Transcript: Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women

Sometimes people say to me, “You’ve been talking about this for 40 years, have things gotten any better?” And actually I have to say really they’ve gotten worse. Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success and perhaps most important – normalcy. To a great extent they tell us who we are and who we should be.

Well what does advertising tell us about women? It tells us, as it always has, that’s what’s most important is how we look. So the first thing the advertisers do is surround us with images of ideal female beauty. Women learn from a very early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy and above all money, striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail. And failure is inevitable because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness. She never has any lines or wrinkles, she certainly has no scars or blemishes, indeed she has no pores. And the most important aspect of this flawlessness is that it can not be achieved, no one looks like this including her; and this is the truth, no one looks like this. The supermodel Cindy Crawford once said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” She doesn’t, she couldn’t, because this is a look that’s been created for years through airbrushing and cosmetics but these days it’s done through the magic of computer retouching. Keira Knightley is given a bigger bust; Jessica Alba is made smaller; Kelly Clarkson… well isn’t this interesting it says, “Slim down your way” but she in fact slimmed down the Photoshop way. You almost never see a photograph of a woman considered beautiful that hasn’t been Photoshopped.

We all grow up in a culture in which women’s bodies are constantly turned into things and objects, here’s she’s become the bottle of Michelob. In this ad she becomes part of a video game. And this is everywhere, in all kinds of advertising. Women’s bodies are turned into things and objects. Now of course this affects female self esteem. It also does something even more insidious – it creates a climate of widespread violence against women. I’m not at all saying that an ad like this directly causes violence, it’s not that simple but turning a human being in to a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person. We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism. It’s always the same process. The person is dehumanised and violence becomes inevitable. And that step is already and constantly taken against women.

Women’s bodies are dismembered in ads, hacked apart – just one part of the body is focused upon, which of course is the most dehumanising thing you could do to someone. Everywhere we look, women’s bodies have been turned into things and often just parts of things. And girls are getting the message these days just so young, that they need to be impossibly beautiful. Hot, sexy, extremely thin – they also get the message that they’re going to fail, there’s no way they’re going to really achieve it. Girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they’re 8, 9, 10 years old but they hit adolescence and they hit the wall and certainly a part of this wall is this terrible emphasis on physical perfection. So no wonder we have an epidemic of eating disorders in our country and increasingly throughout the world.

I’ve been talking about this for a very long time and I keep thinking that the models can’t get any thinner but they do. They get thinner and thinner and thinner. This is Ana Carolina Reston who died a year ago of anorexia weighing 88 pounds and at the time she was still modelling. So the models literally can not get any thinner so Photoshop is brought to the rescue. There are exceptions however – Kate Winslet has been outspoken about her refusal to allow Hollywood to dictate her weight. When British GQ magazine this photograph of Winslet which was digitally enhanced to make her look dramatically thinner, she issued a statement that the alterations were made without her consent and she said, “I don’t look like that and more importantly I don’t desire to look like that. I can tell you that they’ve reduced the size of my legs by about a third.” Bless her heart.

So, what can we do about all of this? Well the first step is to become aware, to pay attention, and to recognise that this affects all of us. These are public health problems that I’m talking about. The obsession with thinness is a public health problem, the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty, violence against women. These are all public health problems that affect us all and public health problems can only be solved by changing the environment.

By Jean Kilbourne