Sunday, November 08, 2009

How Women Look

Unhealthy body images abound. There are women in magazines vs. women in real life. On one hand, the women in magazines are often extremely thin or unnaturally proportioned (more on that in a moment). On the other hand, women in real life are often overweight.

I'm sure that many of you have seen this video from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. It's always worth a look:

Have you also been following the flap over professional model Phillipa Hamilton? She says she was fired by Ralph Lauren for being too fat ("You no longer fit into our clothes") despite the fact that she says her weight has not fluctuated over the 8 years of her employment.

Maybe that's not so wrong in the fashion industry. And she hasn't sued her former employer for wrongful termination. The way the situation became public was when Ralph Lauren released an advertisement featuring Hamilton in which she was photoshopped to humanly impossible proportions. Her head was bigger than her pelvis.

I've heard graphic artists defend this sort of photoshopping by talking about the difference between art and reality. But when it comes to marketing images, it seems obvious to me that the line is less fluid. If you want to create interesting conceptual art depicting humanoid creatures and display it on the wall of a gallery, have at it, man. But if you want to sell actual clothes to actual women and the picture proports to a photograph of a woman wearing the clothes, well it should probably do so!

In the process of manufacturing images from photographs and blurring the line between art and marketing, the artist is shaping what we as a society see as attractive.

Shouldn't a marketing campaign show the product itself in its most flattering light, rather than creating a product that does not - and can not - exist? Does that not come dangerously close to the idea of false marketing? In fashion, make great clothes and show them on tall skinny models, we get that. But to take those tall, skinny models and digitally alter them still further? This crosses a line, in my opinion.

For the record, this is how Ralph Lauren photoshopped Phillipa Hamilton.  And this is how she looks in another photo.  (Google her or watch the video below for more.)

Hamilton is 5'10" tall and 120 pounds, which gives her a BMI of 17.2 - officially underweight. "Healthy" starts at a BMI of 18.5. (In order to hit the bottom of a healthy BMI range, Hamilton would have to gain nine pounds.)

There are problems with BMI as a tool for determining if one is overweight or obese in part because it doesn't take muscle mass or frame size into consideration. My husband and I often joke that if he achieved what our Wii Fit suggests as a healthy weight for him, he'd no longer be capable of performing all the exercises it offers.

Similarly, when I am at what is - for me - a very healthy, strong, fit, attractive weight, my BMI is on the cusp between "healthy" and "overweight." Yet at that weight I am by no stretch of the imagination "fat" and if I were to lose additional weight, much of it would be muscle!

"In the developed world anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic condition of adolescence."

Yet the vast majority of "health" coverage in the media related to children and weight is about obesity. And the media reports themselves are fueled by advertisements promoting unhealthily thin women and girls.

So what is fair? Surely, companies should be allowed to use create artwork to sell their products. My suggestion is that when photos are edited beyond the retouching of blemishes, there should be a disclaimer on the image itself.

And we consumers need to be more conscientious about voting against these practices with our dollars.


Anonymous said...

I stumbled on your blog while searching for "Houdini," as I'm a magician - but you make a strong point. The only way to stop these exploitative ads is to stop buying from the exploiters.
In raising our daughter we've never focused on her appearance - she's a wonderful girl with brains, talent and character - but parents can't control all the negative ads out there. But we can stop buying these products - and teach our kids how they're being manipulated. Thanks!

Sarahlynn said...

Glad you stumbled on over! My girls would LOVE to have you at one of their parties if only we lived in NYC; they are forever pulling coins from ears and otherwise obsessed with magic tricks. And balloon animals. And humor. (The little one is actually pretty good. She tends to hide the coin in her waistband and reach behind her back for it before the big reveal, but that's inventive for a two-year-old!)

I think awareness a big deal for kids and advertising awareness. When they're very young they can't tell the difference between entertainment and advertisement. Later, they don't know how much effort goes into making each shot perfect. And many grown-ups still have no idea that the ads are actually fake!

Anonymous said...

It's a tough question--and, I think, part of a larger question. Plenty of companies market to us in odious ways. They do this because it works. It's like negative advertising in political campaigns; everyone's against it, except it's completely effective.

I dunno if we need regulation or education, though. I'm pretty much a First Amendment fanatic, I think the solution to bad speech is good speech. So I guess I think the answer to crappy ads like this is the media making Ralph Lauren the butt of a thousand jokes and investigative reports.

But relying on the media for intelligence is like relying on unicorns for transportation.

insights said...

I want to thank you for posting this. I just spoke at a marketing conference in DC and I talked about this very issue. Your readers might be interested to know that although 85% of women feel like marketers don't get them (and according to research I just did, 60% of women still feel stereotyped by advertising) 97% of all ads are made by men. That's because only 3% of the creative directors at our nation's agencies are women. Do you think there might be a correlation? I used to one of that 3% but now I'm trying to change things in a different way by getting out of the system.

Sarahlynn said...

Bingol, I don't think edited images should be prohibited, but I don't think that labeling them as what they are interferes with free speech. It's not so different from labeling genetically engineered beef. Labels help consumers make educated buying decisions.

Most of us don't "rely" on advertising for much, but it seeps into our consciousness all the same.

Insights, thanks for posting! Apparently the show MAD MEN is fabulous, but I've never watched it. I've heard lots about its "period appropriateness" and how the shows gets it all just right. But I don't think we've really come far enough from those days for me to be excited about romanticizing the sexist culture of advertising agencies in the 60's.

(Full disclosure: I used to work in marketing, though in a very niche area.)

Krupskaya said...

I remember in grade school having units (in social studies, maybe? reading?) about advertising and the different kinds of advertising tricks marketers use to make you want to buy. I think that kind of curriculum is hugely helpful. I'm constantly pointing out things in ads to my kids.

Sarahlynn said...

Krupskaya, I love that you learned about this stuff in elementary school. Very cool.

Most tricks I learned were of the educational/how-to variety.

Krupskaya said...

We learned about celebrity endorsements, persuasion, exaggeration, pricing tricks, false sense of urgency, the usefulness of jingles, and so on. We had to make our own commercials using different tactics ("Make up a 30-second commercial using persuasion, pricing, and a jingle to sell a food product") and we got to film them, which was the shizzle back in the early 80s. This was actually at two schools in two different towns. Consumer education is SO IMPORTANT, IMO, along with all the other stuff that's important and isn't being taught. So I try to do my part for my kids.

Sarahlynn said...

Fabulous. Just fabulous. I can't believe I've been doing the ostrich thing with my kids. (Tivo allows me to pretend that they don't see ads when of course they do.) Time to step up my game.

Carmie said...

I actually just finished the book Fat!So? (got it at the SLPL). Incredible book for EVERYONE, not just those who think about body image issues (although I think EVERYONE thinks about body image). The author does a great job discussing why fat can be healthy and to let people come in all sizes. Definitely recommend--quick, fun read.

Sarahlynn said...

I need to add that to my To Be Read pile. I recently heard a fabulous news report about different body types and metabolisms, underscoring how some people can eat healthfully, exercise plenty, and still look "fat" while others can be thin but unhealthy. (One of my best friends is thin but never exercises and loves McDonald's French Fries.) We as a society judge so much based on appearances.