I’d like to share with you all my ‘beef’ with advertising. More companies are offering plus-size clothing, or calling themselves size inclusive, but they still get backlash with their advertising and promotions.
Ever wonder why? Well let’s take a look at some of the differences between advertisements with thin women and ads with fat women particularly in lingerie, underwear and swimwear. What type of advertising discourses are we exposed to and how does that communicate women’s expectations?
First here is an example of a Victoria Secret ad - which is very typical in the fashion industry.
What do I see?
This is what we are exposed to everyday. What does this communicate? It communicates both about our culture and the expectations of women within our culture. Let’s take a look at a few more before we analyze…. What do you see in these pictures?
Shop-bop has a beautiful fair skin thin woman draped across a bed in her lingerie, no smiling, open and inviting body language with a very sultry expression.
Then there’s Calvin Klein - well known for their two tone ads with Kate Moss and many popular celebrities. But, again we see no smiling, blonde hair, lips parted, the sultry look and her body language is more open than closed.
Here are a few more to look over……
What do these ads communicate about expectations of women in our culture? I think it reaffirms old stereotypes of women as submissive sexual objects. And, I am not alone in this line of thinking…… The use of sex as a means of selling is probably as old as advertising itself and advertising has long been indicted for contributing to the silencing of women's desire by presenting women primarily as objects for male consumption and pleasure (Cortese, 1999; Dyer, 1982; Goffman, 1979; Jhally, 1987; Kilbourne, 1999. I think it is safe to say that advertising is one of a number of sites in which sexualized representations of (young) women are ubiquitous.
Now, the plus-size ads:
Now let’s look at some examples:
Many many product pictures and advertisements for "plus-size" clothing is displayed on headless or half headed women. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Cooper who has coined the term "Headless Fatties"
"As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether".
Ashley Graham is stunning. Sources say she has a 30" - 33" waist making her a size 12/14 which is on the cusp of plus-size. In this ad she is seen wearing a full brief, covering her front left hip and thigh, and she's looking off in the distance.
Here is an example of a swimwear ad where the plus-size model is open with her arms but she is covered with a shawl, she's smiling and avoiding eye contact.
This ad stands out to me for a few reasons. First, there are a few different skin, hair, height and body types displayed - which I think is great but every single woman, with the exception of the thin woman, is covering a place where their might be a roll. We don't know if this is a direction from the photographer of the creative director or if these women naturally cover because they've/ we've been trained to be self-conscious of our bodies.
I think this ad is another good example of hand placement. You'll notice that one hand is on her hip and the other is draped (almost awkwardly) in front of the other hip and thigh area.
The difference between the ads show subtle messaging about how we believe thin and fat women should be in society. Ideally, thin women should be white, blonde, direct with eye contact, sultry and open with inviting body language. Ideally, large, plus-size and/or fat women should also be white but women of color are more accepted, they should mostly be blonde but brunette and black is acceptable, they should be passive without eye contact (which is a non-verbal communication of shame, low self confidence and/or feeling embarrassed) and lastly, they should be guarded with their body language and covering up their bodies with their arms or more clothing. Which communicates that a fat body should not be seen and is something to be ashamed of. Contrary to these cues, I’ve found that plus-size women have normal levels of self-esteem (Christel, 2012, p. 80). There is an assumption that fat women ought to be ashamed of their bodies so they must have low self-esteem. Well, they don’t - they are just as happy as thin women. However, some do report higher than normal levels of social physique anxiety. What this means is that larger women feel self-conscious about their bodies in public. However, when they are home and with their families, they often feel positive about their bodies. This tells me that it is not a person problem, but a cultural and societal problem that leads larger women to have social physique anxiety.
Most people don’t directly see these messages when they look at an advertisement but these cues are internalized. Meaning that young fat woman repeatedly sees this imagery of a larger women who avoids eye contact and covers her body with shame - she might implicitly think that is how I am supposed to be. Same with a young thin woman who might think she needs to be sexual and sultry.
Are these the types of messaging cues that we want to be sending to our culture? I don’t think so. We need women of all sizes, colors, shapes, heights, smiling, open and comfortable with their bodies, in scanty lingerie to full coverage - the more we narrow our imagery the more we narrow and specify the behaviors we expect.
Showing a woman in lingerie draped over a bed, couch, chair or even on the floor -- to take an image of sexism from the images above -- may not be the best strategy if the aim is to sell that lingerie to women. By now, I thought advertisers would have recognized the significance of many women's anger at being objectified and bombarded with unattainable, idealized images of femininity. There are a few advertisers that have rethought their engagement with female consumers and their ways of representing women - but we’re still talking about overt sexualization of women and that indicates there is still a problem. We’re in the midst of a shift from an idealization and consumption culture to a realistic and altruistic one. And this won't’ happen overnight, but we are beginning to see the shift. Women are opting for clothing that makes them feel comfortable and empowered in a way that doesn’t distract them or others from spending time on things that matter more than clothing.
But in the meantime, how do we rectify this problem? I think the most important step in creating advertisements for women is to ask them how they would like a product to be advertised. We might be surprised at what we hear. From what I’ve found, women over the age of 30 are slightly desensitized to images of thin models and that imagery does not help them make a purchasing decision at all. Average women, being a size 16-18 with a 38” waist, know that what they see on a model is not at all what a garment would look like on them. They also feel they are underrepresented and that if a company does offer plus-sizes, they rarely use a plus-size model. This begs the question, are companies embarrassed to make plus-size clothing? If a company offers clothing in larger sizes, they have a responsibility to share that with the consumers. If a consumer does not know a product is available, how are they supposed to buy it?
Anyways, I want to hear from you. What do you want to see in advertising? How would you like to be portrayed in an advertisement for underwear, lingerie or swimwear?
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