By Daniel Margrain
The 30 minute documentary film Killing Us Softly (1979) based on a lecture by Jean Kilbourne focuses on the effects of advertising on women’s self-image and the objectification of women’s bodies. Kilbourne argues that the superficial, objectifying and unreal portrayal of women in advertising lowers women’s self-esteem and that Sexualized images of women are being used to sell virtually all kinds of goods (1). Kilbourne argues that they degrade women, encourage abuse, and reinforce the patriarchal, sexist society whilst also drawing connection between advertising and pornography, stating that “the advertisers are America’s real pornographers”.(2).
Thirty six years after the release of Killing Us Softly, yesterday evenings Channel 4 News (July 23) reported on the inquest of 21 year old bulemia sufferer Eloise Perry who on the April 12 died at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital one week after having swallowed eight unlicensed fat-burning pills that she purchsed from the internet. The pills, which the Food Standards Agency describe as being illegal to sell for human consumption, contained DNP which is an industrial chemical historically used in the manufacture of explosives and fungicides. Website companies who sell this chemical depict DNP as a fat burning product and some even use the tag line “getting leaner through chemistry” as a marketing tool.
No sooner were attempts made by the authorities to close down these sites, they reappeared under different names. It’s clearly a battle that the authorities are losing. The fact that informed young people like Ms Parry who are aware of the risks are so desperate to lose weight that they are prepared to go to such extreme lengths raises wider questions about the nature of the society we live in.
The social pressures for young women to conform to certain expectations placed upon them by the media are immense. The upshot is that they are involved in a constant psychological battle between myth and reality. In Britain, for example, the average size of a woman is now 16 but the aspirational size is zero – an unobtainable goal for the vast majority.
The contradiction between reality and aspiration is undermining many of the gains that women made in the feminist debates of the 1960s and 1970s. What Ariel Levi terms “raunch culture” is another symptom of the undermining of the gains made. A tour by High Street Honey’s that involves women employed by lads mags touring the various university campuses throughout the country dressed as porn stars, is about as debased as it gets.
The notion that pole dancing which is sold as exercise classes at some universities and widely regarded as being empowering for women in terms of getting them in touch with their inner sexuality, is in reality, setting back women’s rights decades.
Activities like this inhibit the way both men and women feel about their bodies and therefore cannot be disentangled from the tragic case of Ms Parry. The normalization of sexist imagery in pop videos and television commercials and the sexualization of young girls clothes is another illustration of raunch culture in which fantasies, desires and ambitions are transformed into commodities to make money.
The growth in cosmetic surgery is another factor that increases expectations on women’s appearances. Ninety-one per cent of surgery is undertaken on women of which the most popular is breast enhancement. In America it’s normal practice for girls to be given breast enlargement as a graduation present. The fact that a growing number of girls suffer low self-esteem is a sad and depressing indictment on our society at large.