Fatal Perfume: Media Representations of women

A man and woman are draped over one another as they lay in bed, dressed in little to no clothing as the two are covered only by the thin material of a bed sheet. The lighting, a contrasting match up of dark blue and pale silver accentuates the couples’ fare skin and the women’s red, glossy lips. The woman’s shimmering blonde locks are spread flawlessly on the pillow as she reaches her hand to brush the sun kissed cheek of her companion whose head is turned to the side, fixated on his lover. Her face seems as smooth as glass, her slender figure emphasized by the creases in the linen. There are no words spoken; only the gentle hum of soft music can be heard. The pair gazes longingly at one another before becoming enwrapped in each other’s heated embrace. Suddenly, the woman’s head turns as if to face an onlooker; a smile plays upon her sharp features, inviting the viewer to partake in the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the two sexually entwine themselves – lips to lips, flesh against flesh.

Shockingly, this is not a scene taken from a film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, author of the romantic drama, The Notebook. This is a… Lancôme perfume commercial, a commercial dripping with sex appeal that is ultimately designed to generate consumer profits by playing upon the desires of the audience – the desire to be beautiful and have an attentive lover. The perfume’s common, although somewhat complex, marketing strategy is contingent upon two primary factors: viewer identification and body image dissatisfaction. The target audience, namely women, insert themselves into the role of female on the screen. This is accomplished easily as it is only the woman who looks directly at the camera and, by extension, the audience.

Essentially the female viewer becomes the woman thereby vicariously enjoying her beauty, as the viewer is likely a woman whose body type deviates from the ideal image that screen projects, and the handsome lover at her side.  However, this effect is only temporary, lasting only as long as the commercial itself and relegating the viewer back to their own image which in light of recent visual stimuli is now regarded negatively. As the commercial implies, the only way for the viewer to achieve the ideal permanently is to buy the product in question.

Advertisers, thus, link beauty and sexuality with capitalism, fueling the myth that the ideal life can be bought and sold (Huang & Moradi). This seemingly innocuous marketing strategy, however, creates disastrous effects. The rise of the digital age has left society “stranded in the epoch [of a] visual culture” (Hirschman, Impett, & Schooler) where images have become the main elements that “constitute and influence people’s thoughts, societal trends, cultural beliefs, and patterns of representation” (Hirschman, Impett, & Schooler).Whether a person is flipping through a magazine, reading a Facebook post, or watching film and/or television, consumer culture has become saturated with images of physical perfection.

Images are constructed by the industries of the mass media for mainstream consumption; the main purpose of a film star or model is to generate a profit (Fredrickson & Roberts 4). Thus, audience participation is crucial; if the image does not resonate with the social attitudes of society, then the image is not successful (Butler 6).These images endorse society’s fixation with an unattainable, rigid standard of beauty while contributing to the escalation of body dismorphic disorder along with negative self-esteem among individuals who feel inadequate because they cannot achieve this level of perfection – they are relegated as “unattractive or abnormal” (Butler 6). Thus, the need to emulate the ideal image increases. Cosmetics and other beauty products along with dieting remedies have skyrocketed in the past thirty years, and despite, the recent economic recession, show no signs of slowing down (Calogero; Nelson).

Furthermore, the advent of photo-manipulation and postproduction techniques increases the impact of these images as the beauty being depicted lacks any basis. Images (figures 1-3), are now enhanced to brighten eyes and lips, highlight hair, slim waist, remove blemishes and wrinkles, and smooth out skin tone. Be it in print, web-based, or film mediums, physical appearance is now modified so that no imperfection can be seen (figure 3); actresses and models are air-brushed to perfection in order to conform to and ultimately sell the ‘ideal image.’ Thus, the standard for beauty has become impossible to attain because the images are not real but rather digitized.

Yet, while the images which pervade the mass media portray an unrealistic and synthetic vision of physical perfection, the power and influence these images retain over society remains strong- particularly amongst women (Bartkey). Although, the objectification of physical appearance within the mass media applies to both genders (figure 4), women have been identified as being more significantly affected by the images of consumer culture. This is largely due to the lack of visibility of women who do not conform to the ideal image as represented through advertisement and film.

Whereas men are offered a variety of body types, exemplified through the contrasting appeal of celebrity icons such as Seth Rogen, Jesse Eisenberg, Vin Diesel, or Keanu Reeves within the media, women are relegated to a very specific standard- young, ultra-thin and of course, blemish free; specific hair color is no longer a concern as the blonde fetish is gradually losing momentum via the famed looks of Angelina Jolie and, the most recent amongst teenagers, Kristen Stewart. This standard is glorified within the mass media, and, within the eyes of the consumers, becomes correlated with happiness and normalcy: the beautiful woman has a great lover, loving friends, and gets the job (Nelson). Thus, anyone deviating from the ideal blames their lack of both material and intangible treasures on their appearance, increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and negative sense of self amongst female consumers (Calogero; Nelson; Tiggermann).

The media’s pervasive focus on the ideal, tricks women into believing that the images they encounter, though digitized, constitute a reality whereby the ideal beauty is believed to be the norm rather than the exception. This is accomplished through repeated exposure to unrealistic images, where by social comparison, women look toward the media for references of identification – those images who resemble a perfected version of themselves and gradually lose the ability to distinguish between fabricated beauty and reality; the ideal then becomes the measuring standard by which women judge themselves.

Therefore, women who have been socialized through media consumption to base their value and self worth completely on their appearance, prune, pluck, conceal, and even vomit in an effort to attain the ideal look. Research suggests that media’s emphasis on physical appearance directly correlates to the rise of negative body images and depression amongst women beginning at early ages and continuing into adulthood. “Ultra thin models with perfect skin are so prominent that exposure to them becomes unavoidable and ‘chronic’ constantly reinforcing a discrepancy for most women and girls between their actual appearance and the ideal body” (Calogero; Nelson).

Combining national surveys and interviews, researchers have discovered that nearly half of the female population from ages six through eight in the United States have expressed desires to be slimmer while only 1/6th of the boys expressed similar wishes (Fredrickson & Roberts). Other studies report that nine to twelve percent of females from ages fifteen to twenty nine could be considered anorexic and/ or bulimic against six to eight percent of their male counterparts (Fredrickson & Roberts). An estimated two thirds of adolescent females within the Unites States also report frequent dieting and cosmetic usage (Nelson). Furthermore a study conducted by Tiggermann discovered that not only are women more likely to be affected by the media but that women are more likely to consume images of the ideal body. In his study, he found that “eighty three percent of teenage girls reported reading fashion magazines for about 4.3 hours a week” (Tiggermann); such exposure directly correlated with higher rates in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, body shame, and insecurity, creating an epidemic amongst women as they stare into the mirror.

Questions of identity, of belonging dominate women in American society as they learn to value themselves solely based upon appearance, and more often times than not, the image which stares back at them fails to measure up to the standards of perfection reflecting from the mass media (Tiggermann). However, the media’s focus on ideal beauty shapes not only women’s conception of what their body image should reflect but also shapes attitudes concerning women within society (Nelson). For instance, the media’s emphasis on a woman’s appearance socializes both genders to view women as nothing more than sexual objects; this is accomplished through the media’s preoccupation with what is termed as the male gaze.

Essentially, images of women produced by the media, which is largely governed by men, are governed by the male perspective where the female becomes the object of male fetishism in order counteract the inherent threat of castration that women with their lack of phallus represent (Kaplan; Mulvey). This “overt sexualization” (Nelson) not only teaches men and women that women exist only to please men, but also diminishes women’s ability to be taken seriously (Nelson) and, ultimately, serves to keep women subordinate to men (Kaplan). An examination of women in politics and news discourse provides a clear example of this as women such as Katie Couric or Hillary Clinton are repetitively framed in sexualized terms; the press focuses on their appearance, their style of clothes, their emotional presentation rather than the job they should be performing (Nelson). Thus, women with power fall under greater criticism than men- criticism that is largely based on appearance.

However, the objectification of women within the media is nothing new; indeed, the defining and exploitation of beauty has always been intricately entwined with the media. Yet, historically, the standards of beauty were achieved through the cosmetics and fashion whereas currently the trend of airbrushing and photo manipulation and the rise of the digital age have made determining illusion from reality nearly impossible – creating even more damaging effects on the female consciousness (Nelson). If, as the media demonstrates, women are defined by their ability to replicate the ideal image than the female identity within America is lost in translation. The rise of postproduction techniques has led some critics to call for government action, to censor material available to the public and thus allow women the chance to have positive images within the media (Nelson).

 Several countries within Europe have already begun to restrict the ability of advertisements, film and television to produce heavily photo-shopped images, enforcing strict disclaimers for advertisements and new covers featuring real women in magazines (Nelson). In England, for example, an advertisement featuring the forty-two year old actress, Rachel Weise, was removed for being directly misleading; the advertisement for L’Oreal skin cream featured the actress with absolutely smooth skin, enlarged eyes and lips (figure 2). Government action within America, despite the research demonstrating the harm of these images, has yet to take a stand – fearing that such censorship would violate the first amendment and the commerce clause of the constitution (Nelson). The only bill passed which even approaches the issue of images, aside from limiting sexually explicit content from children, within the media is the Healthy Media for Youth Act of 2011 (United States, H.R. 2513, Healthy Media for Youth Act); this act establishes that the government recognizes that the media has an effect upon women and girls, but does not specify the degree of the effect upon women and allocates grants to be made for further research.

Thus, the federal government’s only action is exposure – the youth and media act conceded that the media has a significant impact but has yet to address the impact directly (United States, H.R. 2513, Healthy Media for Youth Act).  However, on a more local level, the state of Arizona introduced a bill, proposed by representative Hobbs, which elaborates upon section five of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1993 that mandates advertising provide disclosures for consumer protection (United States. Cong, H.R. 2243) by mandating the use of disclaimers on any digitally enhanced or manipulated image in advertising (Arizona State HB 2793). This bill which representative Hobbs hoped would stem the growing epidemic of the negative effects of media upon women, failed to pass (Nelson).

Advocates of government policies to curb the influence of the media, regarding images and objectification of women cut across both the Democratic and Republican parties, though both political groups have their own reasons (Nelson). Liberals attack the images in media for their anti-feminist messages which teach both genders to value women solely based upon appearance while conservatives rally against the overt sexual content which advertisements, film, television, and other forms of media convey (Nelson).

While government actions limiting images in the media, mandating the use of disclaimers of digitally enhanced images, would reasonably reduce the mass production of ideal beauty and, by extension, reduce the levels in which women strive to achieve ideal beauty; government action would set a dangerous precedent (Nelson). As opponents of government action restricting the media often cite, restricting the media more often than not translates into censorship which violates the freedoms established in the first amendment of the constitution; this argument is the same reason that government has taken very minimal action in regulation the internet (Nelson).

Ultimately due to the dangers of inciting censorship, government policies restricting the types of images are not the solution. Changing the images, themselves, does not change the attitudes which make the images popular; the pervasiveness of these images and the common representation of women as sexualized objects that the images are associated with is attributed to simple principles of supply and demand- if the images were not demanded by the public, then the images would not sell. Thus, society’s conception of women must change before consumer culture will change; this will not happen through restricting the media. It is only through increasing media literacy that the effects of the media’s representation of women will be lessened.

Women need to realize that the images seen in media do not reflect real women, and that the value of a woman does not lie in her appearance. Thus, women need to stop feeding the machine; they need to stop giving images power over them. Understanding the media is imperative as it is only through media literacy that women will become aware of the media’s power to shape their sense of self and properly be able to combat that influence by constructing their own identity- separate from the media.

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