“The media” gets a heavy dose of criticism when it gives us what we crave: Images of slim, hot women or buffed men. Most recently, Self magazine is taking the heat for placing a blatantly PhotoShopped image of zaftig singer Kelly Clarkson on its September 2009 cover. Advertising Age shares a videotape that features NBC’s medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman berating the publication’s head during a videotaped panel session on women’s images in the media. The editor, Lucy Danziger, defends this action because it’s consistent with Self’s message to its female readers: “…to be your all around best.” Hmm, perhaps with a little help from your friends… http://adage.com/video/article?article_id=139786
Is Self to blame for showing us what we expect to see? Fattism is deeply ingrained in our culture: As early as nursery school age, children prefer drawings of peers in wheelchairs, on crutches, or with facial disfigurements to those of fat children. During one recent two month period, four young Brazilian women died in widely publicized cases of anorexia, which sparked an international debate about body image and eating disorders. The first to die was a 21-year-old model who stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall but weighed slightly more than 80 pounds when she collapsed at a fashion shoot in Japan. In one survey, more than twice as many female respondents said they were concerned about their weight than about cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. Only 40 percent said they were satisfied with their physical appearance.
Can – or will – “the media” (whatever that is) change this predilection? In Spain, the government imposed a controversial ban on extremely thin models as measured by their body mass index, or BMI (a formula that takes into account both height and weight). It requires a BMI greater than 17.4 for female models younger than 18 years old, or 18.5 for models older than 18 years old. For a 5-foot, 9-inch model older than 18, that translates to a weight requirement of 126 pounds. Unilever, in turn, banned the use of so-called “size 0” models in its ads for products ranging from Lux shower gel and Sunsilk shampoo to Slim-Fast diet drinks.
In one of the most blatant (and effective) government-sponsored propaganda efforts in recent history, bureaucrats during World War II blanketed our country with images of Rosie the Riveter, a heavily-muscled factory worker who today might be more likely to make a guest appearance on “The L Word.” The campaign aimed to change women’s expectations about themselves and drive them from their homes into factories to take the place of their men who were otherwise occupied on the battlefield. Rosie’s success is but one illustration that “the media” can in fact engineer the way we think about ourselves. But, be careful what you wish for: Whoever is in charge gets to decide what a “desirable” body should be.
Adapted from Michael R. Solomon, Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having and Being 9th ed, Prentice Hall, to be published January 2010.