Have you ever looked at a model in a magazine, and thought, “Damn, I wish I could be skinny like her!” or “I wish my skin was as clear as hers!” I know I have countless times. If not consciously, just below my radar of conscious thoughts, that idealized vision of perfect beauty set before me is drilling itself into my brain, boring its way in to shape my definitions of what it means to be beautiful. Thinking about how much power the media has over me gives me the creeps, especially since I know the rest of society faces the same bombardments as I do. Many of us may think we can tune it out: whether it’s the billboards, tv shows, movies, bus ads or magazines we’re ignoring. I like to think that I can do that too, that if I just work hard enough to form my own healthy opinions about beauty and femininity, I can escape media’s crushing effect on women’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, this is definitely a case of “it’s easier said than done.”
Tonight at the Well-Woman office we hosted a rather provoking film screening. In “Killing Us Softly 3,” Jean Kolbourne discusses and displays a vast array of media images, bringing to light many of the patterns and themes that dominate women’s portrayal in media. The main points addressed consisted of: Taking advertising seriously, Perception and Artificiality, Objectification, Fragmentation, Femininity, Appearance and Slimness, Cutting Girls Down to Size, Sexuality, Infantilization and Pornography, The Trivilialization of Sex, Violence, Polarizing Femininity and Masculinity, and finally Progress and Activism. With her first point, Kilbourne stressed how impossible it is not to take advertising seriously, discussing how internalized idealized images become for both men and women. She spoke of how the typical model’s body represents only about 5% of American women, and how 1 in 5 girls suffer from an eating disorder. Kilbourne went on to discuss how the objectification and fragmentation (showing only a body part, instead of including the face) of women in media promotes viewing women as things rather than as people, dehumanizing us and ultimately promoting violence against women. When a person is seen as less than human, it becomes inevitable that violence will follow. The film also discussed the contradiction between trivialized, rampant sex images throughout the media, in conjunction with seriously lacking sex education in this country. Finally, Kilbourne discusses the loss for both sexes when “feminine” and “masculine” qualities are limited to their respective sex, so that women lose out on being strong and assertive, while men cannot be nurturing or communicative without being deemed unmanly. Such gender stereotypes are terribly reinforced in the media that surrounds us, leaving us with awfully muddled impressions of what “sexy” really means. Why does the notion of rape carry erotic power in our society? What makes you feel sexiest, kissing someone hot while not looking your best, or kissing someone moderately attractive, knowing that you look damn sexy that night? The sad truth is that the objectification of women’s bodies in media affects many of our own perceptions of sexuality, and women have learned to be turned on by watching themselves be watched. Feeling sexy and being sexy are so often stressed as the most important thing for us to care about in media, that it has become an internalized, essential element for many women’s sexuality. I am certain that this is all highly controversial material, and I would love to hear how you may identify with or abhor some of the points I have highlighted from the film. Share your thoughts, start a dialogue, and let’s dig deeper into the question “sexy is…”. It’s not just about our own feelings or the media showing us degrading images. Rather, we must recognize the infiltration of the media into our own minds, shaping our desires and expectations of what looks and feels sexy.