The smiling, classy faces, the slim bodies, the poreless, glossy, smooth and clean skin, perfect in every way and of course wrinkle free, beam at us every day. They appear to us from magazine covers, , television advertising, billboards, displays at Target, on the internet. We see them and hear the messages they bleat: “You too can look like this”; “You deserve it”; “This is how to look to be happy.” All these seemingly positive messages want us to believe that we are worthy and in control when we buy into them, that only if we strive to be like <insert celebrity name> are we really going to attract a mate. It all comes across as entertaining and natural, simultaneously promulgating the myth that the most important thing for a woman is to look like the models. What their promotional language really conveys is that you can only be satisfied with some help, because “you” isn’t good enough when left to your own devises.
The Perils of Advertising “Perfection”
The average person sees 400 to 600 commercial messages every day. By the time she is 17 years old, an average young woman has been bombarded with over 250,000 commercial messages. Although only 9% of commercials make a direct statement about beauty, a great many more implicitly emphasize its importance. There are consequences.
Studies show girls who regularly read magazines tend to diet and base their body image on photos and messages they find in the advertisements. It is all but impossible for anyone except the genetically “blessed” to achieve the perfection seen on those pages. After all, the average supermodel (average is actually a poor choice of words) is 5 foot 10 inches tall and tips the scales at a whopping 110 pounds.
The true “average” woman is 5’4” and 145 lbs. To become thin like the women in the ads is exceedingly difficult if not impossible. Some adopt a starvation strategy that can devolve into anorexia nervosa, or bulimia with its gorging and purging, or excessive and obsessive exercise. And all this to get to what they perceive is “normal” when, in fact, nearly all are normal already.
Granted, obesity in America is epidemic and primarily related to poor nutritional habits and inactivity, and that is decidedly not “normal” also…but that is a topic for another forum on another day. I think we can all agree: Normal, as in fashion model skinny normal, is definitely not normal.
News Flash – “Sex Sells”
We all know why it’s done. Advertisers emphasize sexuality and the importance of physical attractiveness in their efforts to sell products, but researchers are concerned about the pressure on women and men to focus on their appearance. In recent survey by Teen People magazine, 27% of the girls felt that the media pressures them to have a perfect body, and a poll conducted in 1996 by the international ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi found that ads made women fear being unattractive or old. Researchers suggest advertising media may adversely impact women’s body image, which can lead to unhealthy behavior as women and girls strive for the ultra-thin body idealized by the media. There is gathering evidence that the impact of unrealistic ideals is now affecting men and boys who are beginning to risk their health to achieve the well-built media standard.
One study of Saturday morning toy commercials found that 50% of commercials aimed at girls spoke about physical attractiveness, while none of the commercials aimed at boys referred to appearance. Other studies found 50% of advertisements in teen girl magazines and 56% of television commercials aimed at female viewers used beauty as a product appeal. This constant exposure to female-oriented advertisements may influence girls to become self-conscious about their bodies and to obsess over their physical appearance as a measure of their worth.
Advertisements emphasize thinness as a standard for female beauty, and the bodies idealized in the media are frequently atypical of normal, healthy women. In fact, today’s fashion models weigh 23% less than the average female, and a young woman between the ages of 18-34 has a 7% chance of being as slim as a catwalk model and a 1% chance of being as thin as a supermodel. However, 69% of girls in one study said that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape, and the pervasive acceptance of this unrealistic body type creates an impractical standard for the majority of women.
Worship at the altar of thinness has become so pervasive that well-known celebrities are beginning to complain when their cover photos on popular magazine are being manipulated to make them look thinner.
Some researchers believe that advertisers deliberately and purposely normalize unrealistically thin bodies, in order to create an unattainable desire that can drive product consumption. By reproducing ideals that are absurdly out of line with what real bodies actually look like, the media perpetuates a market for frustration and disappointment. Considering that the diet industry alone generates $33 billion in revenue, advertisers have been successful with their marketing strategy so why would they want to change?
Because It Hurts People
Women frequently compare their bodies to those they see around them, and researchers have found that exposure to idealized body images lowers women’s satisfaction with their own attractiveness. One study found that people who were shown slides of thin models had lower self-evaluations than people who had seen average and oversized models, and girls reported in a body image survey that “very thin” models made them feel insecure about themselves.
In a sample of Stanford undergraduate and graduate students, 68% felt worse about their own appearance after looking through women’s magazines. Many health professionals are also concerned by the prevalence of distorted body image among women, which may be fostered by their constant self-comparison to extremely thin figures promoted in the media. Seventy-five percent (75%) of “normal” weight women think they are overweight and 90% of women overestimate their body size.
Dissatisfaction with their bodies causes many women and girls to strive for the thin ideal. The number one wish for girls ages 11 to 17 is to be thinner, and girls as young as five have expressed fears of getting fat. Eighty percent (80%) of 10-year-old girls have dieted, and at any one time, 50% of American women are currently dieting. Some researchers suggest depicting thin models may lead girls into unhealthy weight-control habits, because the ideal they seek to emulate is unattainable for many and unhealthy for most.
One study found that 47% of the girls were influenced by magazine pictures to want to lose weight, but only 29% were actually overweight. Research has also found that stringent dieting to achieve an ideal figure can play a key role in triggering eating disorders. Other researchers believe depicting thin models appears not to have long-term negative effects on most adolescent women, but they do agree it affects girls who already have body-image problems. Girls who were already dissatisfied with their bodies showed more dieting, anxiety, and bulimic symptoms after prolonged exposure to fashion and advertising images in a teen girl magazine.
Males are becoming insecure about their physical appearance as advertising and other media images raise the standard of the well muscled man. There is an alarming increase in obsessive weight training, anabolic steroid use, and dietary supplements that promise bigger muscles or more stamina for lifting. One study noted that the trend in toy action figures’ increasing muscularity is setting unrealistic ideals for boys, just as Barbie dolls have given girls an unrealistic ideal of thinness.
The majority of teenagers with eating disorders are girls (90%),but experts believe the number of boys affected is increasing and that many cases may not be reported, since males are reluctant to acknowledge any illness primarily associated with females.
Images Have Consequences
This is the sinister downside of the distorted false messages the world of visual advertising conveys on a routine basis. An extremely small segment of the populace, promulgated as the ideal, has been given sway over the vast majority. No one ever adds the cautionary proviso that these are not average people and “your results may vary”.
We often hear “beware of false advertising”. But there are many ways to be false. You can lie about the product, or you can deceive people at their very cores by telling them they are “not good enough” and never will be unless they use their product. Which is more insidious, do you think?