Advertisers know just exactly how to develop and distribute and image that fosters the personal fears and anxieties of women, while selling a product that promises to alleviate those fears. They show women how great things could be, while implying that things as they are, are unsatisfactory. Your teeth could be whiter, your hair could be shinier, your thighs could be leaner-- and all of this will be the key to solving your life's problems. What advertisers don't tell you is that the images of happiness through beauty aren't based in reality. They set up a goal for women that is virtually unattainable, but hard to resist striving towards, because women are taught from a young age that their value is directly proportionate to their physically beauty. Even the smartest of women are susceptible to becoming vanity obsessed because the idea of beauty as worth has long been ingrained in the system. When you think about it, advertising is really just a profitable continuation of the male gaze.
Susan Kilbourne alludes to the presence of the male gaze in advertising, stating that “Women are especially vulnerable because our bodies have been objectified and commodified for so long” (132). She also notes that this type of cultural climate encourages women to remake themselves into the “flawlessly beautiful and extremely thin women” (132) that they see in ads. This is where women are lead down a dangerous path in pursuit of physical perfection.
I have to break out of the academic tone now, because it’s almost impossible for me to talk about this topic without talking about my personal experience. I even wrote in my first post:
“I was more or less obsessed with looking at the women in these magazines and brainstorming of ways I could transform into them. I was particularly fond of the Calvin Klein ads from back in the day; to me, Kate Moss was the ideal woman.”
What I didn’t mention is the mess that turned my life into. Of course, there is more than one reason that a person to develops an eating disorder, but if I can draw it back to one point where I think my mind was really hijacked and the problem flourished, I would say it was when I was a pre-teen-- which is exactly when these Calvin Klein ads starting printing. Up until that point, I was already vaguely aware that I wasn’t physically good enough, but seeing Kate Moss gave me a definite look to aspire to. I’ll spare you the details, but say I “aspired to” this look pretty much all the way through my teens, and ultimately right into a hospital where I stayed for several months. I was repeatedly warned that if I continued this “behavior”, my life will pass me by. And it did. While I watched my friends go to prom, go to college and better themselves in so many ways, I was forced to stay back, sickly and still under the belief that I wasn’t good enough for the world. And once I was allowed (ie. trusted) to move forward with my life, it was only a matter of time before I was plucked from college and sent home, as it became clear my problems had resurfaced. Once the idea of thinness gets in your head, it is extremely hard to shake (and that’s an understatement). Only recently did I have the strength to return to school and finish what I started years ago.
This story shouldn't be shocking-- it’s as old as dirt. But here’s the kicker:
Getting better and coming to terms with my body was bittersweet because it made me realize how many years of my life have been wasted worrying about how others perceived my body. I wondered who I would have been and what I could have done with my life if only I had the mental clarity that I had only recently achieved. Up until I was 21, I literally didn’t know what it was like to NOT have a thought interrupted by a daydream of being skinny. I couldn’t believe how productive a person could actually be!
Now… if we have a whole culture of girls experiencing the same problems I’ve had (because we definitely do), we have generations of women who aren’t being as productive as they can be-- they’re too preoccupied with their image. The genesis of this body image awareness/dissastifaction is in advertising. The persuasiveness of ads “erode[s] private and individual values and standards.” (Kilbourne 122) This of course is great for men because if women have no standards in which to live by, it keeps them stagnant, in exactly in the place they started: a vision to be enjoyed by men.
The ad campaign that launched a thousand eating disorders.
Words from the model herself.
Kilbourne, Jean. "Beauty and the Beast of Advertising." Media & Values. N.p.: Winter, 1989. Print.
Kilbourne, Jean. "The More You Subtract, The More You Add." Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. New York, NY: Free, 1999. Print.