Home > Advertising > Advertising! Part 8: Killing Us Softly 4 and Women’s Weight And Eating Habits

Advertising! Part 8: Killing Us Softly 4 and Women’s Weight And Eating Habits

We’ll finish up with Part 1 of Jean Kilbourne’s lecture documentary, Killing Us Softly 4 (here at YouTube). Click images for larger versions, and click the link nearby to an image to see my source for that image.

We move on to the issue of women’s weight as it is presented in the media. With issues like eating disorders, unhealthy attitudes toward eating, and negative body self-image with regard to weight all becoming increasingly common in recent times, the topic of how popular media influences eating culture and body image is an incredibly important one.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, or if you struggle a lot with your self-image about your body and this is negatively impacting your life, check out the following websites:
SANE Fact sheets for information and explanations about mental health issues, podcasts for interviews on related topics.
ReachOut Aimed at young people including teenagers. Fact sheets; stories from people who are going through, or have beaten, challenging situations or mental illnesses; interactive comments sections and discussion boards.
Lifeline (24 hour telephone crisis support). Phone 13 11 14
National Eating Disorders Association Information, resources, and stories from people who have been through it.
Something-fishy.org List of hotlines for help with many different types of difficult situations or mental illnesses.
International Eating Disorders Centre Information about different eating disorders and information on referrals.
National Centre for Eating Disorders Information and a phone number for sufferers and carers.
Eating Disorder Hope Includes International information.
Pale Reflections: The Eating Disorders Support Community Phone numbers for services in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa.

The first point that Kilbourne raises is the fact that overwhelmingly, celebrities are mocked and ridiculed by the popular media should they ever be the slightest bit “overweight”. In advertising, regular women are also mocked for their weight.

A Slim-Fast ad pictures the bride wedding cake ornament having been so heavy that it fell into the cake, and poses the question, “Need to lose a little weight before your wedding?”; extramarital dating site Ashley Madison says that women are funny-scary if they try to be sexually alluring and they don’t meet up to societal expectations about body size; in their campaign, Romanian business Del Mar medical spa – “expert weight loss programs” – likens overweight women to cows.

This ad for Interbest Outdoor (left) in Amsterdam promotes the purchase of advertising space by reminding passersby how unpleasant it is to see a large picture of an overweight woman. This ad is particularly cruel, because her head is cut off by the top edge of the frame, removing her of her humanity. That means that the onlooker needn’t see her as a person – as a person who talks, thinks, has her own perception of reality, experiences the normal emotions that you or I might experience in any given day – just as a body, an overweight body at which one is encouraged to express disdain, disgust and amusement.

When I look at this photo, I feel terrible to think that this woman has been offered up for public ridicule. She could easily be my own mother, who is sensitive about her weight issues and wouldn’t deserve any cruel treatment to make her feel worse about herself.

Of late, “skinny” (or “thin” or “slim”) seems to be an attribute that women are encouraged to aspire to achieve. Many products aimed at women reflect this ideal.

Sofia Vergara features in the advertising campaign for Pepsi’s “new skinny can”; hello! SkinnyJeans will “make you look thinner” (both of those advertising campaigns are from 2011); Paul Mitchell offers products that will keep women’s hair “super skinny”.

Skinny Water got attention from feminists and health- and society-conscious individuals with its advertising campaign (see right) in which the slogan proclaims, “Skinny always gets the attention.” Taking it one step further from the print ads for “skinny” products pictured above, it carries with it a number of messages for women. This ad tells us, first of all, that “getting attention” for being attractive is a reward that women should seek, and secondly that women will achieve this reward by being “skinny”.

Look just below the picture of the bottles. At this point in Kilbourne’s documentary, she describes the relatively new US clothing sizes of “zero” and “zero zero” as exemplifying the pressure for women to aspire to disappear, to “become nothing”. Skinny Water openly appeals to this constructed strive for women’s self-negation: “ZERO… ZERO… ZERO… ZERO…”

Thinking about “thin” and “slim” reminded me of a certain essential group of products for women. When I found these images, I was reminded that the products had actually been downgraded to “invisible”.

A 1934 print ad for Invisible Tampax (check out the link for a website that has archived images of vintage sanitary advertising and packaging – hard to navigate, but very interesting); Sure & Natural’s packaging also served as material for discreet disposal in 1985; Australia’s Libra Invisible pads; Tampax tampons are hidden “Outasight”. That last image comes from an online research project which discusses how menstruation is treated as a taboo in modern Western society, which I found to be quite interesting – here’s it’s home page.

Women who feature as runway and photographic models have been appearing increasingly thinner in images throughout recent decades. Most recently, there has been much controversy and awareness-raising over the dangers of the modelling industry’s pressure on women working within it to strive to be thinner and thinner, and over the more widespread implications of body image issues developing for non-model women who are constantly exposed to images of very thin women as the norm.

Ukranian runway models Nataliya Gotsiy (left) and Snejana Onopka (middle); controversy surrounded 19-year-old Stephanie Naumoska‘s entry into the final of the 2009 Miss Universe Australia contest because of her thinness (see the link for a brief article).

In Killing Us Softly 4, Kilbourne shows an image of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston. It looks as though the image that she showed was actually photoshopped to make her ribcage appear more defined and her left arm thinner – see the two images to the right; click for full-sized versions. This YouTube video which compares real and fake photos of models, proposes that the real image of Reston has been edited thinner to be used for Thinspiration campaigns – YouTube videos and websites which show images of very thin women as encouragement for women trying to follow diet regimes to achieve thinness. (If hearing about these campaigns leads to you finding yourself in a triggering situation, remember the websites and phone numbers at the top of this post that you can access for information and support.) Although the image may not have been authentic, the reality is that Reston suffered from anorexia which was triggered by the harsh pressures of her job as a model, and died of complications arising from her condition in 2006, at the age of 21.

In addition to the advertising campaigns mentioned above – those that ridicule overweight women and sell the concepts of “skinny” and “invisible” to women – and the media bombarding society with images of very thin women, campaigns advertising products seem to actually encourage that women have disordered attitudes toward weight loss, diet and eating.

A Facebook ad (no link) offers women a method to lose eleven kilograms in four weeks, although the recommended maximum weight loss for women on weight loss plans is just over one kilogram per week; the brand name of this brownie bar tells its consumers to “think thin”; these ads for Pretzel Crisps deliver the messages, “You can never be too thin,” and, “Tastes as good as skinny feels,” – the latter echoing model Kate Moss’s infamous 2009 quote.

Recently, a TV ad for a diet range of Yoplait yoghurts was pulled from the air following controversy about its apparent promotion of eating disorders. In it, a woman spots a cheesecake in the fridge and runs quickly through an internal monologue about how to conduct her eating and exercise so that she can eat a slice.

Ohhh. Cheesecake. Okay, what if I just had a small slice? I was good today, I deserve it! Or, I could have a medium slice and some celery sticks, and they would cancel each other out, right? Or, okay. I could have one large slice and jog in place as I eat it. Or, okay. How about one large slice while jogging in place followed by eight celery…

The ad finishes when a second woman appears beside her and takes a yoghurt from the fridge, and the first woman compliments her on having lost weight and quickly takes a yoghurt for herself. Through the internal monologue the ad normalises disordered thought processes about eating and exercise, and it ultimately congratulates women for finding a food option that will lead to weight loss.

Weight loss products, including diet pills, are constantly advertised to women as a quick and easy alternative to healthy eating and exercise plans.

Another Facebook ad offering a “shocking” new diet pill, Zephanol, which will “stop hunger”; diet pill Dietrine will help women to “lose weight the easy way”; this Proactol ad implores women to overcome that “guilty and overweight” feeling by “decreasing your appetite” (notice that donuts are a bit of a common theme here). Many diet pills have not been tested and are not proven to work, have negative side effects, may lead to liver injury, and are linked to liver-related and heart-related deaths.

As well as eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia that can lead to malnourishment and being underweight, and unpleasant or stressful thought processes and behaviours in which one strives to be “skinny”, obesity, compulsive overeating and binge eating are also common and problematic issues in modern Western society. Disorders relating to undereating and overeating are not opposites: they are all related to self-esteem and control, body image, and consequent dysfunctional eating behaviours (see something-fishy.org). As such, encouraging any particular body type or extreme diet habit is problematic for people as individuals and as members of society – what really needs to happen is an habitual promotion of positive or neutral self-image, and of moderate attitudes toward food and eating.

While each of these ads may not directly cause an eating disorder in an individual, it is important to note their perpetuation of the ideal that women should be thin, their flippant promotion of negative self-image as well as of dangerous eating habits and weight loss solutions, and the fact that they are ever-present and thus so are their messages. With the climate of the media being this way, it is no wonder that most women have tense and unpleasant relationships with the food that they eat, with their own bodies, and with their self-esteem.

  1. 29 February, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Great essays. The thing I find most incredible is how people are so unwilling to say how much of an effect this has on us and our psyche’s. “just don’t look” doesn’t work! Its like toxic poison.

  2. 29 February, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Definitely, Mildred. This whole project of mine is really opening up my eyes to the whole thing. Some people don’t think that it’s happening – just a few hours ago I was reminding a male friend (about five times, because he wasn’t biting) to “look around from now on”, because he was saying that the gender disparity with regard to the importance of appearance just isn’t there…

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