On the back pages of the ad-free feminist magazine, Ms., ads from other publications that showcase women appear without editorial comment. Readers are left to interpret these ads for themselves. The February/March 2001 issue shows a two-panel Vibe jeans ad in which a woman’s body appears wearing underwear and a tiny t-shirt. Between the two images the caption challenges readers to “Spot the difference.” Both panels are identical, except for the fact that in the bottom one the woman’s nipples noticeably protrude through the T-shirt. Voilà! La difference. Jeans do not appear anywhere in the ad.
According to Jean Kilbourne, producer of three documentaries on women’s portrayal in advertising, an average North American is exposed to 3,000 ads a day and will spend three years watching commercials in their lifetime. As well, the average North American believes that advertising does not impact his or her life. Yet many women worry constantly about appearing “imperfect,” that they are somehow unsuitable for public consumption. How could these feelings of inadequacy not be related to and fuelled by the constant barrage of female forms depicted in advertising and media?
“Breasts are used to sell everything,” Kilbourne says in her most recent documentary, Killing us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women. “And the obsession with thinness is about cutting girls to size.”
For Kilbourne and many women, advertising clearly tries to sell an image of femaleness that is neither liberating nor anywhere near true to life. In fact, most images of women in magazines are computer-enhanced, with such things as pores, extra hair, wrinkles and all the distinctions that make a woman human ironed out so as not to disgust the public.
Advertising also negatively portrays minority women and exploits a child-like image of innocence to define women’s roles. Black women are often portrayed as rabidly sexual and animal-like, while grown women of all colours are demoted to infant status. A late ’90s trend turned women into little-girl sex objects–not that the depiction of women as sex objects is anything new, but their depiction as innocent, yet sexy, children is. In advertising, and to some extent general society, innocence is equated with sexy. Hence, an abundance of barely pubescent models parades across billboards and magazine spreads.
Grown women suck on their fingers while wearing frilly panties to advertise items that have nothing to do with fingers or panties. If the world of advertising is to be believed, a woman must be virginal yet experienced, she must be demure and not powerful, she must be controlled. She is an object made of up pieces, not a whole human. Butts and boobs sell cars, food and sports equipment, all without the need to show the whole woman. Confused? Don’t even bother asking if you’re experienced or demure enough–women can’t achieve what advertising tells them to be.
If you’re one of the millions of women who think advertising does not affect you, ask yourself if this is the way you as a woman would like to be portrayed and understood. And the next time you stand in front of the mirror to make sure you “look all right,” ask where you got the idea that perfection lay in how you looked, not in who you were.