The impact of advertising on female identity

 “I buy them as a form of self abuse. They give me a weird mixture of anticipation and dread, a sort of stirred up euphoria. Yes! Wow! I can be better starting from this minute! Look at her! Look at her! But right afterward I feel like throwing all my clothes out and everything in my refrigerator and telling my boyfriend never to call me again and blowtorching my whole life. I’m ashamed to admit that I read them every month.”                                        The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf

Then why does she read them?

When perusing national broadsheets, tabloids, glossy magazines and regional newspapers in 2012, images of women are employed wholesale to challenge our understanding of what it is to be female in the modern day. From interviews with Jessica Ennis in Stylist magazine, to Florence Welsh in the Guardian, to Holly Willoughby in the Express or Josie Long in the Metro, women are propelled forward as icons for the sex, representing all we should aspire to (if you pick up a paper or not).

But take, for example, the Stylist feature with Jessica Ennis (1). Jess, currently in the spotlight for her astounding athletic achievements, is described as ‘one of Team GB’s brightest Olympic hopes’; she is a woman who has trained for 15 years to hopefully win an Olympic gold medal. This feature, standing alone, appears like a bright beacon for womankind, portraying a woman who is intelligent, dedicated, passionate and strong, who ‘lets her achievements do the talking’. But yet, scattered throughout the piece Ennis is, I feel, patronisingly made to show the traditional hallmarks of the insecure female psyche; she faces accusations of being ‘fat’ and quotes about body image are pressed out of her as the ‘face’ of Olay Essentials, “I always wear a bit of make-up to compete. If I feel I look nice it’ll help my performance”.

Why is it that women who achieve so much have to also, hand in hand, be obsessed about body image? Are we all so weak to have to aspire to ‘beauty’ and ‘perfection’? I don’t think so – I’m sure we can give ourselves a bit more credit. I think there’s something far more sinister about the way that advertising controls editorial content and the impact this will have on, mainly, the way women perceive themselves. As women are the main readers of women’s magazines, this is the sex’s issue, and becomes more about how women view each other rather than how women want to appear in the eyes of a potential lover.

Sadly, there always seems to be deep crossover in editorial and advertising in women’s magazines and as media outlets rely on the income that advertising generates, it seems women will never be able to take off the body paint and be truly celebrated for what they are.

Women’s magazines, from the Victorian age of periodicals, have achieved amazing feats for feminism – from Marie Stopes’ articles on birth control, sporting achievements and political news for women in ‘Shafts’ (1892-1900) to the ‘Females Friend’, a magazine that campaigned against female prostitution – and you can’t deny that seeing women profiled across 2012 media (in broadsheets, BBC4 Radio –let’s leave the tabloids and their unique portrayals of women out of this article!) is a good thing for keeping the female identity in the public eye.

However, I think the contradiction between editorial messages and advertising can be incredibly damaging and confusing for women. Just look at the messaging in these magazines, which I could read in a day:

“Imagine having nothing to hide”

“What’s your make-up age?”

“Forbidden Euphoria”

“This eye treatment with Anogiessus helps minimise the appearance of…”

An Origins advert will tell you that Anogiessus, a mystery chemical compound will ‘help’ get rid of crow’s feet and wrinkles (trusty Anogiessus!). I love the fact that Origins would try and bamboozle you with complicated words that, because they sound clever, must work. Grazia runs a feature shown above dissecting celebrities faces based on their ‘make-up age’, as if wearing make-up to look ‘healthier’ or ‘younger’ wasn’t enough! Calvin Klein advertises ‘forbidden euphoria’ as if women should chastise themselves for their sexuality, and Estee Lauder shouts ‘imagine having nothing to hide’ as if their makeup would take away signs of ageing and we should eternally be striving to hide or deny parts of ourselves. Bizarre when you really think about it!

Some adverts send out very strange messages indeed, and when the ink bleeds into editorial, profiles of female empowerment, such as Jessica Ennis’s interview in Stylist, become very confusing indeed.


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