Today, March 8, 2012 we join women across the country – and across the globe – in celebration International Women’s Day. Here at Insiders Health we have chosen three influential women to recognize. Each of these women, in her own way, has contributed to standing up for women’s rights: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Join us as we highlight the works of Jean Kilbourne, Somaly Mam and Betty Ford.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” It is a phrase a good majority of women are familiar with; a phrase that nowadays has far deeper meaning and where heart-wrenching, crushing inferiority complexes are born.
All too often women feel they don’t measure up in comparison to the stunning models flaunting perfection in nearly every fashion magazine. Perfect skin. Perfect hair. Perfect bodies. Everywhere we turn advertisements are thrust under our noses suggesting that we are not pretty enough, smart enough or skinny enough.
Advertisers are creating illustrious illusions in their depiction of women; who we should be rather than who we really are. The media feeds into our insecurities and screams, “You lack this; we can provide it.” Media has taken the lead in shaping our delusional ideals of the perfect woman, thus leading women everywhere to their mirrors in judgment of themselves. More often than not, the image staring back does not measure up to society's standards of beauty that is put forth by the media. It is a perfect, unhealthy beauty difficult to achieve and maintain. No wonder countless women are struggling with eating disorders and distorted self-perceptions. Advertising is slowly but surely killing the self-image of females everywhere.
But one woman is working hard to change the status quo. Feminist author, filmmaker and speaker, Jean Kilbourne is on a mission to remake the way advertisers depict women. For the past four decades, Kilbourne has been bringing to light the negative impact advertising has on the female psyche. She is the ultimate critic of advertising . . . and rightfully so. At a time when media literacy and female cultural studies were simply on the horizon, Kilbourne was at the helm of spreading awareness regarding the unhealthy effects of advertising. After clipping advertisements and sticking them to her refrigerator, Kilbourne soon discovered a disturbing trend in cultural media patterns. And she decided to do something about it. That was 1968.
Granted, some attempts recently have been made to re-structure the media’s ideal of the “perfect woman.” The extremely underweight and malnourished models we see in magazines have spurred enormous controversy and finally prompted the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to take action. Last month, the CFDA updated their guidelines on model health. Time will tell whether these new regulations will truly work. In 2004 Dove launched a highly publicized marketing campaign called “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” a movement designed to create “a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.” And yet, the plus-size models featured in the campaign display perfectly rounded curves sans cellulite, airbrushed to perfection . . . now simply a slightly larger version of perfection. It is still a form of artful deception, an illusion, smoke and mirrors.
Albeit these are steps in the right direction, no efforts have been quite so great, however, as those of Jean Kilbourne. Kilbourne has led the way in popularizing the study of gender representation in advertising and has brought to light the tremendous power media has on a woman’s image. She has influenced thousands of college and high school students with her powerful lectures in a time when one out of every four college-aged women practice unhealthy methods to control their weight. Kilbourne claims, “Women are sold to the diet industry by the magazines we read and the television programs we watch, almost all of which make us feel anxious about our weight.”
Her dynamic personality and wit led her to be voted one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses by The New York Times Magazine. In her video and lecture, Slim Hopes: Advertising & the Obsession with Thinness, Kilbourne attributes media images of models to the growing epidemic of eating disorders among young women. Even for a strong and confident woman, it takes a lot of courage to counteract the negative media images of that unattainable, unhealthy beauty.
Let’s face it, media fuels anxiety. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States alone. The body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal is possessed naturally by only five percent of American females. When the average person sees over 3000 advertisements a day and watches three years' worth of television ads over the course of a lifetime, we are directly influenced by what we see and hear. Women are subconsciously taught to compare themselves to other women and compete for male attention, thus developing countless self-esteem issues.
In addition to the lack of positive self-imagery amongst women, Kilbourne points out the correlation between misleading advertising and addiction to drugs and alcohol; all the while exploring the destructive gender stereotypes media places on women. Kilbourne is actively cultivating media literacy to prevent these health problems arising from “unhealthy” advertisements.
Kilbourne is internationally recognized, having appeared on numerous television programs including The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show. Her book, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel won the Distinguished Publication Award from the Association for Women in Psychology. The book delves into Kilbourne’s original ideals on advertising which have now become mainstream. Also, Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women is Kilbourne’s popular award-winning documentary, which has forever changed the way we view ads about women. It is one of the top-selling educational videos of all time.
Thankfully, Jean Kilbourne’s work has not gone unnoticed. She was one of 21 media activists, journalists and educators included in a Media Heroes deck of trading cards and was profiled in Feminists Who Changed America 1963–1975. Kilbourne has been extremely instrumental in improving the image of women in the media. She has opened our eyes and challenged us to look at advertising in a new, honest way. And for that, we thank Jean Kilbourne for her pioneering and continuing efforts to change the way advertising depicts women.