In advertising throughout the past few centuries, women have placed in one of several limiting roles. One is the extremely thin fashion model, a sex symbol for the typical man whose main role is to be pretty and attract men. The other is the domestic partner, the woman who takes care of the house to the exclusion of all personal desires and responsibilities. There is also the incompetent, the dullard; the weak-willed woman who simply cannot handle the limited and finite duties that are burdened upon her. In this paper, the effects of negative advertising on women will be explored, as well as options for increasing awareness of these negative depictions.
Women have perpetually fought for equal treatment in a number of categories – sexually, economically, physically and even spiritually. From the portrayal of Eve in the Old Testament, there has been the implication of females as weak, unintelligent and unprepared for the difficulties of life. This, along with a substantial emphasis on male sexual desire, has led to a surge in the urging of women to become prettier, less intelligent, thinner. Modern images in advertising for women showcase no one but beautiful, sexy, rail-thin models whose come-hither looks are specially tailored to entice sexual attraction in men and jealousy in women. This jealousy that a woman feels then translates to body image disparity and oversensitivity regarding their physical appearance. This can encourage dramatic efforts by average women to become the objects that men desire, often bringing about the development of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
Advertising throughout the years has depicted women in one of several limited categories: domestic providers, uneducated bimbos, or beautiful sex symbols. Given this negative advertising being so pervasive in the cultural zeitgeist, it can diminish women’s ability to form their own perceptions of who they want to be. It can also color other’s perceptions of who they can be, creating role strains that are difficult to overcome. The biggest and most effective solution to this problem is increased awareness and media literacy of the people, particularly women, so they can recognize the context of media depictions of women and lower their effect on their self-image.
Television ads and other types of marketing are often thought to be “achievement scripts,” depictions of what people should aspire to. However, in the case of women, they are often stereotyped as either the doting wife or the shrill shrew who ruins their fun. Either way, these are the role models that many women are given to emulate. The overly sexualized young women in beer advertisements, for example, encourage girls of that age to become the same types of simple bimbos that will attract male attention, something heavily espoused in these advertisements. (Yoder, Christopher and Holmes 2008, p. 303)
Body image is one of the most highly affected attributes to a woman’s self-image, particularly through advertising. Fashion models are found everywhere in modern advertising, and they are depicted as the norm. Very rarely is a subjectively homely or plus-sized woman shown in an ad that was meant to paint them as a sexual being. According to research, media depictions of women as “ultra-thin models” makes body dissatisfaction in even average-sized women increase dramatically. (Halliwell, Dittmar and Howe 2005, p. 406)
Body-focused anxiety is defined as a level of dissatisfaction with one’s own physical appearance, often as a result of depictions of subjectively more attractive women. (Halliwell, Dittmar and Howe 2005, p. 410) A woman’s desire to match the ideals that are presented in advertising every day can often lead them to take dramatic measures to lose weight and change their appearance. Women who already have eating disorders can often see their symptoms exacerbated by exposure to ultra-thin models in advertising. (Halliwell, Dittmar and Howe 2005, p. 408)
According to Halliwell, Dittmar and Howe (2005), “Advertising plays a particularly potent role in influencing cultural standards of attractiveness and depicting women’s actual bodies as deviant from the acceptable on numerous dimensions.” (p. 412) The ultra-beautiful, skinny models that are viewed on billboards and other advertisements on television and in print media create a world in which most women look conventionally stunning, and women are placed under incredible pressure to look just like them. They feel inadequate, despite any other approximation of their beauty, because they do not think that they match up.
This sort of self-hatred for one’s own body dates back to even the earliest modern advertising, such as those found in patent medicine advertisements. In the nineteenth century, “women learned to hate their bodies” as doctors became increasingly focused on sex as a differentiation between men and women. (Marcellus 2008, p. 795) The marginalization of women even as a member of the same species as men led to greater insecurities about who they were.
Another depiction of women in advertising is the domestic partner – the one who is only meant to take care of the kids while the man is away doing the “real” work. They happily and dutifully clean up the home, raise the children, and cook dinner, making sure everything is up to the husband’s expectations. This depiction speaks to traditional views of gender roles that have been in place for centuries, as well as the overall view of women as better caretakers and parents, an attitude again exacerbated by its representation in media. Advertisements for cleaning supplies and cooking tools are the biggest proponents of this image.
Achievement aspirations are defined as the drive to succeed in competitive roles such as business, sports, and recreation. Traditional media depictions of women discourage these aspirations and lead women to believe that their only roles are to take care of the house. Achievement aspirations for women are dramatically lower when they are exposed to more traditional images of domestic roles for women. (Yoder, Christopher and Holmes 2008, p. 303) They are taught to think that being a housewife is just something that women are supposed to be, and there are few examples of nontraditional roles in advertising.
Traditional roles for women treat them as “frivolous” and “less competent” than their male counterparts, whereas nontraditional roles depict them as athletic, and engaging in roles that are often attributed to men (sports, technology experts). (Yoder, Christopher and Holmes 2008, p. 303) While there are certainly some examples of nontraditional roles in advertising for women (WNBA players, female doctors and spokespeople for electronics stores), the vast majority of roles are still for traditional female figures.
French author Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1831 that women were circumscribed “within the narrow circle of domestic interests and duties, and forbids her to step beyond it,” especially in advertising of the time. (Marcellus 2008, p. 795) With the marginalization of women within the home, they were eliminated as a threat to taking jobs and duties that are normally reserved for men. It still remains an issue for female business professionals and career women to be taken seriously in the workplace, and many of these concerns stem from the role of women as homemakers in advertising.
Gender stereotyping has a direct effect on the expression and activation of leadership aspirations among women; if women are not shown that they have the ability to overcome gender divisions, they are not encouraged to take these nontraditional roles. What’s more, when they do, the workplace can be so male-centric that it encourages a hostile work environment for women.
Negative female portrayals in advertising also have their ill effects on men; they have seen the same ads, and therefore are conditioned to believe these myths about women just as they themselves are.
Incompetence is another normal depiction of women – not only are they delegated to work around the house, even that can sometimes be too difficult for them. Historically, the existence of difference “leads to binary oppositions which are barely neutral”; men and women exist as one of those oppositions, and invariably one of the sides will be viewed by the majority as “The Other.” In this case, women are given less power, and as such are stereotyped as weak. (Marcellus 2008, p. 788)
This marginalization and lessening of women’s abilities are by no means a modern phenomenon. Women in the nineteenth century were depicted as “melodramatic” and “hysterical,” quick to be overwhelmed by the simplest task. “A woman’s domestic work was laborious enough to deplete her energies, but it no longer “counted” in the new industrial definition of ‘work’.” (Marcellus 2008, p. 793) Women’s sicknesses were never explained as more specific than “dragging” or “hysteria,” implying that it is not a real illness, but instead a pathological weakness that is part of being a woman. Therefore, these patent medicines were meant to treat femininity as if it were a condition.
Attempts to overcome these stigmas and stereotypes were met with incredulity and disbelief. Women who were shown as strong and independent were “not only told they were sick; they were told it was their own fault.” (Marcellus 2008, p. 799) The “narrow social confines” that women experienced back then remain to this day.
The depiction of woman in ads in 1879 was very indicative of how limited positive media images of women were. One ad called “I’m Simply all Worn Out” depicts a woman resting on a couch, presumably completely and utterly tired from the tasks around the house. Other ads of this kind are named “I am not Well enough to Work” and “Women Who Brave Death for Social Honors.” These various ad titles imply that women are overly weak and not able to handle the work and stress of their day, demonstrating submission and fragility due to the “delicate female organism.” (Mcarcellus 2009, 00. 798-799) These images helped set the stage for an institutional view of women as incompetent and overly nervous about the simplest task.
These portrayals were used more and more to present women as needing solutions to their problems because they could not solve them on their own; patent medicines in the eighteenth century were meant to address these problems. Since the very problem of being a woman was given a sellable solution, women were introduced to the idea that they were deficient on some level, and that they needed a man or a product to take care of them.
With all of these negative categories placed upon women, and the pervasive nature of the resulting attitudes, there are few options for overcoming such an institutionalized belief system regarding the abilities and images of women. One major option is to change the very ideas that are presented in advertising; however, due to their effectiveness in encouraging sales and the relatively vague nature of their negative effects on women, that can be a very difficult option to maintain. Imposing those sorts of restrictions on advertising would infringe on the very tenets of a free market economy, and so, for better or worse, they must stay. (Chambers and Alexander 2007, p. 491) However, the most effective thing that can be done is to encourage media literacy and awareness of these attitudes presented in advertising, as they can provide the best chance to curb negative reactions to overly high expectations of beauty that ads present.
Eating disorders are the most common result of body image disparity stemming from overexposure to ultra-thin models in advertising. There is a two phase model for eating disorder development. First, there is the recruitment phase, where social media and ideal images in pop culture cause people to limit their food intake. Second, the motivation for eating less transforms into meeting some sort of mental or physical need. In the first, people are simply eating less, and in the second the person develops a full-blown eating disorder. (Chambers and Alexander 2007, pp. 490-491)
In order to lower the rates at which young women are developing eating disorders to match overly strict media pressure to be beautiful, the development of eating disorders must be stopped at the recruitment phase. Media literacy can be used by educators to disrupt the recruitment phase of eating disorders, enabling students to look critically at notions of ideal body image. (Chambers and Alexander 2007, p. 495)
In media literacy, people are taught to understand the contexts and intricacies of what goes into media advertising. “Students must be taught to analyze the production and consumption of media products as ideological texts.” (Chambers and Alexander 2007, p. 491) This detailed knowledge of why an advertisement is formatted the way it is permits a greater comprehension of what it is attempting to say. Knowing the explicit message that marketers are attempting to display allows media-savvy individuals to separate the intent from the image. This can prevent a lot of deep-seated emotional issues, especially in women who are prone to eating disorders. (Chambers and Alexander 2007, p. 490)
This media literacy can be taught in a number of ways, but one very effective method would be classes in universities and colleges throughout the country. Either video or text methods of teaching can create “positive affective change in the current body image” of female students of these media literacy courses. (Chambers and Alexander 2007, p. 490)
In conclusion, there is a war being waged on women through advertising. According to print and mixed media ads of both the nineteenth century and today, women either need to be rail-thin objects of sexual desire or simple, naïve domestic figures who have little place outside the family home. Often in both situations, they are given an overall depiction of being simple and overly nervous, unable to deal with the difficulties and responsibilities of the outside world without a special product to get them through the day. With the help of greater awareness of these media strategies and overall media literacy, these depictions of women can have a less severe effect on the self-confidence and self-image of women. Women will be able to more effectively separate themselves from their counterparts in advertisements and media, and recognize their own strengths and abilities. Role strain will be diminished, and they will understand that there is more to life than being a sex object or a housewife.
References – Annotated Bibliography
Chambers, K. L., & Alexander, S. M. (2007). MEDIA LITERACY AS AN EDUCATIONAL
METHOD FOR ADDRESSING COLLEGE WOMEN’S BODY IMAGE ISSUES. Education, 127(4), 490-497. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
This paper evaluates the success rate of video versus text courses that intend to educate students on becoming more media literate. The purpose of this study is to determine whether or not the recruitment process of eating disorder development can be disrupted with the proper education and awareness. I will use this study in my paper to offer potential avenues for awareness of media depictions of women.
Halliwell, E., Dittmar, H., & Howe, J. (2005). The impact of advertisements featuring ultra-thin
or average-size models on women with a history of eating disorders. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 15(5), 406-413. doi:10.1002/casp.831
In this study, the researchers explored the relationship between body-focused anxiety and advertising effectiveness in women who had or were recovering from an eating disorder. The results depicted no greater body-focused anxiety after seeing ultra-thin models, but a lessening of said anxiety after viewing average-looking, less attractive models. I will use this in my paper to emphasize the effects of cultural depictions of women on women with eating disorders.
MARCELLUS, J. (2008). Nervous Women and Noble Savages: The Romanticized “Other” in
Nineteenth-Century US Patent Medicine Advertising. Journal of Popular Culture, 41(5), 784-808. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2008.00549.x
In this paper, images of women and Native Americans in patent medicine advertising from the late nineteeth century are explored. In terms of women, they are depicted as nervous, feeble individuals who do nothing but complain and do their domestic chores. This is meant to further cement the institutional stereotyping of women as incompetent and flighty, setting the stage for centuries of unreasonable female images in advertising.
Yoder, J. D., Christopher, J., & Holmes, J. D. (2008). ARE TELEVISION COMMERCIALS
STILL ACHIEVEMENT SCRIPTS FOR WOMEN?. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(3), 303-311. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00438.x
This study evaluated the effects of seeing nontraditional depictions of women in advertising on a number of people of both sexes. The results indicate that the more women are depicted as incompetent and limited in their capabilities, the lower women’s aspirations are to succeed. I will use this to demonstrate that women’s depiction as mere domestic partners in can have a negative effect on women’s aspirations.