I was in a local shopping mall a while ago and two girls who couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 walked past me. Both were wearing makeup and dressed as if they were about to pose for a soft porn ad in Rolling Stone. I wasn’t even surprised. It just reconfirmed what I already knew about how girls are being sexualized at very early ages.
Advertising, saturating our mass media with sexualized images of young girls, is the primary culprit. Children also have access to sexually explicit computer websites and prime time programming in which young women most frequently have unblemished faces, thin bodies, and ample breasts. The message isn’t subtle, and the values implicitly being taught run contrary to any prescription for healthy psychological development.
Despite considerable advances in women’s rights, this emphasis on physical beauty and sexiness helps distort the self-image of girls. Bombarded with images that none of them can live up to, they are being programmed to be perpetually dissatisfied with how they look and dependent on certain products to make them feel attractive. Equally important, this trivializes who they are and should be, rather than encouraging the development of strong egos based on competence. It is certainly not the path to creating female leaders in our society.
Reversing the Cycle
Switch to this classroom scene. On the screen in the front is the image of a beautiful model in a magazine ad. The voice of the narrator says, “She has no lines or wrinkles, she certainly does not have any scars or blemishes, indeed, she has no pores!” The image of the airbrushed model that students are watching is from Jean Kilbourne’s video Killing Us Softly 4.
For homework that night the students find ads targeting women and girls in magazines, on the web and on TV, and bring them to class the next day. The ads are shared, with each student providing an interpretation of how the ad represents women. It’s the beginning of a two-week Social Studies unit on “The Portrayal of Women in the Media.”
The curriculum can be and should be duplicated in various forms in every school in the U.S.
While my focus here is on women, especially as we mark Women’s Equality Day this week, this also affects men, both their own self-images and how they perceive women. Any man searching for a perfect airbrushed woman is likely to end up disappointed or disillusioned. Additionally, men are also trivialized in advertising and often portrayed as macho sexual objects.
Society's Primary Manipulator
This is not peripheral stuff. It is critical. We become what we behold and American children are exposed to more than 15,000 ads a year. Advertising is the primary manipulator in our society. While education focuses on helping children learn how to make the right choices for themselves, to become effective both personally and professionally, and to develop as good strong leaders, advertising is designed to control choices in a way that almost invariably works contrary to the best goals of education.
Take a peek into another classroom. Following a viewing of the film The Ad and the Ego, students have worked in pairs to create a video in which each student has looked in a mirror and described what they see. Many of the students have focused on being overweight or skinny, having hair that they don’t like, or facial blemishes, or, as one student notes, “a nose that’s a little too long and really big lips.” The purpose, as illustrated in The Ad and the Ego, is to have them truly accept how they look and to illustrate how much of they have been influenced by how they think they should look.
Both Killing Us Softly 4 and The Ad and the Ego should be required viewing in every secondary school. There are also study guides available online for both films. Here are PDF study guides for Killing Us Softly 4, and The Ad and the Ego (free downloads).
I haven’t had an opportunity to see the film Miss Representation yet, but based on the description and the reviews it appears to do an excellent job of not only looking at the impact of advertising, but also of revealing mainstream media’s often disparaging portrayal of girls and women. It also examines how this sabotages women’s sense of power and potential for leadership.
I also highly recommend that parents and teachers read Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, by Jean Kilbourne, for many more ideas on how to protect our children.
Make the Difference
Restricting television viewing and/or computer access isn’t the answer. It is more likely to create rebellion than change children’s attitudes or behavior. When not at home, they’ll have the experience at a friend’s house. Fighting the peer culture is a losing battle. Media saturation is pervasive and inescapable.
But parents and teachers can make a big difference; especially through raising the consciousness of children regarding the messages they are being sent. Both girls and boys need to learn how the messages and images of television advertising devalue and exploit them, and how they can protect themselves.
This is critical as we reach for the goal of helping our children develop into adults who will be effective in both their personal and professional lives.