Ex-models, advertising specialists, professors and community members discuss the portrayal of women in advertising

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On Feb. 21, local radio station WSLR hosted the second section of its media education film series, Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women. Afterwards, a group discussion was led in part by New College Professor of Sociology Emily Fairchild.

Killing Us Softly 4 is the most recent chapter in a series of documentaries produced by feminist author and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne. The series, which is the product of 40 years of research, writing and development, focuses on the way that women are portrayed in advertisements. The films examine how some allege that photographs dehumanize women and create the “advertised woman,” who is sometimes made up of four or more different models and is always edited.

The audience was a mixed group of about 50 people, including professors, students, ex-models, ex-advertising representatives, small-scale fashion industry representatives and mothers. Despite the total silence that indicated complete attention to the film, not every member of the audience was content with the short film and its purpose.

“I think there is too much focus on the media and celebrities,” one woman said. “I don’t care about Gisele Bündchen and what she’s wearing. She’ll be old soon like the rest of us. We should focus on war and poverty — those are the real issues — not women’s perception of themselves and the psychological effects of the media.”

The woman’s commentary provoked several dissident opinions to the point that it became necessary for the moderator to direct discussion toward a different topic. Despite the apparent discomfort caused by the first woman’s commentary, the majority of the audience felt that the film encouraged them to fight back against what they see as misogynistic and overly sexualized ads.

According to Kilbourne’s analysis of past research, however, the media’s representation of women seems to have an extremely heavy effect on psychological health. In one study conducted in Indonesia, women in remote regions were interviewed before they had access to television and Western media. They stated they were proud of their bodies, no matter what size they were. After the introduction of television and Western media, however, the same women reported depression and increasing levels of self-consciousness. Many were classified as bulimic or anorexic, and many more were observed to be attempting to imitate Western beauty ideals.

“I feel the need to be more involved in fighting back against these advertisements,” a woman who heard of the WSLR event via Facebook said. “These are our children, our lives and our health. It’s everywhere.”

Fairchild stated that not only do these ads foster poor self-image, they also create an environment where women judge each other’s appearance based on air-brushed models in high-fashion magazines. Fairchild also pointed out to the group that not only do ads that objectify women and eroticize violence create issues of depression, eating disorders and poor self-image, they also stimulate rape culture and victim-blaming. The audience was hesitant to touch on these topics, but they were clearly affected by the thought of them. Several women who had been chief participants in the conversation sat back in their chairs and considered what Fairchild said. Others looked upset and eventually one woman raised her hand in response, guiding the discussion back toward eating disorders and self-harm, issues that have received more and more media and government attention in recent years.

The German and Italian governments, as well as the United Nations, agree with Fairchild’s statement. During the past spring fashion weeks in Germany and Italy, designers refused to let models walk the runway who fell below a certain Body Mass Index. In earlier legislation, the United Nations sought to mandate a disclaimer on advertisements saying that images had been altered. American designers have not responded to rising concerns with body image in the same way some European designers have. According to one of the fashion industry representatives, this spring’s New York Fashion Week runways supported some of the thinnest models the American fashion industry has seen in years.

One of the ex-models and one of the fashion industry representatives in the audience spoke out about their histories with eating disorders, and how difficult recovery has been for them.

“I would cut out pictures from magazines and cover my walls with them,” the second fashion industry representative said. “I even cut out one of the pictures that Kilbourne features in her presentation to use as ‘thinspiration.’ Now, I boycott companies who use overly-thin women in ads and I make sure that all of my models are a healthy weight. I will continue to fight against these portrayals of women, because they aren’t just an issue when the television is on — this is 24 hours a day.”

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