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Size Zero, Submission, and Sex

In my Women and Gender in Perspective class at Rowan University, we focus on various themes in our reading assignments and activities. This week, the spotlight was on women’s bodies. Going along with that, my professor decided to have us screen the fourth version of a popular documentary, Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women by Jean Kilbourne. Killing Us Softly critically analyzes media, particularly in the Western world, and how it harms girls and femininity through hypersexualizing women, perpetrating domestic violence and rape culture, and propagating a body type that does not exist. While many problems remain similar from the original film in 1979, a new version was released in 2010, with Kilbourne explaining during the documentary that the issues have actually gotten worse. For those of you who haven’t seen this shocking film, I will give a brief overview of some of her main points and try to share some of the images she references.

First, a major issue is how people are oversexualized within the media, with a vast majority of the targets being women. The sentiment is well known: “sex sells.” And that it does. Sex is used to sell so many products, such as clothing, cars, fragrances, and even food. Yes, food. So if sex can be used to sell something even like a cookie, why would businesses stop there? They don’t stop, there is no boundary. Women’s bodies are generally depicted in compromising positions, wearing little to no clothing on a curvaceous yet skinny body. This approach in advertising does many things: it teaches females that their biggest asset in life is their body, it teaches males that women are there for sexual pleasure, and it disregards women as having much other worth than what pleasure they can provide. As Kilbourne references, the American Psychology Association released a report in 2007 stating that “research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: depression or depressed mood, eating disorders, low self-esteem.”





Second, not only does this hypersexualization lead to mental health issues, but it also creates a culture that is very dangerous to women. Throughout many advertisements, a common theme in relation to sexuality is that men are hyper-masculine and dominant, while women are subjected to an alarmingly submissive portrayal. Much of this is shown through simple things like body language, such as men standing tall in strong, confident positions, while women are shown on the ground in various positions, such as laying, kneeling, or strewn about honestly looking like they belong in a crime scene. Women are often clad in lingerie or racy clothing, sometimes even hinting at bondage. These advertisements, strongly focusing on heterosexual relationships, perpetrate this idea that men have power over women. Some ads even go as far as to hint men lurking around, hurting, or even raping women. Many ads don’t even show a complete body, generally for women. They tend to be zoomed in on an area of the body, usually the breasts. Additionally, many companies have used the tactic of transforming women into their product, such as the Heineken commercial where a robotic woman turns into a keg, which Kilbourne cheekily calls “every frat boy’s dream.” While this may seem harmless to many people, it actually has underlying tones of strongly objectifying women. The more and more that consumers receive this message, the more desensitized they become, making it much easier for violence and abuse to happen. It teaches consumers to stop viewing these women as whole people, but rather as objects. As Kilbourne mentions, most of the male population is not out to harm women, but those who do get away with it because not enough people stand up to it or protest against the way advertising normalizes such violence to us consumers.



Third, Kilbourne spends a great part of the documentary emphasizing how women’s self esteem on average has suffered greatly at the hands of the media. The tactic of making women self-conscious of their bodies is far from new, but it also does not appear to be going away. The media presents consumers with an “ideal body”, like I referenced in my second paragraph. This “ideal body” consists of a young (typically light skinned) woman with long legs, flawless skin, and a perfectly refined hourglass shape. Miss Perfect has the tiniest little waist, yet somehow a very busty chest and rounded behind. As Kilbourne mentions, less than 5% of women actually have the body type that is widely shown in mass media; even the models themselves don’t have that type of body. Which leads to the issues of photo retouching. Nearly all of the advertisements we see are retouched in some way, and for photos of women this means smoothing skin, digitally altering body shapes to be half the original size, and enhancing sexualized areas (watch this video as an example). Sometimes, many photos (of different models!!) go into making one image for a magazine cover. A segment of Killing Us Softly shows how four images of different women become one, with the editor taking eyes, nose, lips, and other features from some of the women, picking and choosing features to create one perfected version of the women. The way that women are portrayed in the media is flat out dangerous. There is such a strong emphasis on being thin and flawless (with some fashion models even dying from anorexia), and this message is received by girls from a very young age. Kilbourne claims that by age 11, girls start to become extremely self-conscious of their bodies, and we need to realize that the way they are going to perceive themselves is in comparison to the women in the media, who truthfully aren’t real women at all.



I could go on and on about this topic, since this documentary, along with related articles and books I have been reading, closely analyze all of the problems in the way our society and media shapes the way men and women perceive themselves and others. Of course, men ARE affected too in other ways, and that is a topic I’d like to touch on in a future article. This article was a very quick and rough explanation of the unsettling key points discussed in the documentary, and perhaps I’ll return to it more in depth in the future. A 2010 statistic presented by Kilbourne in the film to keep in mind is that “the average American is exposed to over 3000 ads per day”, yet “only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind.” It is important to very educated in media literacy – to understand why businesses are presenting products in a certain way and be able to recognize harmful messages when they are present. Whether you purposely think about these advertisements or not, your brain is going to remember them and continue to subconsciously process them. I will leave you with that piece of information…and if you haven’t watched Killing Us Softly 4 yet, I highly recommend it, as Jean Kilbourne did a phenomenal job addressing these very real and very pervasive issues.

If you are a Rowan student, you can watch it by logging into the Library, searching “Killing Me Softly 4”, and watching it on the link the library provides to NJVID.net!


Junior Biological Sciences major with an Honors concentration and Psychology minor. Photographer and researcher. Just a girl obsessed with Netflix, small animals, plants, and all things Pinterest. littletricksoflight.blogspot.com
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