Cultural theorist and activist Jean Kilbourne has been studying the image of women in the media for more than 40 years. In a passionate and dynamic TED presentation, she expands upon the media-related experiences that influenced her to study the dangers of modern and historical female portrayals in advertising – and illustrates how these images, even subconsciously, affect us all.
Kilbourne starts off by quoting supermodel Cindy Crawford saying, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” This quote reinforces the impossible ideals promoted in the media; the models bear little resemblance to the versions of themselves that end up plastered on billboards and splayed across the pages of magazines.
Kilbourne goes on to cite the fact that the self-esteem of girls in America often plummets at adolescence, and this is largely sparked by the emphasis placed on attaining physical perfection in magazines with early adolescent target-audiences.
According to research conducted at Penn State University, today, 42 percent of girls in grades 1-3 want to be thinner, 51 percent of 10-year-old girls feel better about themselves when they are dieting, 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies – and by the time they are 17, 78 percent of them will be.
Forty percent of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls 15 to 19 year olds.
UNC sophomore Julia Kelly is unfazed by these statistics; Kelly struggled with the eating disorder anorexia-nervosa beginning in seventh grade, and underwent years of treatment throughout middle and high school. She believes her disorder was sparked by consistent portrayals of unnaturally thin women in the media.
“I distinctly remember that I’d spend periods in middle school flipping through magazines like Vogue and Seventeen in the library,” she said. “It was kind of like a double-edged sword for me. I could get away with not eating, because all my friends and teachers just thought I was a nerd, and I was fueling my need for control and restriction by obsessing over these images and the fact that I felt like my life would suddenly fall together if I was just 5, then 10, then 15 pounds lighter.”
Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimate that the global beauty industry, which is made up of skin care worth $24 billion, make-up worth $18 billion, hair-care worth $38 billion, and fragrance worth $15 billion, is growing at up to 7 percent a year; this is more than twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP.
Not only do problematic female portrayals lead to a decline in self-esteem and a heightened risk for the development of eating disorders, but they also perpetuate female objectification and female-targeted violence.
Kilbourne asserts that images like those frequently presented in advertisements do not cause sexual assaults, but normalize significantly dangerous attitudes toward women and children. Grown women are often infantilized in ads and young girls are increasingly sexualized, and elements as seemingly simple as body language are often intentional, and can make bold statements.
Women are frequently depicted in passive or vulnerable positions, but when roles are reversed and men pose the same way, the message suddenly takes on a humorous or satirical tone. This creates a culture in which women are seen as things rather than people; the same cannot be said for men.
UNC junior Graham Booth believes differences in male vs. female portrayals are products of a history of female marginalization, and does not foresee an end to this cultural phenomenon.
“I like to think that things are getting better for women in a general sense, but then I see things like that Burger King ad with the super demeaning ‘foot-long’ sexual innuendo, and it makes me question whether this is so deeply engrained in our society that it’ll never really change,” says Booth.
Kilbourne considers objectification to be the first step towards justifying violence, and has noted that the prevalence of sexual assault today provides chilling but logical support to this claim, which reinforces the danger of ads that trivialize issues like battery, sexual assault, and even murder.
According to Kilbourne, the problem is not sex, but American culture’s pornographic attitude towards sex, and the trivialization of sex, where it is used to sell everything. Images today are far more graphic and pornographic than ever before, and the accessibility of internet pornography only contributes to the desensitization towards themes of sexuality.
Author Justin Coulson compares reactions to sexual content to one’s physical dependence on drugs.
“Like a drug, the more violence or sexual content we take in, the more of it we need to get the same shock factor,” he said. “These arguments persist in spite of hundreds of studies over several decades showing that sexual and violent content are genuinely influencing our behavior — and our morality. We may not kill people because we watched Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot bad guys by the thousands, but research tells us that violent and sexual content do impact the way we behave towards others.”