I am honored to be sitting in a circle of 28 young women of different ethnicities, 14 – 17 in age. The girls are gathered here at Vassar College as part of The Eleanor Roosevelt Girl’s Leadership Program. Their exuberant energy abounds as we begin the workshop, Free To Be, Radiant Me –- a workshop in which we will be celebrating our radiant, unique selves through poetry and yoga.
The evening begins however by first learning to take a conscious, critical look at the media to see and hear the very powerful and sometimes subconscious messages that we are given as women about how we should look and who we should be in our culture. It is this eye-opening adventure that I will be writing about in this article.
We begin by looking at magazine covers, advertisements and editorial copy geared towards young women from magazines such as CosmoGirl!, Shape, Self, Seventeen, and Teen Vogue.
The faces we see on the covers of these magazines and in the ads are flawless–- not a blemish, pimple, discoloration –- Ah, the wonders of airbrushing!As Jean Kilbourne points out in her video, Killing Us Softly 3, Advertising’s Images of Women, these women don’t even have pores!
An ad for VO5 Miracle! Conditioning Spray reads, “Looking For A Miracle?”An article in CosmoGirl!, August 2005, entitled "Fall Beauty Trends" states “Here’s how to get the smooth skin, romantic eyes and pretty hair that will make you look like a masterpiece.” I ask the girls what the messages are here and they unanimously reply –- that we are not okay as we are -– that we have to find a miracle to make us into masterpieces –into some idealized version of beauty and perfection.
The bodies of these women are also flawless - waists of Barbie doll proportion, perfect breasts (many of which are implants) and thighs. Indeed to achieve this figure, many already thin models have to diet constantly. An ad for Xenadrine-EFX, the #1 diet supplement in the world, shows a woman who has lost 22 pounds. The copy reads, “Looking Great Was Never So Easy.” The message -- that we should go to any lengths, even popping pills, to lose weight in order to look great.
I ask the girls how these photos make them feel. One young woman states that she gets depressed whenever she looks at these magazines because she knows she will never look like what she sees. Another young woman says that she wishes that magazines would portray real women – women who look like herself and the other girls in the room with different body types and sizes and with faces that are all different. This sentiment is reflected in The Body Shop ad from a few years ago. The ad displays a big-boned plastic doll reclining on a couch with the copy, “There are three billion women that don’t look like supermodels and only 8 who do”. Jean Kilbourne states in her video that now magazines and advertisers are computer generating the “perfect” woman - taking the eyes of one woman, lips of another, breasts of another, butt and thighs of another. Young woman are striving through dieting, makeup, lots of energy and money to live up to an ideal of beauty and perfection that doesn’t even exist. When they fail, these young women often feel depressed and inadequate.
In this country, low self- esteem and poor body image among young women is incredibly high as compared to young men. Research shows that by the age of 13, 53% of American girls are unhappy about their bodies and that by age 17, 78% are dissatisfied. This is no wonder when you look at the obsession with thinness in this culture. Self magazine, July 2005 issue, features the following copy on its cover - 75 Sneaky Summer Diet Tricks, There’s Still Time! Remake Your Shape, The Natural Way To Get Slim, Summer Sexy Thighs And Butt.
In another study, 8 out of 10 women report being dissatisfied with their reflection in the mirror and more than ½ see a distorted image (they think they are fat even when they aren’t). Eating Disorders in this country are on the rise. According to US estimates from The National Institute of Mental Health, between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of girls and women (i.e. 5-10 million people) suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or other associated conditions. Estimates suggest that as many as 15 percent of young women adopt unhealthy attitudes and dysfunctional behaviors about food.Jean Kilbourne states that this obsession with thinness literally cuts girls down to size and tells them not to be too powerful – not to throw their weight around. She shows an ad of an anorexic-looking model wearing a watch on her upper arm because she is too thin for it to fit on her wrist. The copy reads, “Put some Weight On.” The advertiser is not only making a joke about anorexia but is using an eating disorder to sell watches.
As we continue to look at various ads, the girls notice that very often just body parts are used to sell products, particularly breasts and legs. When have you seen men’s body parts such as legs or penises used to sell products? This dismembering of women’s bodies makes women into objects, and as Jean Kilbourne writes, not even whole objects.
As we look at the Yves Saint Laurent ad for Opium perfume that was banned, we see a young woman naked on her back in a sexually suggestive pose. The message here clearly is that women are simply like drugs (objects) and sexual toys available for someone else’s pleasure. Akademiks (hip-hop clothing) has two ads - one for young men and one for young women. The man’s ad shows a young man collegiately dressed surrounded by books. The woman’s ad (that was recently pulled from New York City transit busses) shows a young girl in pigtails with her finger to her mouth wearing a short pink sweater, low cut panties and high heels surrounded on the floor by a few books. Now I don’t know about you, but when I am reading or studying, I don’t wear tight sweaters, panties, high heels and pigtails. The difference in the message here is so blatantly clear. In the first ad, the man is taken seriously as being studious and in the second, the young woman, is selling much more than books and clothing. She is quite clearly selling her body and sex. In fact, the copy reads the same in both ads but is more powerful in the woman’s ad: “Read Books, Get Brain”. “Get Brain” (as the clothing company admitted it was well aware of) means oral sex in hip-hop culture. Could that be why the woman has her finger to her mouth? We see this recurring theme of women as objects for someone else’s pleasure.
In an ad for Onitsuka Tiger sneakers, an old-fashioned looking Asian woman with chopsticks in her hair is covering her mouth with her fan. The copy reads, “Smile and Bat Eyes in Stylish Shoe. Boys will follow.” The message is, if we smile and bat our eyes, we will get boys -- which of course is the only thing a woman thinks about or wants. The fact that an Asian woman is used to demonstrate passivity and submissiveness is not only insulting but racist.
Another observation by the girls in the workshop is that women’s mouths are often covered up - by fans such as in the above mentioned ad, by fingers, by clothing, and in one ad from Killing Us Softly 3, by being zipped shut. The message –- Women should be seen and not heard. This is brought home in an ad in Killing Us Softly 3 that shows a large man with a cigar in one corner looming over a small picture of a woman all dressed up in a short, black party dress. The copy reads, “Doesn’t argue, won’t talk back and doesn’t have an opinion –- the perfect companion.” I don’t remember what they are selling in this ad but the message is blaring in terms of the woman’s place - to be viewed, but not heard.
What does this objectification and silencing of women do to us, I ask? The girls respond that it serves to keep us from being powerful. It keeps us from having a voice.
Infantilizing women in ads also serves to keep women from growing up and becoming too powerful. Bed Head makeup shows a very young girl sexily dressed advertising makeup to wear to bed. With a name like BedHead, we can imagine what she will be doing once she is in bed. In a clip from Killing Us Softly 3, a young girl is preparing for a Calvin Klein jeans ad -- You hear a male voice asking her to unzip her pants which she does. The male voice asks her to pull down her jeans. You can see the girl’s face and she looks clearly distressed. When we see Lipstick being sold in the shape of a pacifier, we need to really begin to question what is going on. Young people, particularly, young women and girls, are being co-opted into child pornography in the guise of clever advertising.
My personal horrifyingly favorite ad shows a young woman with pink whipped VO5 volumizing styling mousse swirling around her lower body. The copy reads, “Getting Whipped! never felt this good.” Another ad for perfume reads, “He’ll smell your scent as you shake your head no” are all examples of women being dominated, seen as powerless, submissive, victims and liking it. In a culture in which domestic violence is so high, these ads serve to fuel the fire, rationalizing violence towards women as they are seen as passive, childlike, powerless objects.
The girls in this workshop say that their eyes have been opened. Some of them feel outraged to be used in such a way. I know many of them will be looking at these magazines quite differently from this moment on. Hopefully, some of them will tear down the pictures from these magazines that I see so often collaged on their bedroom walls.
Learning to look at the media critically is such an important and essential skill for young women to develop. Most young women read and look at magazines that objectify, infantilize and exploit them without even being conscious of what they are being spoon fed by the media and the culture at large. Jean Kilbourne points out that the average American sees 3000 ads per day. She goes on to say, most people will tell you that they don’t pay attention to ads or that they don’t affect them But subconsciously, the messages seep in and what is really being sold is much more than ads, magazines or products -- but concepts about who you should be and what you should look like to fit in and be accepted and prized in this culture. The message is to strive for something you can never attain or if you do, at what expense?
In my opinion, girls should be educated at home and in schools at a very young age, to be conscious of what is really going on in the media and in the culture. Some schools offer "Media Literacy" programs that scrutinize sexist imagery in ads and magazines. Aware of how very powerful these messages are, young women can begin to make conscious choices as to how not to buy into these messages – how instead to be themselves, celebrate their uniqueness, learn that real beauty, strength and power come from the inside and that you don’t need to become something other than who you are to be accepted and acceptable.
In this way, young women begin to divest the media and the culture at large of their power and instead send their own very powerful messages that they are not to be used, bought or sold but rather valued, heard and honored.
When these young women dictate how they should look and who they are, they take back their power and in doing so, can truly celebrate their radiant selves.
The following are some ways that you can affect change in the direction of empowerment and equality:
Subscribe to and read alternative magazines that empower young women such as Teen Voices or for younger girls, New Moon Magazine.
Become an activist in the fight against exploitation by calling, E-mailing or writing letters to magazines and advertisement companies that disempower women
Organize “girlcotts” -- Stop buying products and magazines until they initiate change. The internet is a powerful tool for spreading the word.
Create your own magazines and solicit advertisers that have positive messages for young women
Form discussion groups to talk about videos such as Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne (available from Media Education Foundation, 800-897-0089, www.mediaed.org) and books such as Adolescents and The Media edited by Victor Strasburger and Marjorie Hogan.
Cut out ads, editorial copy and magazine covers that you find offensive to discuss or to use to make a revolutionary anti-media collage!
Cut out ads that empower women and send letters to these advertisers offeringkudos and encouraging them to continue with positive messages
Express your own uniqueness by dressing in ways that reflect your true self
Surround yourself with poetry and writings by women that talk about empowerment, diversity and real beauty that comes from within, such as Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, My Body Is Perfect by Jerrice Baptiste, writings of Mari Evans, Mary E.Hunt, Audre Lorde and so many others
Write your own poetry and stories that reflect your true self and how you would like to be seen in the world
Learn practices such as yoga that teach that you are already whole just the way you are and that offer ways of loving and nourishing your body whatever shape or size
Create circles of women of all ages that support you in your process and in your empowerment