Tag Archives: body image

Looking for More Attention? Drop Some lbs.

At least that’s what Skinny Water is promising in their latest advertisement, which I spotted yesterday. The ad shows a woman facing a throng of cameramen snapping her picture, elegant earrings dropping to the top of the headline which says: “Skinny Always Gets the Attention.” Take a look:

Thinspiration, thanks to Skinny Water

A close-up, to see all the text:

Close-up, for good measure.

Below the headline and photo of the various flavors, it also says “Zero calories, Zeor sugar, Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt.” With all that’s not in this water, you might wonder what it does offer. The website tells me that depending on the flavor of water, they’ve added vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, C, A, and E. They’ve also thrown in magnesium, folic acid, calcium and/or potassium.

Despite trying to market itself as healthy, Skinny Water is instead perpetrating the cultural message that the best – nay, only – way to ensure that you get attention is by being skinny. This of course positions them well to try to push their product on those women who have been pulled into this lie. This ad tells us that the best way to skinny is not through healthy food choices and exercise and an understanding of what “skinny” means for our particular body type and shape, but essentially through fasting – which is what zero calorie drinks are the equivalent of.

In fact, Skinny Water is doing precisely the opposite of what a health-conscious company and product should be doing. Promoting the idea that those who are skinny deserve attention more than those who are not creates communities that support harmful diet-related behaviors and disordered eating for the goal of a wispy appearance . Not to mention reinforcing the ever-present undercurrent of disapproval of those who are overweight – or even normal weight! – and do not bow to the hierarchy of beauty that says those who are thin are the best. It’s just one more item in the laundry list of products that tell women their size and appearance are what is most important and will attract loyal friends and fans.

In defiance of that, let’s use our brains to remind ourselves why Skinny Water is wrong. While the website details the added vitamins and dietary minerals of each drink, it’s far better to get your needed supplements through a healthy diet rich in cruciferous  and dark and leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins. Washed down, in fact, by regular old water that keeps you hydrated and helps your body process and absorb nutrients. Skinny Water is telling its buyers that by adding these vitamins and minerals to their product, one can cut out food entirely and survive on a calorie-free but vitamin-rich manipulated water diet. Don’t be fooled! (I know you aren’t. Hopefully, you’re equally horrified.) For example, the“Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks are all fortified with calcium, magnesium, and potassium – to help activate metabolic enzymes, keep your blood regulated, and support strong bones and teeth. Do you know what else can do that?  Bananas, yogurt, kale, almonds and cashews, and quinoa. Frankly, there seems to be little difference between the “Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks despite the claim that they each support different “goals” of the drinker - which lends support to the conclusion that these are madly marketed products that don’t substitute a healthy, well-rounded diet and instead are capitalizing on the now-entrenched notion that women care more about being skinny than anything else.

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Filed under Education, Feminism, Health Education, Media, Public Health, Sexism, Women's Health

I Still Don’t Think Yoplait Gets It.

I wrote about the Yoplait commercial that was pulled from the air a few weeks ago in a post that had some hope for a change of tune for the company. It seemed that given the outcry – from media critics to the National Eating Disorder Association – Yoplait understood that their presentation of an anxious and panicked woman weighing whether or not she was “good” enough to eat a piece of cake and how many pieces of celery she would punish herself with in return for this ghastly ingestion was both triggering and normalizing. Triggering for people who may have experienced battles with eating disorders in the past, and normalizing for those who may be on the cusp of such a struggle, ensuring them that their mental calculations and rewards were right on par with the rest of America’s women. I also saw the danger in the potential of the commercial subtly instructing young women that this kind of anguish over food was what they had to expect and look forward to in their future, thereby setting them up for young failure. (I want to note that I am not excluding this commercial’s impact on the men who suffer from eating disorders, I am emphasizing women here because of the construct of the commercial and the genders of those who were featured in it.) I’ve also discussed advertising’s effect on behavior elsewhere, and I think this post addresses some of my previously articulated concerns.

However. I fear I wrote with hope a bit too soon. Another of Yoplait’s popular commercials smacks me between the eyes every couple of days, and while it’s certainly not as yougottabekiddingme as the one with the celery champion, there is still a real issue here:

Classifying some foods as “good” and vilifying others as “bad” sets one up for failure in a most beautifully orchestrated series of events.  Certain foods may be healthier for you than others, but like most things, foods do not carry with them an innate characteristic of innocence or evil. In giving foods these kind of descriptions, they take on anthropomorphic identities that make it easy for one to associate with themselves. If cake = bad, and I consume cake, then I have consumed bad, ergo me = bad. Cake isn’t “bad.” It’s sweet. Sometimes sugary, sometimes tart. Sometimes in cup form. It isn’t “bad.”

And of course, you will eat cake at some point. Or a cookie, a brownie, a pie, pick your pleasure. If you don’t like sweets but are trying to calorie cut like a pageant contestant, perhaps it will be bread, or all carbs, or any drink other than water. Trying to eliminate the consumption of something either enjoyable (cake) or necessary (you know, food in general), the abstinence of which upon you have hinged your self-worth, leads you down a dark path resulting in you equating yourself with a monster when all you did was have some dessert.

While I noted above that men also suffer from eating disorders (they comprise about 10% of eating disorder cases), this commercial also does nothing to fight and everything to reiterate one of our oldest gender stereotypes. A woman obsessing over food and calorie counts and thinking herself to be deserving of punishment if she fails the arbitrary, socially sanctioned test of true character – resisting cake and losing weight! The fact that someone as talented as Jennifer Hudson recently articulated that her weight loss was more of an accomplishment than her Oscar shows just how far the socialization of this absurd test of character has gone for women and girls. Making the resistance of a slice of sheet cake the high point of one’s day (or the accomplishment of your life) really diminishes the much more astonishing achievements one is capable of.

Losing weight can be a healthy goal for a lot of people if they are at risk for complications like diabetes, heart disease, or high blood-pressure. But it isn’t everything – which is what most media messages seem to think it should be. If you’re trying to lose weight, talk to your physician about nutritional guidelines and an exercise plan. And first, clarify if you need to lose weight at all. I suspect that many of you don’t, but have been informed by a bear sheriff that you do not meet the specifications of his ideal woman.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Disordered Eating, Education, Feminism, Media, Mental Health, Pop Culture, Public Health, Sexism, Women's Health

How Images and Ads Impact Self-Image and Human Development

I got a lot of traffic and messages about my recent post regarding Duke Nukem. People in the gaming community condemned it for its lack of originality, how it strayed from the original premise of apparently ostensibly mocking the ’80s action-hero genre, and how it overall disappointed those who are used to more complex and engaging videos. Some replies also included people needing to “get over it” when discussing images of coerced sexual activity or the game’s encouragement of merging violent and sexually explicit content together (I don’t post comments that are condescending or don’t encourage dialogue), something I found…disturbing. My initial argument, however, did not change – that is, that the imagery and the actions the gamer supposes in this video are tragically abusive and in fact detrimental to both men and women.

Many gamers also respond that they know when they are playing a game, and that their non-virtual socializing is not impacted by the game’s content. This, along with the recent news that the American Medical Association finally condemned the use of photoshopping in advertising campaigns and photo shoots, got me thinking about what repeated exposure to images and actions actually does to our brain and with who and what we identify.

A well-known study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that repeated exposure to images and advertisements ultimately were processed in people the same way actual experiences were processed. That is, if you see or watch something enough times - in a video game, in a fashion magazine in which models are photoshopped to near obscurity, in a parent abusing your sibling – you begin to process it as though it was you yourself experiencing the act and identify with the “player” (model, game character) you are watching. You see enough pictures of a model like this:

Courtesy fashion-o-lic.com

And you begin to think you are supposed to align yourself with her, that this image is what is normal (the image on the right was criticized heavily in 2009 for being so drastically photoshopped). After so many exposures, you begin to mold yourself after her, to think that since this is how we project women for adoration in our culture, that you should begin appropriating yourself to match her image. Just like a gamer, after so many exposures, can begin to mold themselves after the image of the character they are impersonating in a game. And while they may not go out on a shooting spree, they are desensitized to the effects of that reality, just as they are desensitized to the effects of coerced sex in a game, which can lead to difficulty distinguishing that from a healthy sexual relationship.

As I have also discussed in previous posts, a foundational theory in behavioral science and education is the Social-Cognitive Theory, which has informed educators and psychologists for years in explaining that people learn by watching, and that even one observation of a behavior can influence perspective. It also importantly points out that while full on adoption of behaviors witnessed may not occur, the more we see, the more our attitudes and beliefs about them change. This can be good and bad. It can make us more accepting of others’ opinions and outlooks, and it can also desensitize and normalize the opinions and behaviors that are harmful.

We’re humans. We learn by watching, by then mimicking and imitating what we observe. It doesn’t happen all at once, which is why fashion moguls or game designers claim they have no real impact. Are girls entering periods of self-mandated starving as soon as they open this month’s Vogue? Are adolescent boys heading to the hills for a sawed off shotgun fight after the first round of Duke or stealing cars after playing the new Grand Theft Auto? No, of course not. But can it impact their sense of compassion, affect their interpersonal relationships? Can it make violence seem less threatening, less damaging, and less impacting than it is? Yes. Can that change the way people behave, from nuance to imitation? Sure. Even researchers who admit that it won’t necessarily turn children violent admit that’s likely true (and, interestingly, still disallow their children to play). Human development takes time – language acquisition, understanding of and the processing of visual messages, being able to comprehend meaning from a block of text – these are all cognitive functions that take years to develop and perfect, and their influence lies in the words and actions of children’s families, friends, teachers. Unfortunately, messages of gender have been largely commandeered by the media. And the repeated exposure, over years, to these specifics of models’ physical appearance has resulted in the erosion of self-confidence that many girls and women – and boys and men – experience as young children becoming adolescents. And the repeated exposure, over years, to the specifics of war, sexual violence, and the presentation of hyper-masculinity, can also result in the erosion of what kind of impact violence truly has, as they become desensitized, and what a healthy understanding of and relationship with the opposite sex is (as opposed to its portrayal in my Duke Nukem piece). As the study articulated, it’s about changing people over time, it’s about how perceptions and perspectives change when a new definition of the norm that is not contested or dissected – a Ralph Lauren model, a Duke Nukem – enters the picture. Women who suffer from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, while not blaming the fashion industry, have emphatically articulated that it certainly has had an impact as it normalized this destructive self-image and behavior.

I think it’s also relevant here to bring up the Supreme Court’s decision about a week ago to shoot down California’s attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to children. Timothy Egan, a Times columnist, had a great commentary on this, noting how ridiculous it seems for there to be a perpetual ban on nudity and sexually explicit images, but not on virtually dismembering a human or sexually assaulting a woman. It does seem…well, more than troubling, that a game in which a player can simulate murder and rape is protected by free speech but a bare breast is the height of vulgarity. (I found a great post from a female gamer about this kind of sexual violence in video games, and I agree with her assertion that sexual expression can in fact exist without it also involving violence and degradation.) I don’t think any of the representations of sexuality that I have seen in video games are appropriate for children because they overwhelmingly associate it with abuse and/or coercion (I’ve done a lot of viewing in the past couple days after my Duke Nukem post). To say that sexuality would have a more harmful impact than violence seems questionable, when representations of both are equally unhealthy.

It should also be said that I am far from someone who believes nudity and sexuality itself is vulgar. I celebrate and support healthy (and protected!) sexual expression in any way the individual consents and desires. I firmly believe that discussions of sex and sexuality should be brought up early on, so children can ask questions, be informed, protect themselves when they do engage in sex, and have an understanding of what a respectful, consensual sexual relationship is. I also believe that when these discussions in families don’t take place, and when sex is a taboo topic, that it is a disservice to these children, and that any confusion they have about sex or uncertainty about what a healthy sex life actually is will be magnified by the messages the media sends them.  I’m an advocate of early onset, comprehensive sexual health and reproductive health education. Sex shouldn’t be confusing, and it shouldn’t be stigmatized. Sexual violence, however, and a misappropriation of the presentation of sexual relationships that are abusive, coercive, and violent, should be condemned.

This is also why a diversity of exposures is important. It’s important to not be inundated with the same message over and over again. Advertisers know that repeated exposure is key to getting people to buy what they want to sell. If you see an image of a Coke bottle once, it won’t register with much impact. If you see it every time your favorite TV show breaks for commercial, when you’re leafing through the pages of a magazine, when you’re driving down a freeway and it’s up on a billboard, when you’re listening to the radio and it breaks for the Coke jingle – it adds up, as do afternoons in front of a game console, as do hours reading “women’s” magazines and fashion spreads, as do episodes of spousal or child abuse, (which we know increases the likelihood of the child being in an abusive relationship him/herself and hampers healthy development - the others are logical extensions, to a lesser degree). We have to have enough positive images, positive games, positive and healthy discourse about relationships to not just equal the stream of negative imagery and messaging, but to overtake it. Positive, healthy messages, not abusive, harmful, violent messages, have to be in the majority. The norm. It’s nice that the docs finally said so.

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Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Mental Health, Pop Culture, Public Health, Sexism, Violence

Yoplait and Miss USA

There has been much (rightful) celebration of the news that Yoplait has pulled their eating-disorder promoting and normalizing commercial that showed a woman agonizing over whether or not she should consume a piece of cheesecake and how many ways she would punish herself for doing so. You can watch the commercial below, but these reasons include: having just a bite, having a slice and a day of eating nothing else but celery, jogging after eating the cake, jogging while eating the cheesecake (cramps!?), eating half the cake and half the celery - had the commercial continued I wouldn’t have been surprised if the next thought was “or I could just vomit after eating it.” (Watch the video here.)

Interestingly, another ad had caught my eye this past week. This would be the teaser for the Miss USA pageant which aired last night, using footage from last year’s event. In the short, we are treated to shots of women in bikinis, sauntering around the stage in evening gowns, and taking to the microphone to tell us how they’d like to change the world. While this is happening, we have a narrator who guides us through the 10 – 15 second sequence with questions along the lines of “Who is she?” “What will she do next?” “Where will she go?” and so forth. But he punctuates this with what I’m assuming Mr. Trump (Master of Misogyny as I have noted before in this blog) thought was hilaaaaaarious: “When will she ever eat?” as we see the winner get crowned. As she accepts her bouquet, sash, and tiara, the host says: “How do you feel!?”

She replies giddily: “Ask me after I’ve had a pizza!”  Then everyone has a good chuckle.

That’s so funny! I had no idea it could be so amusing to poke fun at a woman who never eats, even though we are rewarding her lack of eating with a cash prize, a diamond tiara, a TV special, and a national title. Is it possible that the man who thought he was going to run for President has such a weak grasp of irony?

(While I didn’t originally want to link to the Miss USA pageant website, I just noticed that Richard Simmons is in one of the rotating pictures on the main page, and I think that is hilarious and amazing – if anyone can find out why, or a shot of him actually at the pageant, I’d love it.)

Not only can these ads act as triggers for people who have suffered from eating disorders, but as the NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) noted specifically in regards to the Yoplait ad (but which also applies to the Miss USA ad), it normalizes very harmful and problematic behaviors, making the line between eating disorder and what one thinks are totally normal eating habits pretty blurry. The foundation of behaviorial science and developmental psychology is the Social-Cognitive Theory, which posits that people learn to act by watching the behaviors of others who are not only in their social network, but also behaviors that are promoted in their culture and society. Other theories also note that repetition of messages further normalizes them, making individuals, particularly those at more vulnerable developmental stages, feel included in what is considered “normal” if they participate in these behaviors. On the other hand, dangerously and sadly, it makes them feel ostracized if they do not participate in these behaviors. Unfortunately, for those watching this commercial, that means it teaches young women that obsessing over their body size and weight is a normal rite of passage, and that if they don’t do this they’re the abnormal ones. In terms of the Miss USA prompt, not only is media the medium for promoting the behavior, but the women doing the actual promoting are marketed as the ultimate ideal; the supposed be-all, end-all of female beauty. (I watched snippets of the pageant last night, and my favorite moment was when one of the women said her most noteworthy characteristic was “offering people hope” and she did this by “complimenting a woman on her earrings.” Spreading hope to all by commenting on one’s accessories! I had no idea it was so simple.)

The NEDA also said they were sure Yoplait meant no harm in making and promoting this ad, and I agree. I don’t think Yoplait was being malicious, or that they produced this thinking they would reignite eating disorders in recovering women or encourage young girls to calculate and barter with themselves over what they can and cannot eat. But what that shows is that the internal debate of this woman is already so normalized that it seemed like a way to reflect back onto women behavior that they would recognize as their own and identify with, making them want to buy the yogurt – the decision the woman ultimately makes at the end of the commercial. (I also worried about the “reward” aspect of the commercial, when the woman says “I’ve been good today, so I can have cake.” What kind of behavior is “good” behavior that warrants cake – eating a minimal number of calories? I don’t think she meant “good” in the sense of “I was a good samaritan today, so I can have a treat.”)

Last word – I get tired of people commenting on others’ weight. Even if they think they’re complimenting someone on losing it. At the end of the Yoplait commercial the agonized woman turns to her co-worker and says “and you’ve lost weight,” somewhat disappointingly as she then looks down at her own (normal) waist. All in all, the less attention we pay to other peoples’ fluctuating weights and how they make us feel, the less likely we are to be unhappy with ourselves and think there’s need for some kind of improvement. Perhaps at the end of the commercial she could have said “what a healthy choice – yogurt! Maybe I’ll have some of that, and also a little cake which looks delicious and not at all like it’s going to ruin my life and destroy any potential for future happiness.”

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Filed under Defining Gender, Health Education, Media, Mental Health, Public Health, Sexism, Women's Health

Women Against Women

A new poll out of London, and reported by Daily Mail, says that women take about 20 seconds to size up other women. For the majority of them, the first thing they notice is the other’s weight. Women judging other women is nothing new, but the issues it brings up bear repeating.

54% of the women polled said they were trying to ascertain waist size above all else, and 45% said they zoomed in on the face to see if the other was wearing too much make-up. The list of judgments continues, with dress sense, hair, skin spots, roots, skin tone/tan, breast size, how tall they are, jewelry, and – given the rest of this list, it’s not surprising – the man they’re with.

Wow. We’re harsh. This poll underscores the serious insecurities other women feel for no other reason than assuming other women are their competition instead of their friends and comrades. Certain things on this list – weight, skin tone and color, height, breast size – are physical characteristics that are either unchangeable or difficult and expensive to alter, which would make the viewer feel either innately superior or innately inferior to the woman at whom they are gazing. These are of course false senses of superiority and inferiority, based solely on the expectations that women feel their innate characteristics are supposed to meet, and the root of so much body dysmorphia and self-loathing – fueling of course the rampant eating disorders among women that are real public health and mental health issues. These feelings can present on both ends of the spectrum – it can serve to promote assessments of low self-worth and the idea that one is inherently not as valuable as someone who has a smaller waist size, is taller, has bigger breasts, etc. But it can also serve to reinforce in the women who do have smaller waists, are taller, have bigger breasts, etc., that they are in fact more worthy than the women who don’t match up with their physical characteristics. This fuels divisions between women and within women. “If I lose the weight, I will be more valuable” contrasted with “If I gain weight, I lose my value and status above women who are bigger than me.”

The other things on the list – roots, jewelry, dress – are indications of class judgment as well. And the danger here is of course that women equate worth with wealth.

The noticing of the man the woman is with is no coincidence, and is I think the real drive behind these judgments. By sizing up the woman, one can assess her inherent worth based on physical presentation, and by sizing up the man she is with, one can assess what kind of man is attracted to and snagged by a woman of that physical presentation. It’s all about snagging the best dude, and you are in direct competition with other women for the best dude! By comparing themselves to the woman, and rating one’s own self against the image of that woman, one is able to determine where they fall on the scale of attractiveness for men, and for that particular man. Are you more attractive and wealthier than this man’s girlfriend. You win! Are you less attractive? You lose. :( Better get back to work.

So if you see a rich and thin woman with a pretty hot dude, you feel both envy and self-loathing. If you’re richer and thinner and have a hotter dude with you, your judgment serves your assumption that you are better and also serves to remind you that your position as ‘better’ is precarious and relies on your ability to maintain the thinness, wealth, and hotness factor of your dude. Doesn’t everyone seem unhappy in these scenarios?

Let’s try to take it easy on one another.

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Billy Bush: Stop.

I had never seen an episode of Access Hollywood before this February, when my schedule totally changed because of my qualifying exams. I would be at the gym and to ignore the sometimes searing calf pain, I would watch mindless television – Access Hollywood. HOW….is this show still on? I had no idea there was an hour’s worth of celebrity bullshit to cover every morning.

This morning, Mr. Bush (1st cousin of Dubya – what a range of expertise this family has!) tackled the Schwarzenegger affair/love child. Unfortunately, I can’t get a video clip of this gem of journalism since AH doesn’t post their entire show on their website (and thank god for that), but as the “breaking news” unfolded, here’s a summary of what the great BB said:

“One thing that I’m surprised by, in looking at the picture of this housekeeper, is that, you know….I mean she doesn’t look like this little hot Scandinavian-looking, tall, blond-in-a-cute-little-French maid’s outfit with a little feather duster…you know, not like this person who the man of the house just had to get his hands on…it means Arnold has a deeper problem, there’s a bigger issue here.”

OH MY GOD. Yes, Arnold certainly does seem to have a problem with infidelity, but WHAT, pray tell, does it have to do with the fact that YOU don’t find this housekeeper attractive? WHY does your assessment of her unattractiveness indicate that his problem is of a more significant nature? If she were, as you so eloquently put it, some “hot Scandinavian-looking, tall, blond-in-a-cute-little-French maid’s outfit with a little feather duster,” you would think he didn’t have much of a problem? That it was more understandable, that he just couldn’t resist, that everyone must see he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bed this little tart?

Also, now we all know that this is your dream woman:

Ms. Featherduster courtesy of Disney.

So, Billy, please stop talking.

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Filed under Defining Gender, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

Glenn Beck Strikes Again

I’m not usually surprised by anything Glenn Beck does in the sense that it generally falls into the realm of idiocy, and it’s best to just brush it off and remember that most people (well…those that I know and choose to spend my time with) also think of him as a joke. However, his most recent act of offensive stupidity deserves some serious commenting.

Beck decided to ridicule Meghan McCain (who, despite she and I having different political ideologies and opinions, does seem to share my opinions about Palin, albeit more nicely) because she appeared in a skin cancer PSA in which she seemed to be nude. The ad was not gratuitous and the message was clear – cover up with sunscreen and protect yourself from the deadly rays. Beck, of course, decided to completely ignore the message of the ad and instead chose to focus his efforts on butchering McCain’s body. I can’t even get through his entire juvenile, absurdly sexist rant, as it goes on for well over the amount of time I can suffer Beck; but how helpful he was, taking a health education announcement that tries to bring skin cancer’s prevalence and dangers under the spotlight and turning it into an assault on a woman’s appearance! Not only does he deftly ignore the important and legitimate message, he skillfully points out how a male ignorant radio host who is losing his job (read: influence and respect) due to constantly putting his foot in his mouth, is somehow still the judge of what makes a woman attractive, appealing, worthy of giving respect and listening to. And what makes her worthy, of course, what her most significant characteristic is, is her appearance and her weight – not, for some reason, her very worthy goal and effort to educate people about this preventable disease. Bravo, Beck. I will take the high road here and refrain from making any comments about his body and stick to his just-as-easy-to-target immature tirades. I will give a shout out to McCain’s other public efforts, notably her fighting for everyone to shut up about women’s bodies and rightfully wondering why it is still fodder for public debate.

Side note, why is McCain the one he focuses on? No love for the other ladies, GB? I’m sure they’re devastated. I can’t wait till this man no longer has access to a microphone.

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