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Sex, Stereotypes and Beauty: The ABCs and Ds of Commercial Images of Women

[Brussels, 15 October 2012] Love Your Body Day is celebrating its 15th year of empowering events. Since 1998, NOW Foundation’s annual event promoting positive body images has taken place each fall — this year on Oct. 17. The Love Your Body campaign was created as a response to media portrayals of women and girls, particularly in advertising, that promote narrow and unhealthy ideals of beauty. Through Love Your Body Day, women and girls are encouraged to talk back to the media, to demand images that reflect the full spectrum of womanhood in all its many sizes, colors, ages, ethnicities, abilities and gender presentations.

Sex, Stereotypes and Beauty: The ABCs and Ds of Commercial Images of Women

Click at bottom right to access series of presentation slides.
This presentation illustrates and describes how advertisers and the media enforce unrealistic beauty standards, sexual ideals and gender stereotypes that girls and women are expected to follow.

What is the impact of these images?

Every day, in so many ways, the beauty industry (and the media in general) tell women and girls that being admired, envied and desired based on their looks is a primary function of true womanhood. The beauty template women are expected to follow is extremely narrow, unrealistic and frequently hazardous to their health. The Love Your Body campaign challenges the message that a woman’s value is best measured through her willingness and ability to embody current beauty standards.

Where do these standards come from?

Advertisements, magazine covers and fashion spreads that:

  • manipulate images of women to make them look thinner
  • manipulate images of women to make their hair, skin, teeth, etc. look more "aspirational" (a term used by the beauty industry that actually means "unreal")
  • present only a narrow range of women, leaving out women of color, women of various shapes and sizes, women with disabilities, older women, women who don’t conform to gender norms, etc.
  • continually invent new "problems" with women’s bodies and faces that can be "fixed" by spending money on a product or procedure
  • present women as sexual objects that exist for male pleasure or to signify male status
  • present girls as sexual objects at younger and younger ages
  • reduce women to isolated body parts
  • create images that merge women’s bodies with actual products for sale and consumption
  • style and pose adult women to look like girls; style/pose young girls as adult women
  • style and pose women to appear passive, subservient to men
  • glamorize the appearance of fragility, hunger, substance abuse
  • glamorize violence against women
  • TV shows and movies that:
  • cast mainly white, young, conventionally "beautiful," thin, heterosexual, gender-conforming, non-disabled women
  • fail to include any racial or ethnic diversity amongst characters, or cast women of the wrong race or ethnicity for the character they are playing
  • fail to include LGBT characters and/or those whose appearance deviates from commonly-accepted gender norms
  • fail to include any characters with disabilities or cast non-disabled women to play women with disabilities
  • cast younger women to play opposite older men far more frequently than the reverse
  • cast women of color, larger women and other women who deviate from the norm not in lead roles but primarily as sassy sidekicks without narratives of their own
  • promote the concept of the makeover, where women’s "flaws" are fixed
  • promote cosmetic surgery as a normal, even expected rite of passage for girls and women
  • promote the rating of women by appearance
  • associate "unattractive" women with negative characteristics and behaviors
  • normalize violence against women through frequent portrayals of women as victims
  • promote women and girls as weak and in need of rescue
  • portray women mainly as the wife or girlfriend of the hero
  • pigeonhole women into roles limited to "getting the guy," while male characters are given interests, abilities, adventures beyond romance
  • depict women and girls as silly, shallow, mindless
  • Music videos and web content that:
  • include women only as sexual objects
  • celebrate exaggerated depictions of "femininity"
  • endorse gender, racial and other negative stereotypes
  • glamorize and normalize violence against women
  • Clothing, toys, video games and other products that:
  • promote outdated stereotypes for girls and boys
  • portray girls as bad at or adverse to math, science, technology
  • depict girls as focused on appearance, shopping and attracting boys — characteristics that are conveyed as shallow in comparison to pursuits typically associated with boys
  • depict boys as naturally and unavoidably loud, violent, out-of-control
  • push pink on girls, while boys are offered toys and costumes in a wide spectrum of colors (except pink!)
  • sell girls the princess myth and boys the warrior role
  • promote weddings, motherhood (not to mention princesshood) as the ultimate goals for women

What’s wrong with all that?

Routine objectification and sexualization of women in the media and other cultural institutions can lead to anxiety, shame, self-disgust, undermined confidence and discomfort with one’s own body.
Research supports that sexualization can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression — three of the most common mental health disorders in girls and women, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Sexualization can result in self-objectification. The APA found that self-objectification can diminish the ability to concentrate and be attentive, resulting in poor performances in areas such as math and logic.

The APA directly links self-objectification with diminished sexual health among adolescent girls. Sexualization can affect how women and girls perceive their femininity and disrupt a girl’s ability to develop healthy sexuality — a crucial aspect of well-being. The sexualization of women also impacts men and boys and their ability to have healthy, intimate relationships.

In society in general, the sexualization and dehumanization of women can contribute to sexist attitudes, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape, the demand for child pornography and sex trafficking.

The under-representation of women of various races and ethnicities can have a negative impact on the self-image of women and girls of color and on how others see them. Because our society’s beauty ideal is often personified by white women, the dominant template is even more out of reach for women of color.

Studies show that "television watching is related to lower self esteem and higher levels of disordered eating for girls and young women of all races and ethnicities."

The near invisibility of women with disabilities and women who do not fit conventional gender stereotypes can lead to these women devaluing themselves and society in general viewing them as unnatural or abnormal.

What can we do?

Help spread the word about the hazards of the media’s narrow beauty ideals and sexualization of women and girls. You can start by forwarding this page to friends and family and linking it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

Put your own thoughts about body image and media objectification into words on Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, for class, in letters to the editor — anywhere and everywhere!

Take action using the many ideas featured on the Love Your Body site.

Talk back to advertisers, members of the media, retail outlets and companies when you see images and products that make you mad.
Urge advertisers and all media to embrace positive, healthy, inclusive portrayals of girls and women. Thank them when they DO use affirming, diverse images!

Make a pact with your friends and family to stop judging your own appearance by the media’s narrow beauty standards and to avoid evaluating how others look.

Model an attitude of self-acceptance and love, especially in front of young children.

Encourage educators to incorporate media objectification and body image issues into health and comprehensive sex education classes.
Encourage educators, community centers and other local resources to create extracurricular programs that help girls feel powerful and smart rather than focusing on their appearance.

What’s the pay-off?

More women and girls feeling unashamed, confident, proud.
Less stress for women and girls over appearance — jumping off the beauty treadmill can be freeing, relaxing and even healthier.
Less money spent on beauty products, diet gimmicks, spray tans, cosmetic procedures and the like means more money to save, spend on education, donate to good causes, start your own business — areas more likely to produce a positive, long-term return on women’s investment.

More time to focus on family, friends, school, work, hobbies, athletics, politics, community, personal fulfillment, spirituality, etc. — pursuits that are more likely to offer true fulfillment.

More time to build for the future, develop skills that will last.
Less judgment of others creates a less hostile environment and a better chance of identifying new friends and allies.

A society that celebrates all people — regardless of size, age, skin color, ethnicity, ability, gender identity, etc. — is a more productive and harmonious society.

Wiping out narrow beauty standards, superficial gender stereotypes and the portrayal of women as a sexual commodity will help erode sexism in other areas and advance our goal of full equality for all.

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