Pick up any fashion magazine, and you’re bound to be presented with page upon page of perfect-looking humans flaunting the latest trends. In many advertisements, you may find yourself faced with a very particular type of image (i.e. white, thin, young and beautiful), and the clothing that’s being advertised seems to be only secondary to the narrow sets of beauty standards that are promoted. While it’s easy to skim past these images without giving them a second thought, it’s important to be aware and critical of the images that we’re exposed to day after day. Whether we’re skimming through a magazine, watching television or simply driving past a bus stop, beauty myths become normalized every time we are exposed to them.
Advertisements perpetuating an ideal type of beauty have been around for decades. These images, which are virtually everywhere, are bound to have some effect on our psyches, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In fact, studies have shown that advertisements, which are quick and to the point, have more of a subconscious effect on people than anything else. It’s crucial then to take into consideration just how much the effects of these images impact our understanding of what it means to be beautiful.
Jean Kilbourne says it best in her series of documentaries, Killing Us Softly, as she claims that, “ads sell more than products … They sell concepts of normalcy … They tell us who we are and who we should want to be.” Pair this with her idea that “[if there’s only one way to be beautiful on offer], it can hardly be considered a choice to choose it,” and it’s clear where the body image issues that girls and women face are coming from.
Take, for example, Viti Levu, an island in Fiji where the rise of eating disorders and body dysmorphia were eerily proportionate to the introduction of television. Eating disorders and body image issues were virtually unheard of on the island before television became popular, but after a few years, the percentage of such issues increased phenomenally. According to the Klarman Eating Disorders Center at Harvard Medical School, the percentage of girls on the island who resorted to vomiting to control their weight rose from 3 percent to 15 percent, and girls who watched television frequently were 50 percent more likely to describe themselves as “too fat” than those who watched less television.
It’s not just women who face unrealistic standards of beauty. Men are posed with their own set of standards when it comes to their appearance: They must be shaped a certain way, have the right amount of body hair and be able to live up to the lifestyle that images of men are promoting.
Erving Goffman, a Canadian sociologist who studied how commercial advertisements shape our perceptions of femininity and masculinity, concluded that in many advertisements, women were portrayed as subordinate to men, “relating to them not as equals, but as children to parents.” Although his studies were mainly conducted in the ’80s, his findings are still incredibly relevant today. Women are still often pictured as aloof, in childish positions, self-touching and looking vulnerable or playful. Men, on the other hand, are often portrayed as alert and upright, with much more control over their bodies than their female counterparts.
Studies like these make it clear that there is more than meets the eye in what images in fashion ads perpetuate. With these standards of beauty comes inherent standards of being. Girls must be fragile, delicate, sensitive, coy and infantile, while boys must be strong, assertive, brave and insensitive. This could be why issues of domestic and sexual abuse are so prevalent, or why stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are still largely dominant in the ways we perceive men and women.
It’s easy to flip through a fashion magazine without taking into consideration what we’re actually looking at. While high-fashion and glamor are appealing at first glance, gender stereotypes and notions of unrealistic beauty are often lurking beneath the surface. These notions are harmful in many ways, one of which is the normalization of subordinate women and aggressive men. Being critical of images that perpetuate these sorts of narratives is the first step in changing the ways we approach sexism and other gender-related issues. So next time you find yourself face-to-face with a fashion ad, try looking a little closer and you might find that what’s being sold to you goes far beyond fashion.
To reach CHELSEA SPILLER, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.