Breaking free of the media’s portrayal of men and women
When people buy products that set an idealized standard for men and women, they not only support objectification but also internalize it.
We’ve all seen the advertisements. The perfect pair of jeans. The perfect bra. The perfect cologne. They portray idealized people in iconic situations in order to convince us to buy their products. This not only reinforces impossible standards for men and women to uphold but also creates an endless cycle of consumerism in order to fulfill an unobtainable goal.
Advertisers spend billions of dollars every year trying to manipulate people into buying things. The problem is that they’re not just selling products, they’re selling ideas.
Jean Kilbourne, in Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, says that ads sell more than products. “They sell values. They sell images. They sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and, perhaps most importantly, of normalcy,” Kilbourne said. “To a great extent, they tell us who we are and who we should be.”
When people buy into the idea of what men and women should be, they not only support those ideals but also incorporate them into themselves. Ideal women are portrayed as hyper-sexualized and subservient. They are supposed to be thin with long legs, large breasts and no pores, either wrapped in or marketed as the product. People are taught what’s important in society based on what is valued, and those values come from what ideals are supported.
Hank Renfrow, an adjunct instructor for the Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ women, gender and sexuality studies, says that this is especially prevalent for children. “I’m very anti-Disney princess. I think that the Disney-isation of our young girls helps contribute greatly to our body image problems,” Renfrow said. She calls them the “broken princesses.”
“They know something’s wrong with the media and the way they represent it,” Renfrow said. “And they’re just now realizing that they’re buying into a system that’s keeping them economically subservient.”
Ideals are different for men, but no less demanding. Bridge D’Urso, coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center, says that men are allowed to come in different shapes and sizes. They’re allowed to be fat or bald and function without their image coming into play. For Halloween they can be doctors instead of sexy nurses.
Where men aren’t given this leniency, however, is in their actions. Jackson Katz said in the documentary Tough Guise, “Boys and young men learn early on that being a so-called ‘real man’ means you have to take on the ‘tough guise.’ In other words you have to show the world only certain parts of yourself that the dominant culture has defined as manly.”
These ideals are devastating to people who internalize them—something that’s difficult not to do. When people buy products, they buy into the ideals that those products represent. Purchasing something that objectifies men or women supports the objectification and reinforces those ideals.
The products people purchase reflect back on them. If someone buys a product that portrays a hyper-sexualized model, they are reinforcing the hyper-sexualization of women. Using a product can be seen as supporting what it represents.
This means that people are defined in terms of what they buy. They are upholding in themselves the standards that the advertisement upholds.
Corporations exploit this. Advertisements are designed to instill a need in people that can only be filled by their product. If people feel good about themselves, they don’t need to purchase things to elevate their self-worth. If people feel inferior, though, they will buy products in order to elevate their self-esteem. However, filling the void with products reinforces the consumer’s beliefs of inferiority and perpetuates the cycle.
Advertisements both take advantage of and seek to create low self-esteem.
Ideals by definition don’t exist. “Women learn from a very early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy and, above all, money striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail,” Kilbourne said. “And failure is inevitable because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness.” This perpetuates the cycle of purchasing products in order to achieve impossible ideals.
If the end goal is only in the buying and selling of commodities, then consumers are going to be given the short stick. Businesses aren’t going to stop making products. Advertisers aren’t going to stop selling them. People aren’t going to stop buying things.
It’s only when consumers stop compromising themselves that the chain can be broken. People must stop buying into the objectification and stop supporting the idealized standards that views of men and women will change.
Advertisements reflect what companies want people to feel about themselves, but they also change based on the views of consumers. Companies only make what people buy. If people stop buying things that support idealized standards, companies will stop making them.
PSU offers an array of services to help students bridge the gap between self-esteem and idealized standards. The Center for Student Health and Counseling offers support and counseling to students. Various courses revolving around gender and sexuality stress the importance of awareness and empowerment.
And there are communities and networks of people that are available to get involved with in the Women’s Resource Center and action groups across campus.
People must have enough self-esteem not to buy into the portrayals companies make of ideals. Renfrow says that this is when people become empowered. Renfrow says that people need to focus on learning how to understand how distorted our body images are and to love ourselves the way we are.