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U.S. culture cultivates negative body image

Lisa Schultz | Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The solution to ending America’s obsession with thinness is a change in cultural attitudes, Dr. Jean Kilbourne said Monday in her talk to Notre Dame students addressing the effects of advertising’s portrayals of women.

Kilbourne, a world-renowned speaker and author of the recent book “Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel,” kicked off student government’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week by speaking to an audience of about 200 in DeBartolo Hall.

Kilbourne said advertising was one aspect of a toxic health environment.

“Advertisements are quick, cumulative, and, for the most part, unconscious,” Kilbourne said. “What they are selling us is image.”

Kilbourne said the average American is exposed to 3,000 advertisements daily, and her presentation utilized many images to illustrate her point.

The crowd of mostly women gasped when Kilbourne revealed that Julia Roberts’ face had been transplanted on a body double for the “Pretty Woman” poster.

This fact helped prove one of Kilbourne’s points – no woman can become what she sees in advertisements.

“Failure is inevitable,” Kilbourne said.

She listed stereotypical features of a supermodel, and her audience laughed when she said, “Indeed, she has no pores.”

Kilbourne said a recent trend in advertising is making women feel shame about eating, in addition to the typical guilt trip that comes out of the confusion of being simultaneously “virginal and experienced.”

“The ménage à trois we’re now made to feel ashamed of is with Ben and Jerry,” she said.

Another visible trend is the segmentation of women’s bodies, where advertisements depict only one part of a woman’s body, Kilbourne said.

“This creates a climate in which women are seen as things, objects,” she said.

When women are objectified, Kilbourne said, abuse becomes more socially acceptable. “The most dangerous thing to do is mix sex and violence,” she said.

Student Senate Gender Issues committee chair Ali Wishon, the head coordinator behind the Eating Disorders Awareness Week events, said she hoped the lecture would “get the discussion started.”

Wishon said she left Notre Dame for three semesters to deal with her own eating disorder, and she said when she returned to campus she realized it is an environment in which eating disorders aren’t talked about.

“Notre Dame is quite possibly the most difficult place to struggle with an eating disorder,” Wishon said.

Other events for the week – themed “Shaping Perfection” – include a lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday entitled “Facing the Freshman (or Sophomore, Junior, or Senior) 15: Strategies to Assess the Causes and Reverse the Problem” in South Dining Hall’s Oak Room, as well as a discussion at 8 p.m. Thursday entitled “360 Degrees: Perspectives on Eating Disorders” in North Dining Hall’s Room F.