It is profitable to make women feel ugly

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.

Sources / Works Cited

Alkon , A. ( 2010 Nov 1 ) .The truth about

Hirsi, I. ( 2013 Aug 21 ) Somali woman researches health risks of skin lightening practices. Minneapolis

     Post .

Kendrick. ( 2013 July 4 ) Voluntary recall of products ( Skin Care )

Kilbourne, J. (n.d.) The beauty and the beast of advertising .

Navert,R. ( n.d. ) Media can damage self-image.

Ross , K. ( 2014 March 11 ) Asia skin lightening — an obsession that’s here to stay.

Serdar, K. ( n.d. ) Female body image  and the  mass media : Perspectives on how women internalize

            the ideal beauty standard.

Swinson, J. ( 2011 Aug 10 ) False beauty in advertising and the pressure  to look good.

Tsang , E. ( 2013 July 5 ) Kanebo  recalls skin whitening products.  South China Morning Post.

Zafar , A. ( 2012  Feb 3 ).Too perfect ? Rachel Weisz’s L’Oreal ad banned in Britain for being


Websites  Advertisements and their negative effects on women and girls.  June 30,2004 Asia’s skin whitening craze . Why white skin is all rage in Asia . L’Oreal UK ads banned for retouched photos. July 27 ,2011.  Avoiding  the anti-aging quackery.

                                                  ( e-mail received on September 29, 2014 ) Effects of advertising on teen body image . . Pots of promise. ( Rulings )

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