentions that what he desires most is attention from his bodybuilding peers, saying that he wants to "get big, really big, but natural.  I want to be feared."  This notion of being feared really struck me as odd.  I know with males there's a huge power complex, but to hear a teenager aspiring to be a source of intimidation makes me nervous of that person's mental state.  Not to mention the health risks associated with such a lifestyle. The nutritional supplements taken by these teens, Quart points out, "experts agree, range from suspect to dangerous, and even deadly."  And things get worse for those who decided to take things a step farther by introducing steroids into their regimen.  She goes on to mention "the possible side effects of steroids include stunted bone growth, liver damage, and shrunken testicles."  These harmful rituals are a direct result of ad campaigns depicting well-built male models showcasing muscular chests and abdomens to sell just about anything.  Images of ripped and dieted teens have seen a surge in the past few decades; it's no coincidence that young males are taking on health risks to attain the body image (and thus, status) of the males represented in such ad campaigns.


Female Body Image Issues
For girls, in Quart's reading, it's quite the opposite.  Teenage girls want to be as small as possible, at any cost.  Unfortunately for some this means attaining their figure through anorexia.  But what's surprising here is that groups of these girls are banding together in a self-proclaimed pro-anorexia movement for acceptance of eating disorders as chosen lifestyles rather than diseases. These girls "trumpet their obsession," Quart says, "and take it on as an identity."  These girls form support groups and forums in which to talk about food and weight 'goals,' share 'tips and tricks' on how to lose weight more quickly, and to "chat about their starvation methods, their feelings, and, of course, their hatred of fatness." Sites range from the seemingly trivial Yummy Secrets to the more  emotionally charged Pro-Ana Nation.  These sites also provide what they call thinspiration or trigger pictures, which are images of emaciated women shown as something to aspire to, the end result of what they are working towards.

These websites, and the notion of anorexia as simply a means of self-control, are, like the boys trying to grow more muscular, a result of the media's bombardment of images of these ideal body types.  Everywhere are images of painfully thin women being celebrated for being thin.  As Quart mentions, "the pressure to be thin is worse now than ever before.  Models are so slender that you can see every muscle - lean, toned, and sinewy - and this public flesh induces girls to compare every undressed part of these bodies to their own and then seek ceaselessly and impossibly to perfect their own bodies."  The effect of the fashion images of tiny supermodels is clearly shown to be destructive to these girls' health and well being.  The body image issues displayed in these sites are disheartening; girls calling themselves fat if their BMI is at a healthy level, and only feeling beautiful when they are hungry.  Their "identification with their disease," as Quart puts it, gives them the sense that it isn't to be taken seriously, as it is only a temporary means to achieve the goal of looking like the models and super skinny actresses seen all over today's media.

Advertisements today play a huge role in how we perceive ourselves, and this was illustrated by Diana Crane's article, Gender and Hegemony in Fashion Magazines.  She decided to study, though the use of focus groups, the different reactions to fashion advertisements and how that changes across age (and in a few cases, gender).  It starts out by showing the hegemonic femininity on display in advertisements that incorporate "masculine standards for female appearance that emphasize physical attributes and sexuality." This view is contrasted by the traditional standards of feminine demeanor "according to which women are expected to be constrained and passive, but not sexually available."  She moves on to look at an ad movement that "includes references to drugs, crime, violence, sexual orientations that are not widely accepted and negative attitudes toward women" and a counter-movement that portrays women as "empowered and androgynous, capable of achieving goals and managing others."
What really got me was the reactions to these ad campaigns.  For images that portrayed women as sexual objects, most focus group members did not identify with the level of overt sexuality, but some remarked on how the model looked "in control" and "like she wanted to be that way."  A heavily androgynous advertisement was met with disturbance; women mentioned how the model looked "unnatural" or "pale and wiped out. Like a ghost."  An ad portraying a woman in a pant suit looking "empowered, successful, and androgynous" was either celebrated as an image of a working woman, or looked down upon because the woman seemed too serious.

In all these reactions, Crane shows that "consciously or unconsciously, these participants seemed to believe that clothes represent the self which they perceived as consistent and unchanging."  This is to say that these women are looking at the advertisements in relation to their own selves, and the selves of the models portrayed.  Crane concludes that these personalized responses "suggest that they had internalized traditional norms of feminine demeanor and perceived these photographs as violating these norms." She goes on to point out "underlying emotional involvement in fashionable images and in the culturally prescribed requirement to look feminine and attractive."  

To me, this is the crux of the issue; this is the importance of these articles to the outside world: that women are taking these advertisements as evidence of what society wants them to be.  This is why the pro-ana girls aspire to be as thin as the models they see in magazines, because they have this emotional involvement in the ads they see and the pressure they feel to be thin and feminine and attractive.  They are a tragic byproduct of the unhealthy images in a media overload, of a society that places so much importance on looks that young males and females alike go out of their way to attain the body standards set by such media. Now, my question to you is, can we change this?  Is there a way to stop the cycle of bodily oppression?  By becoming aware of the focus on selling body image over actual products, how are we affecting the advertising market? How does the constant bombardment of body images affect you personally?  How can we teach young people to love themselves no matter what the media shows them?

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