New feature: Feminist progress – undermined by the media?

// 25 January 2009

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

“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.

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