My Final Project: How the Media Influences Body Image

Young, exaggeratedly thin, and white are the typical images of female beauty that proliferate the media. The media reinforces the ideology that a woman in order to be considered beautiful must fit into all these categories. The media is therefore a powerful institution that influences young women through producing and sharing images and videos of women who conform to the thin beauty ideal. The media through its advertising channels perpetuates unrealistic beauty standards and reinforces the beauty myth.

These standards are completely unrealistic, which is why they create a culture of body dissatisfaction and body dysmorphic disorder. Therefore, I question why the media does this if it is so harmful to women. Naomi Wolf argues that the beauty myth is a reaction towards the advancement of women because of feminist ideals. Naomi Wolf describes that “inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret ‘underlife’ poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control” (Wolf, 1990).

This violent backlash against feminism and female empowerment through these standards is destructive to women, young women in particular. Women psychologically compare themselves to others to create a benchmark of what is consider acceptable and a norm of female beauty through the social comparison processes. Women compare themselves to each other and to the “encountered mass-mediated thin ideals, which elicits negative consequences” (Arendt, Peter, Beck, 2017). The reason for these comparison processes is for self-evaluation, which is because people look to others to evaluate their abilities or assess how the behave in social situations (Gibbons, Blanton, Gerrard, Buunk, & Eggleston, 2000). Self-improvement is the other reason for social comparison processes because “in order to gain insight into how to become better, people compare themselves with others who are better off; in other words, they engage in upward comparisons” (Arendt, Peter, & Beck, 2017).

These processes create a culture where a woman is dissatisfied with her actual self and therefore constantly works towards her idealized self, and if that is unachievable, than she works towards her ought self. These multiple selves means that a woman is never happy with her body; “…thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal” (Wolf, 1990).

If the main goal of a woman is to lose weight, I question how can she ever be fulfilled and satisfied with her life because she is constantly focusing on her body and her beauty. This culture works to undermine women through the comparison to idealized thin beauty because women are socialized to compare to this perceived norm.

It is proven that body dissatisfaction and body dysmorphic disorder develop as a result of the widespread thin beauty standards, which is destructive to women, young women in particular (Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008). College women positively linked feeling better about themselves if they looked like the beauty standards that the media perpetuates (Engeln-Maddox, 2006). College women’s internalization of these standards led to them reacting that adherence to the beauty ideals would make their lives better (Engeln-Maddox, 2006).

Therefore, we must focus on spreading messages of body positivity in the media to create a better culture where young women and women in general can appreciate their bodies and their beauty for its natural state. Dove has championed the body positivity movement through its “Real Beauty” campaign. Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign presents real American women using their products instead of advertising a overtly thin celebrity or model or a digitally altered woman.

One of Dove’s “Real Beauty” advertisements

Dove started this campaign in 2005 and it immediately generated positive reactions. Dove displays women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities using their products. Dove markets the idea that all women are beautiful in their own way, especially if they use Dove products.

Dove has rebranded, rebuilt, and redefined beauty standards and women’s self-esteem (Millard, 2009). Real women were asked about their reactions towards the “Real Beauty” campaign and they felt that the campaign was extremely positive (Millard, 2009). Dove therefore accomplished its goal of marketing its products effectively by creating a niche within the market as a brand that cares about all women through dismantling beauty standards.

Another “Real Beauty” Advertisement

Dove’s campaign is an example of “feminist consumerism,” which is the marketing and encouragement of using Dove  products through exemplifying how the company values women and their bodies (Johnson & Taylor, 2008). Dove has pioneered the body positivity movement because it was one of the first companies to market using feminist consumerism.

 

Other brands jumped on this promotion of feminist consumerism. JCPenny launched the #HereIAm campaign in 2016 to promote body positivity and their new collaboration with Ashley Tipton, a plus-size fashion designer. The campaign shares the stories of a multitude of women who are all body positivity activists. GabiFresh, a prominent fashion blogger, Jes Baker, an author and body activist, Mary Lambert, a Grammy nominated singer-songwriter, Valerie Sagun, a yoga practitioner and self-love enthusiast, and Ashley Tipton, a fashion designer, are all featured in the campaign. JCPenny shares these women’s stories to promote the message that all women, regardless of their size, deserve to feel beautiful and worthy. Moreover, the #HereIAm campaign reclaimed the notion of ‘fat girls.’ Through embracing this term, the women in the video and the campaign attempts to destigmatize it.

JCPenny is utilizing feminist consumerism through acknowledging the need for fashionable, stylish, and trendy plus-size clothing. Plus-size fashion is a growing market because it has routinely been ignored by the fashion industry, which is why the collaboration with Tipton is a profitable venture for JCPenny. Moreover, the social stigma that JCPenny is attempting to dismiss is important to recognize because the company is embracing body positivity.

An #AerieREAL advertisement

Another campaign of body positivity is Aerie Real. #AerieREAL is a campaign and movement for the company to no longer photoshop or retouch the models’ bodies. Aerie employs plus-size models, like Iskra Lawrence and Barbie Ferreira, to model their lingerie to show that women of all shapes and sizes are worthy, attractive, and sexy.

The campaign promotes confidence through celebrating women of all sizes. The company also streamlined online shopping through releasing a more comprehensive fit guide for their bras, so customers can see how the product looks on women of all sizes. This campaign and emphasis on fit has improved the company’s profitability tremendously. The #AerieREAL campaign through recognizing the need to promote body positivity has been extremely successful in doing so.

Victoria’s Secret problematic advertisement

Lane Bryant is a pioneering retail brand that focuses on plus-size clothing. The company embraces its customers natural sizes and encourages body acceptance and positivity. Through the #ImNoAngel campaign, the company is directly countering Victoria’s Secrets Angels and their thin body ideal that they have and promote.Victoria’s Secret has marketed their “Perfect Body” bras with their extremely thin models and is a brand that perpetuates the thin body ideal. Through opposing Victoria’s Secret, Lane Bryant is promoting the idea that the VS Angels represent unrealistic beauty standards.

Lane Bryant’s campaign

The #ImNoAngel campaign has had over 19 billion media impressions, meaning it has made a tremendous impact in the body positivity movement. The #ImNoAngel campaign features prominent plus-size model and body positivity activist Ashley Graham. Ashley Graham in her Ted Talk ‘Plus Size? More like my size” said, ““I had a greater purpose to redefine beauty. The feminine beauty. Curvy models are becoming more and more vocal about the isolating nature of the term plus size. We are calling ourselves what we want to be called: women with shapes that are our own. I believe beauty is beyond size.” Her participation in the Lane Bryant campaign is therefore impactful. Danielle Brooks, a Tony-nominated actresss, Candice Huffine, a model who has walked in New York Fashion Week, and Denise Bidot, a body positivity activist, are all featured in this powerful campaign. 

Dove, JCPenny, Aerie, and Lane Bryant are all making important strides towards body positivity and reversing the culture of the beauty myth. Through the feminist consumerism these brands are increasing the representation of all women so when young women view this content they can no longer internalize the thin beauty ideal.

While these brands have worked towards encouraging self-acceptance and body positivity, it is important to note that they are still marketing a product to the general public. Through using this media trend, the companies are capitalizing on the feminist movement and therefore profiting. While I believe this is an important caveat about these advertisements, I recognize that every form of advertising on the media is trying to sell me something because we live in a consumerist culture. Therefore, I do not want to dismiss the actual progress that these campaigns make because they are working towards dismantling the thin body ideal. We are constantly seeing advertisements on the media and I find it to be more important if those advertisements represent real women, rather than focusing on how these feminist consumerism campaigns market products. We must create a culture of body positivity and acceptance before we can criticize how the companies capitalize on the feminist movement because the media has the power to influence women and these messages will affect young women tremendously.