I sat today in the windowless media room of our college library with my legs crossed and pink headphones tucked inside my ears. The woman on the screen told me that I am a slave to the commercials I’ve seen from ages 2 through 22. She drew out the lies of “liberation” plastered across billboards and glossy magazines–pointing to images of half-naked women twisted into power stance. Knees positioned at shoulder width and staring through smoldering eye make up into the camera, these “strong” women are punctuated with lines of emphatic jargon; “You have the right to remain sexy.”
Images and cultural texts like these tell us that stereotypical forms feminism are restrictive and unappealing–reserved for women with hairy legs and closets full of shapeless shifts. The woman with the bright red lips, photoshopped hips, and superwoman pose leads us to believe that adhering to the culturally prescribed (and unattainable) definition of beauty is in fact a form of resistance–refusal to be dominated by un-sexy feminism. The ad is filled with a subtext of “claiming” your body and writing your own rules about putting it on display. Objectification by choice.
How empowering is a choice to shape your body to one kind of beauty defined by a market that survives because of the $100 you spent on anti-aging, de-frizz, “enhancing,” “cover-up” products clinking against one another at the bottom of a branded plastic bag? A market that thrives because we hate our bodies?
These advertisers know what they are doing. Each full page advertisement and tailored side-bar window on your news feed is designed to provoke insecurity and a paradoxical feeling of control.
As I made my way through the 45 critically feminine minutes of scholar (and former model) Jean Kilbourne’s 2010 documentary Killing Us Softly 4, my thoughts bounced from middle school boyfriends to modern myths of feminism, “enlightened sexism,” and the carefully hidden and insidious presence of eating disorders in my high school hallways, track and cross country teams, and tangled mind. Like so many others, I’ve claimed that I ignore these ridiculous advertisements that objectify and de-humanize women–breaking them into fragments and selling their digitized curves (or twiggy limbs.)
I see this image and I am reminded of the lists and excuses and twisted games that filled my own head for years. I was never diagnosed as an anorexic, but I thought like one. I walked through the cafeteria like a girl on eggshells. Like the woman in this ad, I exercised to “make up” for especially high calorie “treats.” I ran through lists of foods after every meal and before bed–making sure that I was being “good,” always plotting the contents of the next plate.
I compared my body to the girls in the lanes next to me at track meets mercilessly. When it came to cross country running, the skinniest girls always seemed to cross the finish line first.
In time, I recognized how destructive and depressing these trains of thoughts were. I accepted that these obsessive feelings and threads of impossible perfectionism did not make me stronger, but weakened me in both body and mind. I’ve watched as too many girls I love have fallen at the hand of invisible and needling messages worked into the deepest corners of consciousness.
Jean Kilbourne frames the soft killing performed by the corporations and media that rule our lives as a “public health problem.” She tells us that we must become “a public that thinks of itself primarily as citizens rather than consumers.” She hopes that some day we will uniformly devote our passion to people over products and celebrity aspiration. Kilbourne relates to us–admitting that it is not wrong to want to be attractive and sexy. What is wrong is to put an emphasis (at incredibly young ages,) on the exclusion of other important qualities and aspects. Listening to this particular point, I was reminded of a video created by famously successful “mommy blogger” Rebecca Woolf (AKA Girl’s Gone Child)
Rebecca poses a question, and theorizes that the harm is not done if she (as a mother) is careful to emphasize the “Awesome” traits her daughter has beyond her looks. As Woolf says, her kid can be pretty, smart, and “kick ass at putting together puzzles,” and she deserves to hear about all of it.
A few questions:Keeping all of these bouncing trajectories of thought in mind, what does it mean to be a “feminist” in a country where corporate definitions differ significantly from historical ones? What about raising a feminist?
How do we make that leap that Kilbourne calls for–plastering labels reading “BS” across unrealistic depictions of women in the media and working to become fuller citizens?
How do we cap the pervasive association of food with guilt (i.e. model Kate Moss: Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,) the increasing sexualization of little girls, the portrayal of women in pieces, and disturbingly narrow visions of “ideal?”
How do we take control in a way that doesn’t involve shrinking to fit into size double zero jeans, double bind expectations of sexual prowess alongside virginal innocence, and anxious menu morality?