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.
Kilbourne then goes on to posit that these images degrade women, encourage abuse, and reinforce a patriarchal and sexist society. She also makes the connection between advertising and pornography, stating that “the advertisers are America’s real pornographers”.
Below is a video of Jean Kilbourne almost four decades later discussing her ideas as part of a campaign to bring her film to a new audience of young people. Significantly, she says since her film’s initial release in 1979 things have got worse, not better.
Thirty-six years after the release of Killing Us Softly, Channel 4 News reported on the inquest of 21 year old bulimia sufferer Eloise Perry who on the April 12 last year died at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital one week after having swallowed eight unlicensed fat-burning pills that she purchased 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 had the UK authorities made attempts to close down these sites, they reappeared under different names and hence it’s clearly a battle that they 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 kind of society we live in.
The social pressures for young women (and increasingly young men) 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.
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 yet another social layer as part of the pressure for young women to conform to certain body-image stereotypes placed upon them.
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 women (and increasingly men) feel about their bodies and therefore they 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 outlined by Levi 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 cosmetic surgery is undertaken on women of which the most popular is breast enhancement. I was astounded to learn that in the U.S it’s widely considered normal practice for girls to be given a breast enlargement as a graduation present.
It’s a fact that a growing number of girls who suffer low self-esteem perpetuated by a media system that constantly portrays an ‘ideal’ body shape is a tendency that’s less common in the developing world.
This would seem to suggest that mental illness, of which eating disorders are a reflection, is to a large extent symptomatic of the growth of the consumerist capitalist society in which human relations are objectified. In Marxist terms, objectification is the process by which human capacities are transferred to an object and embodied in it.
Young females who read fashion magazines tend to have more bulimic symptoms than those females who do not – further demonstrating the impact the media has on the likelihood of developing the disorder. As J. Kevin Thompson and Eric Stice have shown, individuals first accept and ‘buy into’ the ideals set by fashion magazines, and then attempt to transform themselves in order to reflect the societal ideals of attractiveness.
The thin fashion model ideal is then reinforced by the wider media reflecting unrealistic female body shapes leading to high levels of discomfort among large swaths of the female population and the drive towards thinness that this implies.
Consequently, body dissatisfaction coupled with a drive for thinness is thought to promote dieting and its negative affects, which could eventually lead to bulimic symptoms such as purging or binging. Binges lead to self-disgust which causes purging to prevent weight gain.
Thompson’s and Stice’s research highlights the extent to which the media affect what they term the “thin ideal internalization”. The researchers used randomized experiments (more specifically programmes) dedicated to teaching young women how to be more critical when it comes to media, in order to reduce thin ideal internalization. The results showed that by creating more awareness of the media’s control of the societal ideal of attractiveness, the thin ideal internalization significantly dropped.
In other words, less thin ideal images portrayed by the media resulted in less thin ideal internalization. Therefore, Thompson and Stice concluded that there is a direct correlation between the media portrayal of women and how they feel about themselves.
Social media also plays a part in how young people feel about themselves. A recent two part study  looking at social media sites, such as Facebook, researched influence and risk for eating disorders. In the first part of the study, 960 women completed self-report surveys regarding Facebook use and disordered eating. In the second part of the study, 84 women were randomly assigned to use Facebook or to use an alternate internet site for 20 minutes.
What this cross-sectional survey illustrates is that more frequent Facebook use is associated with greater disordered eating. The survey indicates a close correlation between Facebook use and the maintenance of weight/shape concerns and state anxiety compared to an alternate internet activity . Other research suggests an etiological link between eating disorders and the tendency towards self-harming [now referred to as Non Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI)] .
In terms of prevalence, over 1.6 million people in the UK are estimated to be directly affected by eating disorders. However, the Department of Health estimate that the figure is more likely to be 4 million due to the huge level of unmet need in the community .
Recent studies suggest that as many as 8 per cent of women have bulimia at some stage in their life. The condition can occur at any age, but mainly affects women aged between 16 and 40 (on average, it starts around the age of 18 or 19). Reports estimate that up to a quarter of Britons struggling with eating disorders may be male .
1.Mabe AG, Forney KJ, Keel PK. Int J Eat Disord. 2014 Jul;47(5):516-23 Do you “like” my photo?
2.Colleen M. Jacobson and Cynthia C. Luik, Epidemiology and Sociocultural Aspects of Non-suicidal Self-Injury and Eating Disorders 2014
3. Joint Commissioning Panel For Mental Health (www.jcpmh.info/wp-content/uploads/10keymsgs-eatingdisorders.pdf)