The use of femininity as a means to selling consumer products has been in practice for centuries. From artful pinups of beautiful women in flowing gowns used to sell theatre tickets and spirituous beverages in early printing history to centerfold spreads selling anything from bourbon to nylon panty shields in today’s fashion and culture magazines, images of femininity have been exacted to serve consumer purposes throughout the history of advertising.
This is a condition with direct implications to the way that women are perceived by society, with the images projected in advertising often promoting unrealistic and rigid standards of female beauty, female sexuality and femininity altogether. The ultimate outcome is the realization that femininity as seen in advertising bears a reciprocal relationship with the way that women are seen and treated in society.
By viewing several print ads that apply specific ideas of femininity to their respective product interests, we can see that while the opportunity to examine femininity honestly has improved, there is yet an even greater opportunity in today’s unregulated media context to exploit feminine sexuality in increasingly destructive ways. To this latter point, we note that there are tangible impacts to the projection of unrealistically thin or glossy women such as the supermodels who generally populate the advertising world.
Particularly, the desire of ‘real women’ to more closely meet this standards can have the impact of inspiring eating disorders in women. To this point, “fifty-six percent of all women are on diets (Pipher, 1995) …and eighty percent of girls have dieted by the time they reach eighteen (Brown, 1993). ” (Waits, 1) This frequency does not correspond with the presence of obesity in women, but instead matches a sense of social pressure inclining women toward outsized views of themselves and their bodies in comparison to that which is seen in the media.
Young women in particular are bombarded by images which endorse a very narrow frame for that which can be considered female beauty. Though the advertising intent is to either entice women to reflect this beauty in their purchasing decisions or to use the allure of sexuality to manifest an attraction to certain consumer concepts amongst men, it is still quite a bit more often the case that the images and ideas presented will have the impact of influencing female self-image. This is, of course, not a new pattern.
Of the changing tenor regarding collective ideas about femininity, advertising has at least held consistently that femininity exists within a far narrower framework than what is actually present in society. The images which have been selected to assert femininity in the precise context which is advertising have typically conformed to contemporary archetypes of aesthetic beauty. Therefore, those selected to sponsor consumer products tend to take on a rather homogenous shared identity, which is in turn foisted upon women in the general public.
In contrast to the women who are handpicked to appeal to such qualities as thinness, shapeliness and appealing skin tone, women in the buying public exist across an infinite spectrum of physical features. The result of this discordance between sponsorship and target population is a feeling of discomfort amongst the latter with the failure to more closely resemble the former. Indeed, this could be observed a decade ago, just as it is the case today.
According to Lavine (1994), “women exposed to sexist ads judged their current body size as larger and revealed a larger discrepancy between their actual and ideal body sizes (preferring a thinner body) than women exposed to the nonsexist or no ad condition. ” (Lavine, 1049) In this case, sexist may be defined as a portrayal of women which is either objectifying or which demands that women conform to unrealistic standards of beauty.
To the purposes of this discussion, these are both important conditions, insofar as said characteristics are overwhelmingly present in advertising for consumer items targeting female consumers. As we enter into an analysis of such advertisements, we will find a set of strange paradoxes in which women are conveyed as objects of desire or objects of sheer sexuality within the context of ads targeting female consumers. Though it is clear that sex appeal has determinably marketable qualities, it is less clear that female consumers generally desire to be seen in this light.
In addition to the danger that an oversimplification of that which can be defined as femininity will cause widespread body-image crisis—and such correlated illnesses as eating disorders and correlated substance abuse issues—there is the real threat that the images forced upon women through advertisements produce a widespread acceptance of such roles as sexual subject, social submissive and, failing this, aggressive dominatrix. All fantasy forms associated with the sexual psyche of the male, these seem to reflect the interests of men even in the consumer habits of women.