Body by Madison Avenue

Women make 85 percent of all retail purchases. Advertisers target their

In a mainstream magazine ad for a French clothing designer, an ultra-thin model wears nothing but sunglasses, black gloves, and a velvet skirt low on her hips.

Another ad, this one for fur, features a long-limbed woman clad only in a sequined black bikini under her mink coat. She strikes a come-hither pose.

An ad for a beauty-oriented Web site shows a model naked except for computer cord wrapped around her chest and hips.

And in an ad for energy bars, a model's long thighs fill the page, while a high-cut leotard emphasizes her slim midriff. The text suggests that this could be "the body of your dreams."

Three decades after the women's movement offered women greater equality and expanded roles, a small chorus of media critics laments what it sees as a one-dimensional portrayal of women by Madison Avenue, characterized by nudity, extreme thinness, sensuality, even bondage. With their dual emphasis on physical perfection and sexuality, such ads, these critics say, can create body dissatisfaction, fuel addictions, and subtly legitimize violence and bondage.

"The emphasis is so completely on women's bodies," says Jean Kilbourne, who for 20 years has been lecturing on images of women in advertising. "The ideal has always been unattainable, but now it's even more so." She attributes some changes to the ability to alter photographs with computers - to elongate bodies or put one woman's head with another woman's body. "The ideal is no longer a real woman," she says. "It's a composite."

Because advertising is "more influential, more powerful, more ubiquitous than ever before," Ms. Kilbourne says, she and other ad-watchers are mounting campaigns - in books, classrooms, talks, and videos - to alert consumers, women in particular, to what Kilbourne calls the "toxic environment" of American advertising culture.

The average American is exposed to 3,000 ads a day, says Kilbourne, the author of a new book, "Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising." Yet most people believe they are not influenced by ads.

When Elizabeth Massie interviewed girls between the ages of 9 and 18 for a documentary video, "Who Cares About Girls?," denial was rampant. "Girls assured us they were not influenced," says Ms. Massie of Los Angeles. "They only referred to their friends being influenced. Even when girls recognize manipulation, they're incapable of resisting it."

Media specialists see ads changing in subtle ways. Some layouts, like the one for power bars, show parts of women's bodies, but not their heads.

"The media constantly cut us into bits and pieces," says Gail Dines, professor of media studies at Wheelock College in Boston. "How many of us do exactly the same thing? We look in the mirror and say, 'This needs work, that needs work.' That destroys the integrity of the body. Once we split it up, it can mark the beginning of eating disorders and the end of self-esteem."

Barbara Lippert, ad reviewer for Adweek, also sees a pattern of growing hostility between the sexes being reflected in advertising. "Men would like to see women in more stereotyped ways," she says. "Beer commercials are slowly going back to the babes. Victoria's Secret ads are aimed at women but appeal to men."

Another current advertising theme, Ms. Lippert notes, involves men making fun of women "because they're obsessed with shoes, they make you put the toilet seat down, and they take too long to get ready. I don't think it's very funny."

Professor Dines and Kilbourne also decry images drawn from pornography. Dines cites an ad in a computer magazine showing Goldie Hawn in a bondage pose.

"One of the most important older women in Hollywood is allowing herself to be strung up," she says.

A perfume ad shows a woman tied to a bed. Another perfume ad features a woman with her hands tied behind her back. "They use a nice bracelet," Dines says, "but nonetheless her hands are tied."

Such images also have negative effects on men. They, too, Dines says, absorb "the level of desensitization we all have, seeing women being brutalized" and their bodies artfully segmented in ads.

Women make 85 percent of retail purchases, with working women between the ages of 40 and 60 forming the largest market. Although a few companies, including Nautica and Banana Republic, feature mature models in ads or catalogs, older women remain largely invisible in print ads.

Referring to most older models, Lippert says, "These women are still extremely thin and look fabulous. It's not exactly realistic to think people are going to age this way." She would like to see older women and men "used for products other than bladder control and retirement money and electric mattresses. These older people are vibrant, doing all kinds of things, including buying cars and traveling."

Dines adds that older women also tend to be clustered in medical ads, "looking for arthritis pills, laxatives, or diapers. In every culture, you hope the older women will be the carriers of the culture, but we give them no voice."

Seven years ago Joanne Byron, an over-40 model in Wareham, Mass., launched a national signature campaign to encourage advertisers and modeling agencies to include older women. Her goal is 50,000 signatures per state.

"There is a myth that only young, seductive women can sell," Ms. Byron explains. "In reality, women of all ages have that capacity. Who has created that myth? Advertisers. Who runs the advertisers? Men."

Even the use of gray-haired models, she claims, can be a form of tokenism. "To show you they're representing the older market, they use gray hair," Byron says. "You can be in that older market and have any color hair."

Similarly, Dines finds that women of color are also rendered largely invisible in ads. African-American models may be shown in jungle settings or wearing leopard skins and animal prints. If advertisers pick African-Americans, they use models with white features, she says. "In reality, the model of beauty is whiteness."

No one argues for the elimination of advertising. Instead, these media specialists advocate teaching students how to understand and deconstruct media images. The United States is one of the few countries that does not include this in education curricula.

"It's important that parents and citizens really lobby for media literacy to be taught in schools, starting with kindergarten," Kilbourne says. "We're doing our students a real disservice if we don't teach them to become critical consumers of the media."

Once people start paying attention, she adds, "it's just abundantly clear to them what's going on. That awareness is essential." Discussion also lessens denial about the power of ads.

At Teen Voices, a national magazine written by and for young women, resistance to negative images runs strong. A column called "Say What?"criticizes specific ads, explaining why the portrayal is damaging to teens.

"We encourage teens to write to advertisers and say, 'We don't appreciate girls' bodies being used to sell your product,' " says Siobhan Murray, advertising manager. An issue appearing this week features an article titled, "How Advertisers Are Out to Get You."

Every July, Dines conducts a week-long institute at Wheelock College, open to teachers, parents, and others interested in the media. Participants learn to teach children about media images. A single two-hour lecture and discussion can "resensitize" people, she finds. In her college classes, she sees immediate results as students deconstruct ads critically.

Dines encourages mass boycotts of the media and widespread refusals to buy offending magazines and the products they advertise. She herself formerly published a boycott newsletter, "Challenging Media Images of Women." (Only a lack of money kept her from continuing it.) Articles explained why particular ads were sexist, then encouraged readers to write letters of complaint to the advertising agency, the advertiser, and the magazine.

"We got ads taken out," Dines says triumphantly. "For a small newsletter, we had tremendous success. Could you imagine a mass scale of that?"

Ellen Levine, editor of Good Housekeeping, seconds that approach. "You can protest," she says. "Calvin Klein billboards [showing children in suggestive poses] were down in 24 hours because of public outrage."

Dines sums up her approach: "Fight back. This is our culture, and we decide what we consume."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.