Feminist progress: undermined by the media?

Anna-Kate considers how the porn and beauty industries impact the self esteem of girls and women

Anna-Kate, 25 January 2009

"A whole industry ranging from heavy pornography and prostitution to soft-core advertising markets women's bodies as objects of consumption by men."

– Robert Connell, Gender

Saturday afternoon, and I am sat in a coffee shop with a cappuccino and a piece of cake. Sitting in the corner I had a great view of the other customers and amused myself by observing the people around me. A group of girls aged around 13 giggled uncontrollably in the corner over stories of boys. They all had bleached blonde hair, excessive make-up, tiny shorts and low-cut tops. I did find myself wondering whether, at age 13, they understand how overtly sexual the image they are projecting is, or if they do understand, whether this was their intention.

I do however find myself discovering a possible explanation for the girls' behaviour as I flick through a magazine they had left behind. The more explicit articles included 'Sex tips that'll change everything' and 'Five things he really loves in bed'. Of course these were all accompanied by pictures of women wearing sexy lingerie and smiling in a submissive way (or occasionally with a slightly pained expression I believe was supposed to represent the ecstasy they were experiencing having just tried out this 'revolutionary' advice). Basically, it is a clear formula adopted by most women's magazines to teach women to look and to behave like a male fantasy. As I flicked, I began to contemplate the adverts. The vast majority contain seriously underweight girls, often wearing very few clothes, lots of makeup and always heavily airbrushed.

Women's sexuality is used constantly to sell products in adverts, both those aimed at men and women. For example, Herbal Essences hair products base their advertising around portraying their product bringing the (female) user the joy of orgasm. Or Lynx's fantasy portrayal of their products resulting in bikini clad women chasing after the male product wearer. As Naomi Wolf identifies in The Beauty Myth, the sexual portrayal of women is widespread and normal in western society. She refers to this as "beauty pornography". We are familiar with semi-naked women being plastered on billboard posters, Hooters restaurants in the UK, glamour models and porn stars as a core part of celebrity culture in which we rarely see average-looking women.

Porn is everywhere. It has crept its way into mainstream culture, polluting the media, eroding women's self-esteem and ensuring the continuation of patriarchy

The media is becoming increasingly influenced by the pornography industry. This was highlighted by Ariel Levy in her 2006 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Feminism and the Rise of Raunch Culture: worth in excess of $97 billion a year (a rise from $7 billion when Wolf was writing), the pornography industry was created and is run mostly by men, for men. It depicts women according to what are assumed to be male 'ideals' – skinny with shiny hair, big boobs and a submissive approach to doing anything he wants. However, this narrow view of male desire does not represent the diverse male population either – and therefore does a disservice to both genders. With the rise of technology, particularly the internet, porn has become much more accessible and widespread, leaking into the mainstream and portraying these unrealistic examples of women as 'normal', natural and, most importantly, ideal.

Don't get me wrong. I am not universally opposed to the porn industry. But its integration into the mainstream causes me concern. According to internet-filter-review.com, 12% of websites are pornographic, along with 25% of total search engine requests and 35% of downloads. Research indicates that the average age of first exposure to internet pornography is 11, with 90% of 8-16 year olds having viewed internet pornography and 80% of 15-17 year olds having multiple hard-core exposures. Porn is everywhere. It has crept its way into mainstream culture, polluting the media, eroding women's self-esteem and ensuring the continuation of patriarchy. For example, music videos by female artists such as the Pussycat Dolls and Christina Agulara or the male artist Eric Prydz all portray women (whether the artists themselves or actors) in a very overtly, narrowly sexual way.

Another hugely popular form of media is lads' mags. Male friends of mine fantasise about marrying Lucy Pinder and glamour models have reached a celebrity status – most people could name at least one. But are these magazines good for our society as a whole? Most people would probably argue that these magazines pose no real threat to society. I would agree to an extent. Sexually explicit pictures are fine in their own place. Keep Loaded, Nuts, Playboy and Zoo on the top shelf. But restrict these pictures to that and ban them from national newspapers including Page Three and the Sunday Sport. Let newspapers contain the news, and porn mags the porn. Women constantly see these images and are instinctively comparing themselves to a collection of overly airbrushed objects of male desire. I was saddened to read the article on this site by Hannah Whittaker which showed the powerful effect imagery like this can have in contributing to her eating disorders. However, I disagree with her on one point: I believe that the women who become glamour models and porn stars have a right to do so should that be their chosen career path. Going out there and getting a career doing something they love and are in control of (presuming that is the case) is worthy of respect and they should and hopefully do have respect for themselves. Surely that's what the past generations of women have been fighting for.

My attention turned to the group of women sitting at the table next to me. They were professional, 30-something women sat there with their mugs of black coffee, they shared diet tips and chattered non-stop about beauty products, even cooing for some time over a supposedly 'revolutionary' night cream one of them had just bought (not something I hope I could ever find myself getting excited about).

Would they be sat there comparing diet tips and cosmetics as though they were a gift from God had the media not been saturating them with such ideas? Doubtful

Their behaviour made me think more about the girls' magazine. I can hardly say I was enthused by the articles telling me what I should wear, how I should apply my makeup and the best way to lose half a stone in two weeks. To be honest, I'm happy with my bit of mascara and size 12 figure, even though magazines portray anyone over a size eight as bordering on clinical obesity. When Wolf was writing in 1991, the diet industry was worth $33 billion a year, the cosmetics industry $20 billion a year and cosmetic surgery $300 million a year. These statistics are immense; however in the 17 years since then the diet industry has tripled its value and is now worth $100 billion a year. The Independent reported in 2006 that the cosmetic surgery industry was worth in excess of £539 million in the UK alone and in 2003 The Guardian reported the cosmetics industry to be worth over £4.5 billion in the UK. How is it that these industries have become so successful? They feed off the anxieties and insecurities of women. They portray an 'ideal', coaxing women into wanting to be that way, and then make their money from women's continuous efforts, but guaranteed failure, to achieve this 'ideal'.

The saddest thing of all is that this works. The women I overheard in the coffee shop clearly had poor body images. Would they be sat there comparing diet tips and cosmetics as though they were a gift from God had the media not been saturating them with such ideas? Doubtful. It is because of the constant bombardment by the media of this 'ideal' woman and the extensive advice and lifestyle tips on how to get there. Then consider the TV programmes dedicated towards 'fixing' women's appearance. 10 Years Younger, instead of advising women on feeling good about themselves, draws very public and humiliating attention to women's 'bad' bits and attempts to 'cure' them with painful cosmetic surgery and extensive make-over procedures. She's lost her natural individuality but at least she looks like a Barbie doll! Barbies which were, by the way, modelled on a German sex doll.

It is hard to imagine that these are genuine facts, however this is the grim reality of our society and children do have access to completely inappropriate and potentially damaging material. A 2008 episode of Child of our Time showed that girls as young as eight already have poor body image. The reason? According to the girls: music videos, magazines and even Bratz dolls were creating poor body image and a desire for the thin 'ideal' beauty presented. Alesha Dixon struggled to get an un-airbrushed photograph of herself into a magazine earlier this year (documented in the BBC programme Alesha: Look but don't touch). This programme helped highlight the potentially damaging consequences the media has on young girls' self-image. Children are not old enough to know that the images they are saturated with do not reflect reality.

I feel that the media, particularly the way porn is becoming mainstreamed and the extent of the beauty industry, is undermining the progress made by feminists. Women before us have achieved massive breakthroughs: we exercise our right to vote and have sex with people we choose to, take control of our own contraception, play the sports men do and have access to education and jobs across all industries. Yet despite these achievements the media still has this huge power over women who are made to feel insecure and inadequate as they compare themselves to glorified images. When women are in control and free from exploitation, participating in pornography is fine. I believe the pornography industry as a whole, in the right place at the right time, is fine.

I do, however have serious issues with pornography seeping into popular culture through the media and believe the only way to prevent this is for women to reject these impossible ideals and accept themselves as they are. As a society we have a responsibility to promote health and encourage positive body image.

About the author

Anna-Kate

Anna-Kate is an A-level student, judo player and feminist

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