There are over twenty thousand magazines published every year in the United States, and the vast majority targets a female audience. Women who read magazines on a regular basis do so because they believe the information they find within will bolster them up and help them be better women. What they don’t realize is that they are inadvertently supporting an industry that purposely sets out to foster negative body images inside of them. These magazines are overloaded with images of ultra-thin models and strategically placed ads that claim to have an empowering purpose but actually deflate females’ self-esteem.
America’s capitalistic nature gives these publications and their contributors a sense of entitlement to profit by any means necessary. “Despite powerful evidence that the media’s unrealistic depiction of females has negative effects on the way women view themselves, companies in television and advertising seem to be unyielding in their marketing approaches. This may come from the mindset that ‘thinness sells,’ while using heavier women would not be as profitable,” (Dittmar, & Howard as quoted by Serdar, 20). Thanks to these misplaced goals what these women are really subscribing to is being unremitting victims.
This victimization of women through periodicals needs to stop, and even if the industry itself will not listen to reason, it is up to the people to insist that certain measures be taken to educate girls and women about the underhanded practices of these publications, thus negating the effect of their detrimental images, as well as hold the industry responsible for the misleading tactics they use to make a quick buck. When magazines first appeared in the United States back in 1741 they earned their profits solely through subscriptions, so they made an effort to ensure that their content appealed to their readership.
During the Great Depression many magazines lost subscribers and folded, and many others followed suit during WWII because of paper rations. These events taught those in the industry that solely relying on their readers for survival was unwise, so they began soliciting funds by offering advertisement space to companies who wanted to showcase their products to a possibly untapped audience. These new partnerships were a saving grace for many publications, but decades later we are finding that they have transformed from life savers to wolves shrouded in sheep’s clothes.
In her dissertation, “Beauty & Women in Advertising: A Representation of Women in Cosmetics Advertising”, Lottie Mac discusses the unrealistic images cosmetic, and other beauty product, companies portray in popular women’s magazines and the effect these misconceptions have on women and young girls. Mac dissects several advertisements to show how companies meticulously plan every detail of an ad to ensure it attracts women, sends the message they aren’t as beautiful, desirable, successful, etc. as the models, and then directs them to be just as good by merely purchasing their product.
She reveals how magazine editors then strategically place these toxic ads throughout their magazines so that they have the optimal effect. “Advertising companies use their female audience’s insecurities and fears about aging and looking ugly to sell their products… the beauty industry plays on the fear of looking ugly as much as the pleasure of looking beautiful… [and] the magazines themselves tread the fine line between reflecting women’s lives and the upholding of negative stereotypes about them” (Mac, 9, 11). To display and understand this notion let’s look at an ad for L’Oreal’s Infallible make-up from Glamour’s November 2006 edition.
In addition to highlighting the suggestive language and imagery L’Oreal and their advertisers use, Mac points out how Glamour’s editors placed the ad in the middle of an article about a woman who’d been held hostage at a gas station. The company and their advertisers used words and images to make women feel that maybe they look good when they leave the house in the morning but as the day wears on this mystique is erased by life’s demands, however by using Infallible they will not only look better than they ever have but also maintain this flawlessness throughout the entire day.
Glamour drives this message home with their placement of the ad, which suggests that no matter what life throws at them they can still sustain the mainstream’s beauty ideal. Some people may not see any harm in the example cited above, and by no means is Mac suggesting that every ad, product, or magazine is 100% dedicated to fostering negative body image, but it is important to read between the lines and see the entire message being sent by these entities.
When it comes to beauty products their logos go no further than the packaging and labels, so how does one discern who is using what brand? In reality the average person might be able to tell if a woman is wearing a high or low end product, but it is unfeasible that a particular brand can be visibly discerned. However, what these types of ads and their placement suggest is that these types of discernments are possible causing women to be critically judgmental about their and other women’s appearance. Through these judgments insecurities are exploited and enhanced.
Glossy page after glossy page displaying “ideal” beauty and lifestyle; ad after ad promising their product can bridge the gap to these ideal standards, and real life women seeking empowerment but with each page are forced to admit they are “failing” to keep up, and “the more a woman falls short of the standard, the more vigorously she will pursue the attainment of that standard by following the acceptable avenue for alteration,” (Mac, 6) which means big profits for the beauty and magazine industry and unhealthy lifestyles for many of their customers. A majority of the models displayed on television and in advertisements are well below what is considered healthy body weight. Mass media’s use of such unrealistic models sends an implicit message that in order for a woman to be considered beautiful, she must be unhealthy,” (Serdar, 14). In her article “Female Body Image and the Mass Media: Perspectives on How Women Internalize the Ideal Beauty Standard”, Kasey Serdar explores three theories (social comparison, cultivation, and self-schema) that explain how women internalize the world’s view of beauty and the detrimental consequences of this internalization.
Social comparison theory is often seen as the first step in the internalization of ideal beauty standards. During this stage an individual evaluates themselves based on how she feels she compares to family, friends, peers, media icons, etc, and in most cases when they don’t “measure-up” they begin simple behaviors to try and “improve” like dieting, beginning a work-out routine, or purchasing more expensive beauty products/make-up. From social comparison these women then move on to the cultivation stage. At this point they’ve found that despite their efforts they are no closer to eaching the social standard then when they started, so they redoubled their efforts, which often means incubating unhealthy behaviors. They go from dieting to barely eating, a normal work-out routine to excessively exercising, and from feeling somewhat good about what they see in the mirror to avoiding the mirror because it only confirms their constant “failure”. As they continually seek the magical diet, product, or sacrifice that will unlock the door to the social standard, they immerse themselves in media that they feel holds some of the secrets—mainly magazines.
The “cultivation theory argues that images that portray women who match the sociocultural ideal of beauty are extremely prevalent in popular media, and that repetitive exposure to such images influences women’s abilities to understand that such standards are unrealistic,” (Serdar, 18). This means that the more these women seek help in their “empowering” periodicals the less they are able to realize they are fighting a losing a battle, so they begin taking more desperate measures to reach an impossible goal. As their desperation mounts they enter the potentially fatal realm of the self-schema theory.
Once a woman has reached this point her “own” opinion of herself is only one third of what she sees, and this view cannot be trusted because it is warped by the other two sources of her opinion—societies ideal body and the internalized body. We already know that societies ideal is mainly based on what size, or rather how small, she is and the body image she has now internalized is solely based on how much she believes that the societal norm, and the lengths she’s gone to in order to attain it, are normal/healthy. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that women who have an internalized ideal body that closely resembles the socially represented ideal body are at a particularly high risk to develop body image disturbance and disordered eating patterns,” (Sands & Wardle as quoted by Serdar, 19). Now the seeds of unhealthy behavior planted in the previous stage come to fruition as extreme dieting turns into one or a combination of the various forms of disordered eating (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, etc. , excessive exercising becomes constant exercising, plastic surgery replaces merely upgrading beauty products, and the sacrifices that endanger her health become life threatening. The mirror she used to ignore has her constant attention, yet she never finds one saving grace in any aspect of her appearance; she purposely looks to confirm her failure so that she finds it easier to maintain her self-abuse. Women consciously purchase magazines, but the internalization of the inflammatory images they encounter within is a completely unconscious act.
Magazine editors are aware of the subliminal messages and intents of the ads they run and they purposely aid them in their mission via their placements. If this isn’t bad enough women would be blown away if they were aware that the images of models and other icons they so aspire to be like are doctored. Yes, even though the women we see in magazines already weigh 23% less than the average woman magazines and advertisers still alter their pictures to ensure they erase any potential flaw. People are typically not aware of the extent to which models are altered, particularly by digital retouching and imaging techniques that reduce or enhance the size of virtually any body part, making eyes larger, waists slimmer, and legs longer and thinner,” (Dittmar, Halliwell, Tiggemann, Levine). Women are at a clear disadvantage when this is taken into consideration with all of the other marketing ploys of the industry. That is why it is essential that they are made aware of these tactics so that the gravity of their effect is decreased.
If they knew the unhealthy lifestyles these icons lead to maintain their size and beauty, about the strategies used by editors and advertisers to enhance their profits by diminishing self-esteem, about additional alterations made to images to assure the unattainable nature of societies ideals, and that all of this is done to ensure continued profits at women’s expense, then they would be better equipped to resist the internalization of harmful ideals.
To help achieve this goal regulations need to be put in place that: 1) restrict the use of digitally altered images in ads targeting younger age groups, 2) clear labels/warnings on images that are digitally altered, 3) the institution of an health standard that all models must meet in order to work, 4) the encouraged use of real-sized women in magazines and advertisements, and 5) curriculum in schools that alert young women and girls about altered images and industry tactics, so that with this knowledge they have the power to empower themselves and resist letting society negatively influence their self-image and thus their mindset and health.
It is hard to believe that something as seemingly innocent as a magazine has the power to destroy women’s body image, self confidence, and lead them to embark on unhealthy lifestyles that could become fatal.
In the UK and Australia research has been completed that shows “that average-size models are just as effective in advertising products as ultra-thin models, as long as they are equally attractive,” (Dittmar, Halliwell, Tiggemann, Levine), which means that if an effort is made in the US to enforce positive change in advertising and editing tactics in magazines then the powers that be can still maintain their profits without negatively effecting or destroying women’s body images. No longer can companies ignore research that makes the detrimental effects of the images in magazines and other media on their female consumers.
No longer can the excuse that “thinness sells” be allowed to permit the promotion of unrealistic female body images to boost sells. Silent victims walk among us everyday unaware that they are under attack. It is not only up to the beauty and magazine industries to stand-up and take notice of the damaging effects of overexposure to altered ultra-thin images, but also the responsibility of the people to educate themselves if necessary and take action to insist measures be taken to protect women from these misconceptions.
After all, people mobilized to enact policies to warn people about the potential dangers of smoking and drinking, and now the way these product are advertised to the public have been altered to protect the innocent and make them aware. Similar dangers lie in the glossy pages of women’s magazines, and the same precautions need to be taken to protect females of all ages.
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