Taking back the female body

Truth be told, we live in a society that objectifies women. Women’s bodies are used to sell anything and everything in advertising, acting as objects of visual pleasure in television, cinema and magazines. Historically, this has been because advertising and mass media industries have been dominated by men, whose primary audiences for cars, real estate, technology and household products were men as the breadwinners in patriarchal society.

Many women now work in advertising and media, political correctness in advertising is legally mandated, and transgressions from it are quickly repealed and publicly roasted by media watchdogs. fairlife-pinup-ad-2But this does not preclude the use of barely clothed female bodies in advertisements for completely unrelated products, nor the brazen reinforcement of gender stereotypes in the construction of a selling point. It’s gotten to the point that women are even objectified in media and publications aimed at female audiences: sanitary products, clothing lines and toiletries provide fertile ground for examination of this problematic tendency.

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The way mass media portrays it, women relish their own objectification. Let’s take ads for hair removal products: women in these advertisements sensuously extend their smooth, slender, long legs, relieved to have avoided the disaster of baring any hairs at all on their limbs in public. This 2012 ad for beauty salon Uni K Waxing, which offered 50% discounts on waxing treatments for girls 15 years and younger, perpetuates the notion that hairlessness is a basic necessity – the norm – thereby including girls not even legal to have sex yet in the sexualisation of their bodies.

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“Are you summer-ready?” this protein supplement ad asks. Why, yes, I would say. I can’t wait to hit the beach. But this advertiser isn’t asking about my emotional or psychological eagerness for summer: it’s asking if my body is ready to be shown in public. Let’s see: am I completely hairless? Have I done a summer slim-down by one form or the other of starvation? Have I bought antiperspirant that will prevent my production of body odour, lest I be revealed as a real, hair-growing, food-eating, perspiring human being? The answer to these questions from all women in ads is “Yes, of COURSE I am, and I’m pleased to be so!”

Because of this treatment of women in mass media, the denial or concealment of our own biological truths has become normal. One aspect of the female biology is particularly taboo, and has been appropriated for advertising audiences in a far more palatable form. Menstruation is a fun, music and laughter filled time at which we gather for sleepovers to discuss sanitary products and embarrassing period-related experiences. We valiantly go about our daily business – yoga, shopping, wearing white skirts – comfortable in the knowledge that this pad will absorb any pastel blue, water-like liquid that comes its way, while maintaining maximum flexibility and minimum visibility. Clearly, up until now, girls have had to stop going on dates, wearing anything but granny undies, working out or being in the public eye while menstruating. That way, no one ever has to know. Because that would be the worst thing: for anyone to find out that you were menstruating, because that is GROSS.

In this recent ad by sanitary line Sofy, a beauty’s period arrives in the form of a plain-faced, overweight caricature of herself enacting period-related behaviours: eating junk food in front of the TV, erupting in anger over the non-delivery of pizza and bursting into tears in the same breath; leaving her after a few days as her usual, acceptable self. To be honest, I actually found this ad hilarious – my own experience of periods and PMS is typified by involuntary crying about anything from cute animals to everyday frustrations (opening a tricky latch; having to re-load the toilet paper in the right direction), and the immense bloating of my abdomen renders my self image to cavernous, pizza-ridden lows. But it is offensive in a number of ways, most obviously, its trivialisation of an aspect of female biology that has in the past been used to discredit and belittle women.

 

BMW Ultimate AttractionSome ads encourage the “boys will be boys” mentality – man creates secret cave to avoid his wife while she makes dinner for the family; bikini-clad women apparate to fulfil a beer’s promise of something good upon consumption; girlfriend vetoes the cordless drill purchased by her disobedient boyfriend and trades it for cash. Or this BMW ad, my objection to which I can’t imagine needs explaining.

 

 

Or this Old Spice ad in which bikini-clad women fawn over a man because he just smells so damn good – whether it is his irresistible fragrance, the sensual bubbles massaging their bodies in the hot tub or their implied lack of cognition, they don’t even realise that he is a robot rather than a real man.

There are so many things wrong with these representations of contemporary culture – in fact, they are insulting not only to women but also to men in a society moving away from gender stereotypes – that I hardly know where to begin.

I think what needs to be said is this: bikini-clad women may continue to appear in ads for television channels and phone plans, hairlessness may continue to be next-to-godliness, and menstruation may continue to be a misunderstood, unsavoury spectacle for us to conceal at all times (it is only the reason that all human life exists, and the source of approximately $25 million per year in taxes on sanitary products in Australia, after all). We may not be able to stop it – at least not without years of laborious legal action. What we can do is move away from passively enabling this objectification by taking back ownership of our bodies, as was the message of feminist art group COMBO’s Paris demonstration (featured image).

With so many factors appropriating our bodies for commercial use, it’s easy to be swayed by the notion of femininity that they perpetuate. But as owners of our own bodies, the only thing that matters is our own perception and our own prerogative: wax when we want, satirise periods how we want to, be naked when we want, be sexual when we want to be. This doesn’t mean that we have to stop enacting the gestures of femininity to which we are accustomed: being an empowered woman does not forbid grooming, waxing or relishing sex appeal. It just means liberating ourselves by considering only our own opinion, our own wishes and our own self image in matters of body and beauty.

One thought on “Taking back the female body

  1. > Truth be told, we live in a society that objectifies women.

    ‘Objects’ are acted upon. ‘Agents’ act. By saying ‘society objectifies women’ you have just defined woman as objects, who are acted upon by society (you mean men, right?), rather than as agents acting of their own free will. You have basically just objectified women.

    > Women’s bodies are used to sell anything and everything in advertising, acting as objects of visual pleasure in television, cinema and magazines.

    And men’s bodies are used to mend leaking pipes in your bathroom, build roads, resolve disputes and put out fires. Why are the men who choose to work as plumbers, construction workers, police and firemen for money NOT being objectified, but the women who choose to work as models for money ARE being objectified?

    > Historically, this has been because advertising and mass media industries have been dominated by men, whose primary audiences for cars, real estate, technology and household products were men as the breadwinners in patriarchal society.

    Not really. The target for most everyday advertising has always been women. Men historically earned the money by working and women traditionally spent that money on household goods. Even today women control 80% of household income and watch the majority of TV, especially daytime TV which is full of advertising featuring women. Whether the product is being advertised to appeal to men or women it is likely that a woman will be used. Typically a young attractive, fit, healthy, fertile, smiling woman.

    Nobody complains about women ‘objectifying’ the millions of women posing in women’s fashion magazines or women’s fashion catalogues. People usually only have an issue if the images of women are likely to be seen by men and are designed to appeal specifically to men.

    > But this does not preclude the use of barely clothed female bodies in advertisements for completely unrelated products, nor the brazen reinforcement of gender stereotypes in the construction of a selling point.

    A lot of women do not consider scantily clad women in advertising (or anywhere else) to be a major concern, and certainly not a moral concern (relative to war, child abuse etc). All advertising uses gender stereotypes, just as all drama uses them (even if the plot is specifically about someone breaking a stereotype). Stereotypes are based on actual, observable and recognisable trends in reality such as an old lady who lives with lots of cats or a dad who cannot dance. Stereotypes not based in reality make no sense.

    In the scheme of things modelling (or any career based on presenting your good looks to an audience) is not such a bad way to earn money. Compared to most jobs it is easy money……which is presumably why so many women CHOOSE to do it, rather than, say, work in a supermarket, or a factory or in a shop. But despite there being a million far worse jobs out there, they are still victims right?

    > It’s gotten to the point that women are even objectified in media and publications aimed at female audiences

    Another way of seeing it is that feminism and political correctness has gotten to the point where everything is now being defined as ‘problematic’, ‘sexist’, ‘misogynistic’ and generally harmful or demeaning to women. It’s gotten to the point where women are automatically being defined as the victims of EVERYTHING. It’s gotten to the point where women’s personhood and agency has been so completely erased by decades of feminist propaganda that even a woman posing for an advert for a toiletries (and being paid for her efforts) is somehow being exploited by men. It’s gotten to the point where women are defined as so weak and pathetic that we cannot comprehend the concept that a twenty something women might CHOOSE to pose seductively in return for money and not feel in the least bit exploited, and actually rather pleased that she doesn’t have to make a living selling insurance or fitting double glazing.

    > The way mass media portrays it, women relish their own objectification.

    Or ….. a lot of young women naturally enjoy showing off their bodies, especially if they are super fit, and especially if they are being PAID to do it in a safe and controlled environment like a typical photo shoot.

    > Let’s take ads for hair removal products: women in these advertisements sensuously extend their smooth, slender, long legs, relieved to have avoided the disaster of bearing any hairs at all on their limbs in public.

    This is the essence of all advertising, and indeed all trade. You promote the benefits of your product or service in order to encourage sales.

    Can you see how someone might find it ironic, absurd (and kind of offensive) that you would complain of western women’s oppression using examples of expensively produced advertising for luxury items for women? Hair removal, exotic creams, hair products, make up, hair straighteners, scented nail polish, fine fabrics and frivolous clothing and underwear, sculpting/ padded underwear etc etc etc are all examples of female pampering luxury items. It is pure self indulgence, decadence and extravagance…. and the adverts reflect this.

    People who are the underclass, the oppressed group, the marginalised group, the exploited group in society don’t generally get encouraged to pamper themselves and adorn themselves and objectify themselves in this way. In fact genuinely oppressed groups rarely have advertising directed at them because they do not have enough disposable income to be worth advertising to!

    Having to endure hundreds of advertising images every day of beautiful, sensual women bathing and pampering themselves like the Cleopatra falls under the category of ‘First World Problems’.

    True objectification (denial of personhood) would be something like genital mutilation, which is still LEGAL when done to boys, even in the west in 2015.

    > This 2012 ad for beauty salon Uni K Waxing, which offered 50% discounts on waxing treatments for girls 15 years and younger, perpetuates the notion that hairlessness is a basic necessity – the norm – thereby including girls not even legal to have sex yet in the sexualisation of their bodies.

    And are men/ the patriarchy to blame for this……. or might these girl’s mothers have something to do with the increasing sexualisation of girls and young teens? How many fathers have you ever seen encouraging their daughters to be MORE sexual and grow up faster?

    Is it possible for women to ever be responsible for any negative trend in society?

    > Because of this treatment of women in mass media, the denial or concealment of our own biological truths has become normal.

    Free bleeders were recently celebrated and championed by the media …. meanwhile men are being arrested on public transport for sitting with their legs spaced apart.

    > That way, no one ever has to know. Because that would be the worst thing: for anyone to find out that you were menstruating, because that is GROSS.

    I think the selling point of sanitary towels is that they stop blood staining your clothes, furniture, carpets, bedlinen, pets etc. Not that menstruation is taboo. However, it is true that blood is generally considered taboo, and kind of ewww in public spaces. It is kind of rude to have a nosebleed in a public library, supermarket, theatre or on public transport and not make any effort to mop up the blood. It is also unhygienic. The same standards apply to menstrual blood. Blood, shit and piss are all considered repulsive for very rational, medical reasons. The revulsion is hard wired into our brains in the same way we are afraid of heights or prone to vomiting acidic foods.

    > my own experience of periods and PMS is typified by involuntary crying about anything from cute animals to everyday frustrations (opening a tricky latch; having to re-load the toilet paper in the right direction), and the immense bloating of my abdomen renders my self image to cavernous, pizza-ridden lows. But it is offensive in a number of ways, most obviously, its trivialisation of an aspect of female biology that has in the past been used to discredit and belittle women.

    In other words it’s OK for women to admit to being physically and emotionally compromised during her period (something you just admitted yourself), but it’s not OK for men to observe the exact same phenomena.

    Do you find adverts which use similar ‘alter ego’ symbolism to depict the horrors of migraines or the flu to also be offensive because they also trivialise these conditions and use humour?

    > Or this BMW ad, my objection to which I can’t imagine needs explaining.

    Firstly, the ad is so absurd it is obviously meant to be humorous. Secondly the product being sold is the car, not the woman. The car is actually being feminised as a woman, rather than the woman being objectified as a car. Sports cars are are often advertised alongside a sexy curvy woman, and this is designed to make men associate the complex curves of the car with the complex curves of a woman’s body. Also owning such a car WILL give men a greater chance of winning the approval of a desirable women such as the woman in the advert. The idea of ‘get the car to get the woman’ is a valid concept, as MANY social experiments have proven (you can see them on youtube). Men driving sports cars CAN pick up young attractive women on the street – all airheads of course, but still…

    If the product was a woman (a slave) and she was advertised next to a sports car then the message would be the opposite – “this slave woman is as desirable as this sports car!” But the message is the other way around. “This sports car is as desirable as this sexy woman!”

    The prevalence of women in advertising aimed at men and women just demonstrates how much society (men and women) VALUE young attractive women, and not how much society is oppressing them.

    > What we can do is move away from passively enabling this objectification by taking back ownership of our bodies,

    Does this include recognising that the women appearing in adverts, and being paid to do so, are there of their own free will and are not merely ‘acted upon’ objects?

    > …. being an empowered woman does not forbid grooming, waxing or relishing sex appeal. It just means liberating ourselves by considering only our own opinion, our own wishes and our own self image in matters of body and beauty.

    And you don’t imagine advertisers might spend a considerable amount of time and money researching what ACTUAL woman find appealing, in terms of lifestyle, fashion, appearance, social status, and feminine ideals in order to make adverts which appeal specifically (and with pinpoint precision) exactly those ideals and aspirations?

    Even if the products themselves are a scam – or just a superficial indulgence – the advertising industry is still based on bone fide human psychology. There IS such a thing as the ideal female body type, both medically and in terms of what appeals to women’s and men’s aesthetic and all advertising does is to present the most perfect and often extreme representations of this ideal.

    Beauty and sex appeal is a ‘thing’, and when food was scarce the female ideal was more chubby, because that not only signified social status and wealth but it was also an ideal to aspire to. Today processed foods and sedentary lifestyles have created an obesity epidemic, and so naturally the ideal has switched to a thinner body type, because now only the high status wealthy female can afford to work out and eat non fattening foods. Advertising/ consumerism (and indeed art) has always been about aspiring to be or to have the perfect, near unobtainable ideal….. but that is not oppression or exploitation, it is fantasy and aspiration.

    When women are stripped of their own agency and demoralised by an incessant victim narrative and trained to view themselves as weak, helpless, acted upon victims in every conceivable situation then even aspiring to an ideal or a fantasy starts to feel like too much hard work, and therefore some sort of cruel oppression.

    All adverts promote the same basic ideals … success, health, fitness, good looks, vitality, social status, desirability, good relationships, social standing, self actualisation, enjoyment, abandon, joy and pleasure.

    To achieve all of these things requires hard work. Feminism / political correctness offers a quick solution which is to redefine these things as oppression and exploitation, and to redefine being completely passive and inert and demanding the world revolve around you (he for she) as being the new ideal and the new fantasy.

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