I first appeared on television in 2009 (at which point I’d been going into schools for just over a year and felt I had something to say about young people and their self-esteem). This may surprise those who seem to be under the impression I suddenly ‘popped up from nowhere’ about a year ago (FYI this hardly ever happens. Like musicians and actors, pundits seldom suddenly get ‘discovered’).
In seven years I have, I believe, gained quite a good understanding of how media operates (although it still baffles me sometimes, to be honest). Generally, on any contentious current affairs related topic, newspapers and TV shows associate ‘balance’ with inviting pundits from the left and right, from traditional and progressive points of view, to debate a topic (slash hurl insults at one another). Think Julia Hartley Brewer –v- Owen Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos –v- Kate Smuthwaite or Kate Hopkins –v- Thinking Humans Everywhere.
It makes for great entertainment, although not always a clear understanding – since the truth so often dwells in the shades of grey between the black and white.
When it comes to body image and mental health, I find the lack of nuance or ability to portray the complexities of the situation incredibly frustrating – Never more so than last week during the debate over whether Sadiq Khan was right to ban body shaming ads from TFL.
In the red corner, we had all the usual suspects lining up to complain that this infantilizes women, that we’re smarter than that, that advertising doesn’t have the power to impact our self-esteem or our views about the world (ha!) and that this simply was not feminism. In the even redder corner, some far-right publications even went so far as to accuse Sadiq of trying to implement ‘sharia law’ in London via the back door. Both of these camps reverted to using ‘freedom of speech’ to justify their viewpoints.
In the blue corner some of us tried to point out that it just doesn’t work like that but we couldn’t because all the conversations around the move seemed to focus solely on the now infamous Protein World advert. Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll be aware of the ‘Are you Beach Body Ready?’ weight loss posters which were ‘defaced’ (read: improved) by feminist protesters on the underground last summer.
Again and again, this poster was offered up for the delectation and dissection of radio and tv pundits who declared that they ‘could not see what was wrong with it’. The woman, whilst conventionally attractive and young, appears to be healthy, they said. It’s inspiring. The women who object to it are ‘just jealous’.
So let me try and break this down for you.
First of all – advertising is not the same as ‘free speech’. Advertisers have an agenda and that is to make us feel as though our bodies, wardrobe or life is substandard. They do this so we will buy their products in an attempt to make ourselves feel better.
Quite often, advertisers play into powerful existing social narratives to do this, for example the Madonna Whore Paradigm. They didn’t invent the idea that a woman who sleeps around is a slut and men who do it are heroes, but they do consistently reinforce it.
Free speech is giving everyone a voice. Allowing multi million pound corporations to wallpaper our world with titty pictures which support the notion that the ideal woman looks a bit like Barbie is not the same as free speech. If it were, we would have been consulted on this use of our public spaces.
Which brings me onto my second point – we don’t always notice they’re doing it. 90% of the brain is unconscious. We are only aware of a tiny proportion of what our minds are taking in. So of course if you take one advert in isolation and analyse it with your rational, conscious mind you will dismiss it as inconsequential. The unconscious mind is, however, less logical. It is where our prejudices, insecurities and fears live. Advertising plays on all of these and it is everywhere we turn. Usually, when we encounter advertising it is when we are at our most relaxed – walking around, on social media, watching TV – leisure activities are not generally conducive to critical thinking.
The impact of advertising is cumulative – It has become toxic by dint of the fact that it is everywhere. If you are interested in this, I recommend watching Dr Jean Kilbourne’s Youtube documentaries ‘Killing Us Softly’, which explains how the cumulative impact of advertising impacts our views of women.
And finally, advertising does work and it does impact how we feel about ourselves because if it didn’t, they wouldn’t do it. The only thing we are programmed to value aesthetically is facial symmetry. Everything else about what we find attractive in women is pretty much programmed by our culture, which is why beauty ideals vary so dramatically from one country to the next (and interestingly, why they are beginning to align with one another since the widespread global use of social media).
The very existence of plastic surgery for purely cosmetic purposes – the fact that someone would be willing to undergo a procedure which they’d otherwise only submit to if it were a medical emergency – attests to advertising efficacy in pushing a narrow beauty ideal.
I dislike the implication that people who allow their self-esteem or ideas about what constitutes attractiveness to be influenced by advertising are stupid.
The world is broadly divided into two groups of people – those who acknowledge that a huge part of our social identity is influenced by cultural ideals and those who don’t. And whilst I’d hesitate to call the latter ‘stupid’ they are, in the words of a scientist I was speaking to recently who uses her research to help advertisers manipulate human emotions, ‘profoundly delusional’.