Freaks of Beauty

In Features /

By Angie Damianidis

Full moist lips, big, right, bright eyes, pearly white teeth and flawless skin.  She’s gazing at you.  You begin to feel warm and look away.  Emotions of awe begin to surface.  Her luscious figure stretches over two glossy pages, as she tells you with her smoky eyes: “Oh, yes, you can look as marvelous as me, and everyone will adore you.  All you need is this product.” 

Those words will never pass her lips, but the message she is selling is quite clear:  Women should want to imitate the sexual image portrayed by advertisements because men will fawn over their new high priced looks.

Meanwhile, you wonder just how many meals that model skips or purges to keep that 24-inch (60 centimetre) waist.

Walk over to a mirror and sit down.  This is not a quiz to determine the shape of your face, it’s a test to rediscover yourself.  Stare into the mirror for several minutes and closely examine every part of your face and ask yourself, “How do I look?”

Let me guess, you discovered at least three features, if not more that you would need removed or remodeled if you want to look like the model selling cosmetics.  Maybe you noticed that your pores are too large, but overlooked the natural features that make you unique.

If so, you’ve just demonstrated the advertising business at its best.  Josie Marchese is an outreach coordinator for MediaWatch, a non-profit organization trying to eliminate sexism in the media.  It publishes articles on gender in the media, and educates the public on the intentions of advertisers, criticizing how our consumer culture perverts women’s notions of who they are.

She says advertisers prey on consumers’ insecurities and create a need for products they can do without — like designer clothes or fragrances.  Advertisers create fantasy images of how men and women should relate to one another on romantic, social and work levels.

Marchesse says although the female image portrayed in advertising is always changing, one thing remains constant: “Women are objectified as sexual objects.  The women in ads are very young, thin, white… This creates an unrealistic idea of women.”

Ninety-five per cent of women aren’t able to fit the mould they compare themselves to, says Marchese.  As a result, women begin to value their looks more than their self-esteem.  And low self-esteem may lead to eating disorders.

Christina Nicolaou, 19, is a former early childhood education student at Ryerson.  She has been battling bulimia since the age of 16.  She is 5’2” tall, and now weighs 125 pounds — what she calls her ideal weight.  She says at one point she weighted 115 pounds and many people told her she looked sick.

Nicolaou slowly fell into a cycle of binging and purging for several reasons.  First, breaking up with her boyfriend left her feeling depressed.  Her goal was to lose some weight and put on more muscle.  She says dieting was not giving her the results she wanted.  One night at dinner Nicolaou ate as she puts it “a little too much” then went to the bathroom and “got rid of it.”  She has been trapped in a cycle ever since.

She goes through the routine of binging and purging almost every day because when she looks in the mirror she sees a body she calls fat an disproportionate.  It’s no longer just an issue of weight loss, it’s become her idea of maintaining weight.  “It drained me, it took hours to do, I couldn’t breathe, it hurt and my would sometimes start bleeding,” she says.  Nicolaou began to work out regularly, thinking that if she did she would not need to purge.  It didn’t work.

Although it can be healthy to work out, Ryerson pop culture professor John Sakeris believes that the social pressure to hit the gym has becomes as oppressive as the old practice of counting calories.  Nobody questions the number of times a week women exercise, he says, but a damaged body image can fuel daily trips to the fitness room for many women.

Educating girls before they hit puberty is key in creating a positive image of their bodies, says Mariam Kauffman, pediatric professor at the University of Toronto.  Without that, Kauffman says “girls feel betrayed by their bodies, they don’t know what’s coming.”  When it comes to exercise as a method of image shaping Kauffman, who is also staff physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, says competitive sports teach young girls important skills.  “Girls should be encouraged to join competitive sports where losing weight is not the main goal.”  She believes if girls feel good about themselves they won’t buy into advertisers claims.

“Pure imagery cannot create an illness such as bulimia.  But advertiser’s images certainly contribute to it,” says Amy Cross, health educator for Chatelaine magazine.  Cross says the bombardment of unrealistic images starts early, which means girls should be taught at a young age that what they do is better then what they look like.  According to Chatelaine magazine, 80 per cent of girls wish they were thinner and children as young as 9 pears old claim to diet.

“Advertisers are targeting younger and younger children by advertising during popular prime-time children’s television shows, when children as young as four and five are watching,” says Marchese.  A television advertisement for L’Oreal Kids shampoo shown during afternoon cartoons promises “no more bed head” and “now more crow licks” to young viewers.  Cosmetic companies such as Hard Candy are targeted towards younger girls, with the help of celebrity endorsement.

Recently, Avon and Mattel put together a Barbie cosmetics campaign.  Barbie lipstick that lightly tints and moisturizes lips sells for $3.  Disney offers young girls their first facial vacation spa for only $60.

“Even Baywatch can use something 30 per cent flatter.  The picture tube,” reads a national transit advertisement published in Advertising Standards Canada’s (ASC) annual complaint report.  A curvaceous woman wearing a bikini is pictures with the quote.  Because there is no relationship between the product, a television set, and the woman, the ASC panel decided that the ad clearly exploited women.

ASC publishes an Ad Complaint Report that helps to assure that advertising is positive and abides their gender portrayal guidelines.  Advertisers are encouraged to abide by these rules or their advertisements may be asked to be taken off the market.

Most companies informed by ASC that their advertisements have received a complaint voluntarily remove them.  However, if advertisers do not remove their ads, they are eventually pressured by the media to do so, says Laural Dallal, director of Standards and Compliance for ASC.

However, this does not stop advertisers from using sexual images of women to sell their products.  Only if complaints are sent to the ASC might the advertiser choose to withdraw their ads.  An ASC report states that in 1997, 28 advertisers withdrew their adds after receiving complaint.

Marchese believes it’s difficult not to fall into the body image trap advertisers lay for women.  She says:  “Media literacy is the key.  Ask yourself, ‘What’s that ad really telling me?’”  Try doing that next time you are flipping through a magazine or sitting on the bus wondering where you can buy a pair of legs like those.

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