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Media critic examines advertising and gender

| Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Although many Americans argue advertising images do not impact them, Dr. Jean Kilbourne argues that the impact comes from repeated, subconscious and instant exposure. This inundation shapes cultural norms, especially with regard to acceptable forms of female beauty and behavior, she said in her talk “The Naked Truth: Advertising’s Image of Gender,” on Tuesday night in DeBartolo Hall.

“They stay with us and we process them over and over again, and we process them subconsciously,” Kilbourne said. “To a great extent, advertising tells us who we are and how we should be.”

Kilbourne, an author and filmmaker, spoke as part of the Gender Relations Center’s (GRC) “Love Your Body Week.”

She said Americans view an average of 3,000 ads every day and spend two years watching television commercials in their lifetimes. She said it is impossible to completely ignore this constant messaging, which creates a toxic cultural environment that sacrifices health for corporate profit.

“What they’re selling us is image,” Kilbourne said. “… People are willing to spend a lot more money to buy that image while at the same time they believe they aren’t influenced by advertising.”

Having studied advertising since the late 1960s, Kilbourne said that American advertising has created an unrealistic ideal for female beauty, telling women and girls that they must spend incredible time and money to achieve the impossible standards portrayed in advertisements by unhealthily thin and often airbrushed models.

“What this does is it creates the idea that there is something wrong with [women who see the advertisements] … and creates the image that women can be perfectly thin and beautiful if we try hard enough,” Kilbourne said.

Citing multiple examples of computer-manipulated photos, Kilbourne said these artificial and constructed pictures damage women’s self-esteem and also cause men to have unrealistic expectations for females.

“Failure is inevitable because success is based on absolute flawlessness,” she said. “No one looks like this, including her … yet real women and girls measure themselves against these ideals everyday.”

Kilbourne said if an eating disorder meant having a disordered attitude toward one’s body or food, 65 percent of America would qualify. She said an obsession with becoming thinner and thinner prevents women to value themselves for anything but their bodies and teaches girls that they will be judged in life for how they look and what they wear, not what they accomplish.

“On a deeper level, the obsession with thinness is about cutting girls down to size,” she said. “Girls are taught to aspire to become nothing”

Kilbourne said advertising’s obsession with perfect female bodies has caused the prevalence of body-altering products and services like “The Wonderbra” and plastic surgery. She said 91 percent of plastic surgery patients today are women and women are getting surgeries at a younger age.

“Nowadays we’re supposed to go further; we’re supposed to get surgery,” she said.

With damaging ads running in teen magazines targeted at audiences as young as 12, she said the image of the ideal woman causes a girl’s self-esteem to plummet in adolescence.

“Girls are getting the messages so young that they need to be thin and perfect looking and hot and sexy, and there is no way they can succeed,” she said. “Part of this wall [of self-esteem] is this terrible emphasis of physical perfection.”

Kilbourne said an over-emphasis on thinness and dieting pairs logically with the obesity problem in the U.S., where both fast food and diet pills are commonly advertised. She encouraged a realization of natural, healthy body-sizes.

“We need to transform our attitudes as a culture about how we eat and how we exercise,” she said. “Eating should be one of life’s joyful experiences.”

Kilbourne said objectifying women by showing only a body part like legs or a stomach or by transforming a woman into a beer bottle can lead to violence.

“It is part of a cultural climate in which women are seen as things, as objects … which is almost always the first step of being violent against someone,” Kilbourne said. “It is a chilling but logical result of this kind of objectification.”

Kilbourne said many ads also show women in victimized, passive positions that glorify battery, murder and submission. She said these advertisements are dangerous in the U.S., where one-third of female murder victims are killed by their romantic partners.

Kilbourne said objectification of male bodies has become increasingly common, although men often assume poses of power, dominance and violence that contrast with the passive rag-doll positions of females. She said male models often receive computer-enhanced muscles instead of the waifish look for female models.

“It’s a perverse kind of equality, and it’s not okay; it’s not ever okay to be objectified,” she said. “… Men and women inhabit very different worlds. Men don’t live in a world where their bodies aren’t routinely stereotyped and judged.”

According to Kilbourne, the body language in advertisements has grown increasingly graphic and pornographic. She said ads have more frequently portrayed young girls sexually, but she said an APA study suggests that girls exposed to sexual images at a young age have higher chances of developing eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem.

“Girls learn from a very young age that their sexual behavior affects them,” Kilbourne said. “… Girls learn to turn themselves into objects. When the culture offers women and girls only one way to be sexy, it can hardly be portrayed as a choice to choose it.”

Kilbourne said American children receive their sex education from the media, through sexualized video games, music videos and advertisements because the U.S. has no regulated education program. She said this could be one reason why the U.S. has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexual diseases of any industrialized nation.

When asked how she stays hopeful despite advertisements growing worse since she started her work decades ago, Kilbourne said society must work together for change. She said after showing one of her documentaries, “Killing Me Softly,” to the British Parliament, a politician introduced legislation to label Photoshopped images and to enforce a minimum body mass index for models.

“The big thing that’s changed is I’m no longer alone, which I was when I started talking out about it,” she said. “What’s at stake for all of us … is the ability to have authentic and freely-chosen lives and relationships, and we all deserve that.”

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