In the last few posts we talked about eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia, which are the two most common disorders in the world, the devastating effects, first-hand accounts of those who survived the disease and how you can help those who suffer from them.
On this article, we’ll talk about one of the main reasons behind the increasing epidemics of eating disorders and other weight and self-image-related psychological problems: media’s brainwashing for profit.
Before you snigger at this accusation, know that this is something even advertisers, the braver or more brazen ones at least, confess to, when they say “clearly, it's time to wipe out sexism in beer ads; for the brewers and their agencies to wake up and join the rest of America in realizing that sexism, sexual harassment, and the cultural portrayal of women in advertising are inextricably linked.” (AdAge magazine editorial, 1991) and “only 8% of an ad's message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and reworked deep within the recesses of the brain.” (Rance Crain, former senior editor, AdAge magazine). For those who don’t know it, Advertising Age is “the leading global source of news, intelligence and conversation for marketing and media communities”, according to their site.
So, being well aware of the effects of repeated images and sounds in people’s minds, especially children’s, knowing how long-lasting the effects are, and constantly perfecting their strategies in order to make them more efficacious and powerful, unethical advertisers the world over have been fueling our anxieties, discomforts, doubts, prejudices and fears, manipulating us like puppets, to extract more and more profit.
They Profit When We Feel Bad
The numbers speak loud enough:
- 20 years ago, models weighted 3% less than the average women, now they weight 23% less
- Only 5% of American women have the body type shown in ads and fashion magazines
- More than 75% of normal weight women think they’re fat
- 80% of mid-fifties women want to be thinner
- 50% of American women are on diet
- 98% of the dieters who lose weight through products gain it back and even more later on
- 80% of 4th grade girls have already been on diets
- Diabetes has increased 74% in the last 10 years due to increase in weight in the populace
- The number of hospitalized anorexics has increased 80% in the last 10 years
For centuries, strong, healthy and plump bodies were shown as a sign of wealth and beauty, while emaciated ones were often associated with death and sickness. Then in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the amount of anorexia and bulimia cases took such a big proportion, including the death of singer Karen from famous American pop band The Carpenters, in 1983, that media and specialists the world over started drawing attention to this serious matter. 
The problem is that the appalling cases of eating disorders became just another product in the hands of many media professionals, who used it to rivet people’s attention, while promoting products as means of achieving success, happiness, satisfaction, which are things they will never do.
Another lie found in this culture of thinness is that which says one can achieve models’ slim bodies through dieting or working out, when actually they are genetic, even the models starve themselves to keep them, and often after they reach their mid-twenties, they can’t keep them anymore.
Also, ads can often be contradictory and misleading, as Jean Kilbourne’s lecture Slim Hopes so poignantly shows. The same magazine cover will have a luxurious image of a chocolate pie on the cover, and a highlight for another easy diet to lose lots of weight in few weeks; computer-altered pictures will sometimes be a collage of images of 5 different women, or will have been heavily worked on in order to show the subject in a slimmer flashier way; pictures in ads show women without any flaw, as this famous Dove ad illustrates.
Despite all the trickery, they are still cheeky enough to tell us “you can look like that if you buy the product, actually you have to look like that, because that’s the only way you can be happy, if you don’t, you’re not worthy.” Absurd as it sounds, thousands flock to the stores every day all around the world, sometimes even waiting in line for new products, looking for an easy way to compensate for whatever is wrong in their lives, believing the foolish sad lies of ads.
But that’s not all, not only ads are misleading and false, more and more sex, misogyny, violence, repression and addictions are glamorized as a means to drive attention to products. In addition, as said above, the message stays in the mind, and not only does it lead people to buy products, but also shape their behavior.
So when ads like this one are used to sell clothes…
especially for women, which is absolutely disgusting, or this other one…
which pokes fun at the anorexic model who is so thin she wears the watch on her upper arm, and such images are supposed to be attractive, a style model for women, one can see something is terribly wrong.
And to think there are those who are still surprised at the huge amount of violence and eating disorder cases in developed countries. Of course, this lack of ethics isn’t only present in advertisement but all over media, be that music and music videos, shows, movies, magazines, books, art, etc.
But like Jean Kilbourne points out, it’s not that an ad directly causes violence, “but it is part of a cultural climate in which women are seen as things, as objects, and certainly turning a human being into a thing, it's almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person.”
Back to food, it is both promoted as a drug, a substitute for sex, a compensation for disappointments, and at the same time, women who have normal weight or are overweight are pictured as bad girls, the good ones being those who are thin, timid, passive, and vulnerable, from an early age, like these ads show:
In the meantime, men are shown as being active, athletic and powerful, sometimes even violent, abusive and wicked, which some advertisers seem to think we should find appealing.
When women are shown with any power, it is either in a masculine way or in a silly one, like in the ad for body lotion that says “'For girls with plenty of balls, clubs and bars to go” or in the one for clothes that says “live outside the lines”, which in the ad means that the woman is able to use the men's room.
Or they are offered the power to change their weight, either through dieting, working out, through the dangerous use of diuretics and laxatives, which are promoted like just any other product, as if they weren’t medicines, and through the ultimate extreme form of ‘salvation’: cosmetic surgery.
Isn’t it sinister that when finally women have achieved some power in society, they are being oppressed again, this time through the tyranny of weight and unrealistic beauty? Just like our foremothers, women are again being silenced, diminished and manipulated, and for what? Profit?
Women’s bodies are often shown dismembered, like objects, in a very misogynic way. “Buy the product, get the look, act like this, talk like that, and you’ll get the man of your dreams, you’ll be successful, happy and young forever!”
What a sad maddening lie! And what about being yourself, developing your personality, having a relationship with a man who loves you for what you are not what you look like and own? What about loving a man for what he is, for his character and achievements, and not for his looks and possessions?
Besides promoting medicines like ordinary products, tobacco is also sold as a means of ‘redemption’ from the ‘sin’ of eating. The ads below are examples, both present, and past, with its disastrous marketing to teens in fashion magazines.
(click on the picture to enlarge)
Well, at least they warn that smoking can cause problems to pregnant women and several diseases…
With all the evidence around, there are still those who think they aren’t affected by advertisement, just as there are parents who think that they have nothing to fear letting their children watch TV the whole day, especially without any guidance or restriction, and giving their children all the products they want (which, of course, they were told to buy in ads).
In their minds, there’s nothing wrong with waking up in the middle of the night and eating a full bucket of ice cream, there’s nothing wrong for their children to eat a bag of cookies at school and then eat some fast food afterwards several times a week. But when people do so are they living healthy lives? Are they eating to live, as they should, or living to eat?
This fixation on weight that media promotes not only causes people all sorts of grief, but also takes their attention away from what really matters. In a recent poll, women and girls answered that if they could choose one wish to make true that would be losing weight, and not ending poverty or succeeding in some activity, not solving the garbage and energy problems or being healthy, more intelligent, more active, having a loving relationship.
Isn’t that a terrible tragedy? Such people would rather support a 33 billion diet industry, which isn’t around to solve their weight problems, by the way, than to be positive and conscious about themselves and the world.
Resist The Influence
Now, why can’t there be ads that value people, either women or men, children, teens or elders, whatever religion, culture, social class they have? Why can’t people be treated in an intelligent, positive way?
As advertisers aren’t likely to change anything, it’s up to us to start changing the way we deal with media and the products we choose to buy with our hard-won money. It’s up to us to start deprogramming from the brainwashing that makes us feel awful because we aren’t as skinny as Megan Fox, we don’t look as buffed as Matt Damon, we don’t have the Fast and Furious’ cars, we don’t live in a mansion up in a Malibu cliff, or we aren’t as young as the Twilight actors anymore.
First of all aim at being healthy and not imitating somebody; wear clothes that are comfortable, and make you look good, and not only because someone wears it on a magazine; exercise and eat, because that is good for you, but respect your body limits. Instead of compensating whatever is bothering you on food, products, getting drunk, having shallow relationships, value yourself and your money. Spend your time working on what can improve your life, not wasting it.
Protest, discuss, boycott products that violate people’s image and wellbeing, criticize media, learn about the ways advertisers use to forward their products, know about how they manipulate people, so that you won’t be an easy prey anymore.
Stop considering people for their looks, especially fight prejudice in your own mind and raise awareness about it among your friends and family. We are all of us more than our appearance.
Slim Hopes # Pink stinks # The Religion of Thinness # Our disordered approach to eating # Jean Kilbourne # Jean Kilbourne's Killing Us Softly 3 # Jean Kilbourne's Killing Us Softly 4