by Marily Sasota Gayeta
They are visual feasts we see everywhere. Images of goddesses descended from the heavens. They mesmerize us as they appear on our television screens. They seduce us as they arch their backs on glossy magazine covers and giant billboards. They entice us with their wicked smiles as they pop up on our computer monitors . Women in the media , particularly in beauty advertisements. All are epitomes of modern beauty: lean body, hour-glass figure, silky hair , flawless white skin .
A study in the US reveals that the average woman sees 400 to 600 advertisements a day.By the age of 17, an average girl has seen 250,000 ads. More than half of these advertisements use the concept of “ beauty ” as a product appeal. The product is not necessarily cosmetics or fashion items — it can be a fast food restaurant , a smart phone or even a car. But just the same , they attract consumers by using beautiful women in the ads. According to Chris Downs and Sheila Harrison , whose study was published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, one out of every 3.8 television commercials has a message about attractiveness in it.
Apparently, advertisements are doing the jobs they are intended to do. Otherwise, the advertising and the cosmetic industries would not have grown into the giant industries that they are. But how do ads work ? Dr. George Gerbner, a communications expert who conducted extensive research on the effects of television on people, came up with Cultivation theory. A major idea from this theory says that repetitive exposure to something will have cumulative effect over time. Gerbner’s study actually did not focus on beauty advertisements , but the conclusions are applicable. To expound on his findings ,if you bombard women with propaganda showing what “ beauty” should be and with ads of products that would supposedly make them beautiful, they would believe it —instantly or eventually. Even if there is resistance at the beginning, women will finally cave in.
The visual images in the ads transmit the intended message more effectively than words do. Physical beauty is all that matters and it can be achieved by buying and using a particular product. This is the message that seeps into the sub-conscious mind of women and subsequently affects their feelings. And research says that those feelings are, most of the time, negative.
When ordinary women look at these idealized images and then look at themselves in the mirror, they see the stark difference. And that usually hurts.
Philip Myers Jr. and Frank Biocca, both academic researchers, concluded in their study published in the Journal of Communication, that a woman’s self-perceived body image can change after watching a half-an-hour of television programming and advertising. On the other hand , the research of Yoku Yamamiya and Thomas F. Cash yielded a more alarming result : “Even a 5- minute exposure to thin-and-beautiful media images results in a more negative body image than does exposure to images of neutral object.”
Tiggemann and Mcgill ( as cited in Serdar ), on the other hand, discovered that even brief exposure to images of beautiful females (11 images) led to increased levels of body dissatisfaction and weight anxiety among women. This finding is disturbing because the number of images used in the study is far less than what is present in any women’s magazine or shown in most television programming.
A study by Duane Hargreaves of Flinders University in South Australia had similar results. Females who saw ads with idealized female imagery experienced a greater degree of body dissatisfaction , negative moods and anger. Teen-age girls are more likely to be negatively affected by what they see on the media.
The studies mentioned above are just a small part of extensive evidence showing that women suffer emotionally and psychologically due to exposure to beautiful images in ads and other forms of media.
But wait. Isn’t this the very intention of beauty advertising ? To make a consumer feel sorry for herself because she has dark skin . Because she is fat . Because she has pimples . Because she’s getting old. Creators of the ad, and they are very smart, know what’s inside the deep recesses of a woman’s mind and heart. Fully aware of a woman’s vulnerable spots , they hit her self-esteem with underlying messages. You are not good enough . You are not pretty enough . You are ugly . But then, as she squirms on her couch with self-pity, she gets the other message. “ Don’t despair , lady ! There’s hope ! Use our product and you will be as beautiful as these models .You will get perfectly white skin .You will have this body . You will catch Mr. Right.“ The woman now rushes to the nearest mall — where sales agents wait for the prey who needs only very little pushing to buy the product.
TV shows are in connivance with the ads. Most female protagonists and personalities on TV are slim and white-skinned. Other females who don’t fit this description are more of the exception than the rule. Some of them are on a show for comic relief.
Today’s women are willing and unwilling victims of the media’s portrayal of what “ beauty ”should be. Though there are many great things that the media can be credited for , this is not one of them. Women are forced , or at least , are pressured to somehow look like the women they frequently see on advertisements and TV shows.
But aren’t women paying too much for psychological gratification and conformity ? And how much of what we see should we believe ?
Firstly, let us take a look at the ads and the endorsers’ faces. The symmetry. The contour. The color. The “ texture” . Perfect . But how near are these images to the endorsers’ real faces? And how far did the air-brushing and the photoshopping go ?
Ad creators digitally enhance images — and this is on top of the hours spent by professional stylists preparing the endorsers for the commercial shoot. These things are normal in the ad industry. Thus, the images that consumers see are actually the combined result of the endorsers’ physical assets, IT people’s technical skills and digital tools , and the make-up artists’ flair. So many things come into play in the making of an ad. It’s not just the model’s face or body . Never. Most of us know this — but we still get duped.
Aside from “ perfect faces”, another contentious issue is the prevalence of images of thin women Television , print media and the internet teem with images of slim — rather thin —models, with their collar bones and ribs sticking out. Twenty years ago , models weighed only eight percent less than the average woman that time. But these days, models weigh 23 percent less than the average woman. One study reveals that most models these days are 20% underweight — and this is far from healthy . Yet, women look up to them and try to imitate them. The modern weight standard is unattainable for most women — leading to negative self perception as studies suggest. Then, they rush to buy slimming pills —- many of which did not undergo strict laboratory or scientific testing . In many countries , especially those with corrupt governments — it is very easy for businessmen to get permits for their products. Many consumers are not aware that sub-standard diet pills and misuse of standard diet pills may have serious consequences like blurred vision , unstable blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
Women starve themselves to be slim
“ White skin ” is another issue . The skin whitening craze in Asia and Africa has gone to, well , crazy levels. And it is being fueled by the media’s love affair with white-skinned models and leading ladies. Whitening soaps, whitening lotions, whitening capsules. Then , there are whitening medical procedures like lasers and intravenous glutathione The media continues to send the message that white skin is more beautiful than brown or black skin. Although skin whitening has been done by women for centuries —-it has never been so popular and widespread as it is these days. The ancient saying ” One whiteness can cover three ugliness” has become a modern battle cry.
Skin whitening advertisements are everywhere in Asian countries. Many of the endorsers were born with white skin in the first place. That is clear deception. And it is infuriating that governments actually allow them .
These marketing ploys are succeeding. According to a 2004 study by global marketing firm Synovate, nearly 40 percent of women in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines used skin whitening and lightening products that year. That was many years ago. The figure must be higher these days. In terms of purchases , it is said that Asians now spend US$ 13 to 18 billion annually on skin whitening products alone .
Before and after . What’s wrong with ” before ” ?
This desire for white skin is mainly rooted in colonialism , particularly in Eurocentrism . Most countries in Asia and Africa were once colonized by white people: Americans , British , French, Spanish. White is the color of the masters. White is the color of wealth . On the other hand , black is the color of the slaves. Brown is the color of poverty and ignorance. Then enter Hollywood, selling glittering entertainment dominated by white actors and actresses .
Westerners who visit Asian countries are just shocked at the skin whitening phenomenon and the prejudice that goes with dark skin.
There is a bit of irony here. Asians and Africans nowadays are sensitive when it comes to racism committed by Westerners. Yet , among themselves , there exists “ colorism ” . Colorism is a form of prejudice that favors lighter -skinned people over dark-skinned people in the same ethnic group. When Asians and Africans denounce racism yet condone colorism— that is hypocrisy.
Chao-uanTsen, a member of Awakening Foundation, a womens’ rights organization in Taipei , says that the whitening trend is a “ form of self hatred. “ On the other hand , The Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf believes that modern standards of beauty are “ a plot to keep women politically, economically, and sexually subjugated to men—apparently by keeping them too busy curling their eyelashes to have time for political action .” These may be extreme views which should not be taken in their entirety — but they have some nuggets of wisdom in them.
Women like Chao-uan Tsen and Wolf may decry this trend until they get hoarse . But the end to this is so far from sight.
The media and corporations will not allow women to be really happy with themselves because the moment that happens, it will be the end of many businesses.
A happy, contented woman is a smart, cautious spender. She does not need much because her happiness comes from within. Businesses have to make her unhappy , discontented and irrational — so that she would go into a shopping binge of make-up , skin whiteners and diet pills ( and clothes , accessories ,etc. ). TV shows will continue to glorify white skin and thin bodies . Advertisements will continue to point out flaw after flaw, defect after defect .They will spare no part of the human anatomy : from the scalp down to the heels. Armed with catchy lines and images of beautiful women — they will continue to ensnare women into the vicious cycle of beauty trap .
Advertising is the lifeblood of media companies and it is a US$100 billion a year industry. On the other hand , the global beauty industry is worth US$160 billion a year. There is no way corporations and individuals are going to let go of that money . Top and middle executives are buying mansions , yachts and private planes. Sales agents are making six-digit incomes and even millions.
Indeed , it is profitable to make women feel ugly.
This is not to demonize the media. This is not to paint an ugly picture of all corporations with the same soiled brush. They have their own positive contributions to society but it is still the desire for money that rules them. Businesses exist to earn profit . They will do what they need to do for better bottomlines. Ultimately, women are responsible for their own decisions and actions. It is up to women themselves to stop unbridled , ignorant consumerism and blind conformity to society’s standards.
The key is awareness and balance.
Women have to be aware of how the media impacts viewers. When a woman looks at a beauty ad , she should remember that it is designed to create emotional discomfort and to lower her self-esteem. She should guard her own emotions and determine her own needs . “ Do I really need this product ? Or will I be wasting my money ? ”
Awareness means knowing the options. For instance, many women do not know that a cosmetic or a pharmaceutical company usually produces both expensive and cheap versions of the same product ( for example , moisturizer ) . If the first five ingredients are the same, the products would give almost the same result. So, why burn your money on the expensive version? But women have to develop the habit of reading and comparing. With just a click of the mouse , women can find out which products will give value for their money and which companies deserve to be trusted .
Sub-standard whitening products, and some of them may have been approved by your government, contain mercury and hydroquinone , both of which have adverse effects on health. It is also a well-known fact in scientific circles that melanin protects the skin from cancer . When the skin is stripped of melanin— and this is what skin whiteners do — the person becomes more prone to skin problems .Says Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez , director of International Dermatology Training at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, “ The whiter they become, the more chances they will be subjected to skin damage and skin cancer.”
Advertisements gloss over not-so-pretty facts and sales agents won’t volunteer them. They are actually experts at evading “ uncomfortable “ questions . And it is not a wise move to ask questions to somebody who stands to gain money from you. Therefore , women have to dig for the information themselves.
Awareness also means distinguishing between capricious cosmetic issues and genuine medical concerns that are worth spending on. For example , morbid obesity does need medical attention because it is closely associated with cardiac diseases , diabetes and other illnesses. On the other hand, a flab in the belly is not necessarily life-threatening , and can be either flaunted or hidden by an appropriately cut dress. Chronic acne should also be treated because of the discomfort caused by the inflammation and the itching .Dark skin , on the other hand, is not a medical problem. It is a perception problem. Same is true with wrinkles, flat noses and line-less eyelids typical of many Southeast Asian women. A perception problem can be solved by changing the way we look at ourselves and the way we handle criticism. The solution can be found inside us — not inside a jar or a clinic. And it is free.
Women who constantly feel insecure without make-up or women who always feel paranoid about how other people judge their physical appearance may have deep-seated problems. Women who go overboard trying to please society may be emotionally disturbed. They need a psychiatrist, not a plastic surgeon.
Now, let us be realistic . Let’s put our thoughts in the context of the current society where women live .
No woman—no matter how intelligent — can be totally immune from the effects of beauty advertising. She will be affected , whether she admits it or not , whether she knows it or not. No woman — no matter how independent — can completely stand up against the pressures of society to look good. She will have to conform –whether she likes it or not. And no woman can completely ignore the longings nature has ascribed to her gender . Which woman had not wished , at least once in her life, to be given a second admiring look by men?
But it is the extent to which she allows herself to be pressured by outside forces. It is the degree to which she allows the media, businesses and society to influence what she should buy, how much she should spend, how she should look and how she should feel about herself.
A woman will always need to be neat , clean and presentable for herself , her family and her career. She can do that without much toll on her income and with minimum rituals in front of the mirror.
We don’t want women losing hard-earned money on products that hardly work , or products that they don’t need at all. “ The fool and his money are soon parted ” as a sage once said . (Well , “ her “ would be the better pronoun here . ) Money that should have gone to family savings had gone instead to a bottle of diet pills. Money that should have been spent on life-saving procedures like mammogram or cervical cancer screening had been spent on liposuction.
We also don’t want women starving themselves to anorexic levels , or working –out too hard because they want to get slim. Women should eat right and do exercise to be healthy, and not to please an appearance-obsessed society. They don’t need to deprive themselves of the gustatory delight a slice of cheese cake brings , or the pleasure of lingering on a soft bed. “ Moderation ” is the word. Anything in excess is bad.
We don’t want Asian and African women feeling ashamed of their brown or black skin .We don’t want young girls from these places to grow up insecure thinking that there is something wrong with dark skin. If there is something wrong that we should all be ashamed of — it is racism, colorism, greed and deception.
We want women to stop comparing themselves to ad endorsers, movie stars and models whose careers and lives have far different requirements from theirs. We want women to see their own worth and feel proud of who they are . We want them to focus on things that really matter: character, brains, personality, health . We want them, not other people , to choose for themselves how they would look and how they would feel . And we want women to realize that they can be truly beautiful in whatever shape size , age or color they are in.
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