Feeling Bad About Ourselves

What should we do about the promotion of unreal image of women ?

by Anne Russell

At some point in the motivational chain, almost all forms of shopping rely on feelings of personal insecurity or need. And if those needs, desires and insecurities don’t already exist among consumers, advertisers must create them, and propose their product as the happy solution. As a consequence, much of our consumer economy is built on the ever-thinning backs of women who hate their bodies.

In February, Next magazine provided some alarming local evidence of this process. The results of their survey on New Zealand women’s body image tell a pretty dismal story :

  • 86% of respondents think about their weight on a daily basis;
  • 75% are unhappy with it;
  • 89% believe that looks are crucial to success in life; and
  • 63% would consider getting plastic surgery.

While the causes of women’s low bodily self-esteem are many and varied, some part of the explanation must lie with the media’s very narrow portrayal of what women look like. A woman’s low body image may be an internal problem, but it is fostered by social pressures, which are, in part, enabled by a lack of regulatory control. Is it desirable and/or possible to uphold stronger guidelines on media practice that would avoid such pitfalls, and without seriously compromising media freedom?

It is not merely that very few women have the body shapes commonly used as the aspirational ideals in advertising – in many cases, no human woman on the planet actually looks like the women in the ads. The use of airbrushing and photoshopping to ‘enhance’ the images is ubiquitous, and has become treated as the norm. In 2011, only one complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Authority in relation to ‘enhanced’ images of women in an advertisement for exercising equipment. The ASA chairman ruled there were no ground to proceed because : “The likely consumer take out would not be one of being able to achieve the ‘model like’ body, but to see results as were shown in the comparison photos of Bun and Thigh Wave users.” This response disregards the issue that the model was enhanced in the first place. Small wonder that few bother to go through the complaints process in New Zealand for individual ads.

Elsewhere in the world, severe restrictions on the practice of airbrushing and photoshopping – for the purposes of advertising— are now being mooted, in an effort to put a lid on the practice. Such legislation has been discussed in the UK, Norway and France. Britain had calls for a blanket ban, where France has proposed that advertisers be required to label airbrushed images to show that they aren’t real.

In order to explore what our Parliament thought about the issue, I requested an interview with Jo Goodhew, the current Minister of Women’s Affairs. The aim was to explore her views on the impact that advertising and media images have on women’s sense of worth, in the light of the reporting by Next magazine – and the overseas legislative proposals to limit (or label) the use of photo-shopped images in advertising. “The impact of such imagery overseas includes excessive attention to dieting among pre-teens and young teens,” I pointed out, “which raises health issues that may be of particular interest to the Minister, given her prior experience in nursing.” Also, such an interview might serve “as a useful introduction to the views of the Minister on the priorities that she sees in this portfolio.”

Goodhew’s office replied that “the Minister has no comment to make on this issue at this time.” Nor on any other issue involving women, it would seem. At the time the interview request was declined, her ministerial Beehive site contained a total of two press releases related to her other portfolios, while indicating that she had issued no press releases and made no speeches whatsoever in her role as Minister of Women’s Affairs. Labour’s Spokesperson for Women’s Affairs Sue Moroney, however, had published press release in response to the Next article, and did agree to be interviewed.

Moroney feels reluctant to enact legislation in New Zealand along the lines being contemplated elsewhere. “There are things that we can do with the mechanisms we already have,” she said. “Let’s try get them working better first before we go down any other pathway that has been untried anywhere else in the world, and that we don’t know the effect of.” She referred to both the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority. “What I’m hearing a lot—not just around the body image issue but also the alcohol advertising issue—is that people are unhappy about how standards have slipped in that regard,” she said.

It is unclear what measures could be taken to ensure that the existing framework of standards are strengthened – but there are codes in the Advertising Standards Authority which could be brought to bear more directly in this debate. Code of Ethics (1996) could be applied to the manipulation of images of women:

2. Truthful Presentation – Advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation or create an overall impression which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim is misleading or deceptive, is likely to deceive or mislead the consumer, makes false and misleading representation, abuses the trust of the consumer or exploits his/her lack of experience or knowledge. (Obvious hyperbole, identifiable as such, is not considered to be misleading). [emphasis mine]

Airbrushed ads are not being presented as an artist’s impression of how women should look, but as a depiction of how they actually do look. It is quite different from other types of advertising in which, say, one can rely on the existence of enough information elsewhere – such that I could hardly justify being righteously outraged if and when Jack White doesn’t start playing in the background every time I drink Coke. By contrast, there is a comparative lack of visible information about how different all real women look. Saturated in fake imagery before we learn how to walk, how are any of us are meant to really know and believe that the women in these ads aren’t real?

6. Fear – Advertisements should not exploit the superstitious, nor without justifiable reason, play on fear.

Making women afraid about them having healthy weight levels is hardly ‘justifiable’. Moreover, it’s arguable that such ads exploit the superstitious. The beauty religion is often incomprehensible to outsiders, but to the 89% of the Next magazine survey respondents who think weight loss will improve every aspect of their lives, this stuff can be a daily reality (and ideal) higher than any communion with the gods.

7. Violence – Advertisements should not contain anything which lends support to unacceptable violent behaviour.

Is cosmetic vaginoplasty considered unacceptable violent behaviour yet? We call it genital mutilation when it happens in the Third World. Cosmetic surgery isn’t directly supported by most advertising, but it does help cosmetic surgeons to find their market, anyway. By contrast, unbottled water doesn’t need advertising because people don’t need convincing that it is a necessity. It is marketed as a convenience, rather than a need. Cosmetic surgery however, has come to be perceived as a necessity by many, in this social environment. When unrealistic ad images tell women that sculpting their bodies is the way to become an acceptable and desirable human being, they’ll find a way—and cosmetic surgery is sometimes the quickest route. If not cosmetic surgery, anorexia and bulimia are alternative paths to salvation via thinness.

Few would suggest a prohibition on cosmetic surgery or dieting. Castigating people for starving or cutting themselves is as offensive and unhelpful as jailing someone for attempted suicide. If women must practice these things, they should be made as safe as possible. Perhaps, however, we could start by restricting the activities of those who make large profits off encouraging women to despise – and in some cases – hurt themselves. Image manipulation in advertising is a substantial part of this.

This issue has direct effects on men as well as women. Sexuality may be a personal matter, but it is influenced to some degree by surrounding media. Ariel Levy wrote in Female Chauvinist Pigs that “a tawdry, tarty cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular. What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality.” It is a sad state of affairs when men and women model their own sexual expectations and behaviour on falsely enhanced images.

The problem could be addressed by education – including the topic of self image and its sources in the school curriculum would be helpful – but public debate on whether regulation is (a) desirable and could be made (b) practical might also help that process along. Given the current neo-liberal climate when it comes to social behaviour, Moroney (pictured left) knows that enforcing regulation would be an uphill battle. “I’ll have the finger pointed at me for being ‘nanny state’; for saying that the community should have a say over what images are projected at them,” she says. She mostly uses her position to make sure community voices are heard in Parliament. “What I’ve been using my role to do is to say let’s be proud of ourselves. We don’t have to beat ourselves up about not being the perfect size or whatever we think is portrayed by an airbrushed portrait.” Evidently, it still remains difficult for the links between capitalism and sexism to be taken seriously; in her six years in government, Moroney has never participated in a parliamentary debate on the issue. However, she says such issues are often discussed in cross-party groups, such as select committees.

Moroney is optimistic that issues around sexism are increasingly being brought to attention in the media. “On Backbenches, the Tui ads [accused of sexism] came up. The National MP said he didn’t see any problems with it, and the three women from Labour, Greens and NZ First all said yeah, absolutely [this is sexist]. Then one of the male hosts said he thought they were sexist as well, which was pretty interesting. It hasn’t hit mainstream debate yet, but it’s starting in fringe elements, which means it’ll find its way.”

Finally….aside from the fact that 51% of the population is not a minority, this issue does affect everyone. Men, too, are affected when their beautiful, wonderful partner complains about her upper arm fat, or when their female friend throws up dinner they cooked for her, or when their co-workers of employees feel chronically depressed about how they look – and when a few end up being force-fed in hospital. To the extent that we do nothing to confront the media that foster this kind of thinking and the advertisers who prey on it, we are complicit in women’s subsequent self-destruction.