Saturday, September 03, 2011

In the image: sex, shopping, & other drugs

This is the first of a series of posts on women, body image, and mental health. You can read the second post here.


But all of these sexual images aren't intended to sell us on sex.
They're intended to sell us on shopping.
— Jean Kilbourne

A couple of years ago, the short film Dove: Evolution made the rounds on the internet. Have you seen it?

I showed this film to a group of women a few weeks ago as a discussion-starter. Now, the women in the group are working to recover from addictions, so part of what they're going through might be hard for some readers to relate to.

But these women are also dealing with some very common problems like depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

Like pick-up sticks, these issues are all connected — it's nearly impossible to move one without jostling others. And research shows women's substance abuse is often connected to one or more of these other issues that are so common among women in general.

Does it sound like I'm blaming advertising for addiction, eating disorders, depression, and other mental health problems? I'm not... well, not exactly.

Advertising influences us. Of course it does — that's how it works. If ads didn't work to sell products, they'd cease to exist.

An ad can first create the need, and then promise to fill it: "Well, now that you mention it, my eyelashes are sparse... I need that product!"

But advertising does more than influence purchases. It influences attitudes. It shapes behavior.

[Sidenote: A few years back, I attended a church women's event where a speaker made connections between the images in the media and certain social changes that have transpired over the last few decades. When a friend asked me what I thought of the presentation, I responded, "I see what she's saying, but I don't think she went far enough." Yes, the characters on Sex and the City demonstrate different values from the characters on Father Knows Best, but let's not stop with merely an analysis of changing social roles and sexual mores. There's far more to it than that.]

Here's another little video that deals with advertising's impossible beauty standard in a bit more depth:

This clip is a composite from Jean Kilbourne's film Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising's Image of Women. (If you'd like to watch the film in full, which I highly recommend, here's part 1 and here's part 2.)

Kilbourne makes the point that "it's difficult to be healthy in... a toxic cultural environment — an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy images, and constantly sacrifices our health and our sense of well-being for the sake of profit."

Advertising's big message to women is twofold: first, what's most important is how we look, and second, we will never measure up. This is how they sell stuff: you need to look prettier, and that's still not pretty enough.

In other words, advertisers deliberately cultivate insecurity. (Interestingly, this is the same tactic used by abusers to keep their victims in line.)

It's not hard to see the connection to self-esteem issues and eating disorders.

But it gets darker.

Beyond showing appearance as everything while setting an impossible standard for physical beauty, the images in advertising and popular culture tend to do several other things:
  • they objectify and dehumanize women's bodies
  • they sexualize little girls while infantilizing women
  • they eroticize food
  • they mainstream pornography, stripping, and other types of sex work
  • they eroticize male-on-female violence

Again, Kilbourne points out, this not only influences buying, it shapes the attitudes that underlie other behavior as well:

As girls learn from a very early age that their sexualized behavior and appearance are often rewarded by society, they learn to sexualize themselves, to see themselves as objects. They're encouraged to see this as their own choice, as a declaration of empowerment, to reframe presenting oneself in the most clichéd and stereotypical way possible as a kind of liberation.
Kilbourne quotes a 2007 report by the American Psychological Association that states that girls exposed to sexualized images from a young age are more prone to depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

And because self-loathing tends to set a person up for more self-destructive choices, I'd argue they're also more prone to addiction, self-injury (e.g., cutting), and partner violence.

So what can we do about it? Kilbourne recommends a few action steps:

  • Awareness comes first. (That's why I'm writing this.) Be aware of the messages in the media. Those messages have power, especially with children.
  • Encourage media literacy in your friends, your kids, your kids' friends... Explain to them about digitally-altered photographs. (Many of the women in the group I led were unaware of this process, and I'd bet most people are unaware of just how many images are digitally altered.)
  • Discuss the issue, and how it impacts attitudes and behavior.
  • If you see something you disagree with, speak up! Customers have a voice, as the recent JC Penney t-shirt debacle demonstrated.
  • Find ways to change norms and change attitudes. Does that seem like an insurmountable task? A few bloggers responded to the JC Penney thing mentioned above with a Twitter campaign, flooding the social network with strong and positive alternatives, using the hashtag #PutThatOnATShirtJCPenney.

We can't afford to ignore this. We have to stand up and demand a change.

The health of our sisters and daughters depends on it.


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