Table of Contents
The purpose of this paper is to examine and criticize the representation of female body image by mass media. For decades the bodies of women have been tailored to highlight products and services by advertisers and owners of the media as a means of generating capital gains. This tailoring, has led to what many have come to accept as the ‘ideal image of beauty’ that every woman should endeavor to achieve. This paper continues the discussion on a topic that is widely and frequently discussed. The theoretical framework that this paper employs is based on one of the most applauded theory in communication studies; The Political Economy of Communication and Media theory, which was first coined by Dallas William Smythe. This theory is pertinent to understand the presence of the commercial forces behind creating and maintaining this ideal body image, particularly by advertisers in mass media. The form of mass media that this paper concentrates on is women’s magazine, with specific focus on advertisements regarding beauty and cosmetic products/services. Additionally, case studies in the US and China are used to depict the influence mass media representation of female body image on women.
Body image, political economy of media, audience commodity, mass media
Fifteen years ago, I was not equipped with the critical thinking skills I have now neither did I possess the self confidence I now enjoy; consequently I internalized the images I saw in mass media and was dissatisfied with my body. I compared myself with the images I saw which made me feel like I needed to change or improve my physical features to match the standard image I frequently saw. I know that I am not alone; millions of women are affected in the same or similar way. I have always been passionate about the issue of female body image as presented in mass media, hence the reason for pursuing it as my term paper topic. Moreover, the lectures in Communication Theories class have provided me with refreshing insights into theories and approaches for which I can use to better comprehend the topic of Mass Media and the Representation of Female Body Image.
The influence of mass media on female body image continues to be a favorite topic for discussion and analysis for researchers in the field of communication studies. This discussion is necessary in order to analyze media representation of female body images, particularly in advertising and how this representation influences women. Advertisers often emphasize sexuality and the importance of physical attractiveness in an attempt to sell their products and services, but researchers are concerned that this places undue pressure on women to focus on their appearance (Body Image and Advertising, 2000). The political economy theory coined by Dallas Smythe in his article Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism in 1977 is used to further discuss the market forces behind the issue of advertisers and the standardization of female body image in mass media. Dallas Smythe was one of the founding figures of the political economy of communication (Mosco, 2009).
The images of women presented in mass media are always thin and over the last 40 years, female ideal body weight as shown in magazine images are decreasing (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2008). For advertisers and fashion designers, thin sells and because it sells, images of ultra thin women are what they always put before their audiences. Scholars Emma Halliwell and Helga Dittmar (2004, p. 105) quoted a spokesperson for the agency representing top models such as Naomi Campbell that “statistics have repeatedly shown that if you stick a beautiful skinny girl on the cover of a magazine you sell more copies” (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2004). The effect of hearing a song over and over again can be related to seeing an image over and over again; it stays with you. Why do the media continue to depict such unattainable images? Jean Kilbourne maintains that “women are sold to the diet industry by the magazines we read and the television programs we watch, almost all of which make us feel anxious about our weight” (Mediasmarts, 2014). There is also the reason of commercial economic forces who work to ensure that such physical ideal images of beauty are standardized. Media Smarts website reveals that the reason the media imposes impossible standards of beauty on girls is simply economic: when the media consistently present a “physical ideal that is difficult to achieve and maintain the cosmetic and diet industries are assured continual growth and profits” (Mediasmarts, 2014).
Stuart Hall in his video lecture on Representation and The Media remarked that “the word representation means that the media “represent” something that already exists (Hall, 1997). As such when you look at the images in consumer magazines, it is undoubtedly visible that those images have been re-presented by photo editors to mimic reality as it is “industry standard for touching up images used in magazines” (Kretz, 2009).
This term paper examines the relationship between advertisers and magazine media with emphasis on the audience commodity category of the political economy of communication and media theory. It then analyzes and criticizes mass media in the representation of female body image. Thirdly, it explains in three ways the impact of mass media on women who are consumed by the images presented. For this section, this paper first looks at the obsession with being thin and secondly the profitable world of cosmetic surgery.
Research shows that there is an enormous amount of literature on the topic of media representation and female body image and on other relatable topics. Therefore, this paper aims to contribute to work of other researchers by adding views from a new perspective. Moreover, it is absolutely important that this topic continues to be at the centre of global discussion, so as to provide members of the public with insights and findings that will help them understand the reasons women are represented the way they are in mass media. Off course understanding mass media representation of female body images is less focused on passing blame and more to do with creating awareness to these unrealistic images so that women are empowered to love themselves in the bodies they have.
The relationship between advertisers and magazine media
Although criticized for projecting unrealistically thin images of women, the forces in the advertising industry are unwavering to their approach (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2004). Recent reports show that readership is in a good position as (data source: magazine.org, accessed on December 8, 2014): an average gross audience for magazine brands of 1.50 billion in August/September/October 2014 up 9.8% over the same months in 2013 (1.37 billion). The report currently covers 151 magazine media brands from 34 companies, representing 95% of the reader universe (Magazine Publishers of America, 2014).
The Statista Portal reveals that magazine’s advertising currently stands at $15.1 billion U.S dollars and is projected to increase to $15.2 billion in 2017 (Statista, 2014). As a result of technological advancements magazine readership is split into digital and print. A total of 91% of Americans over the age of eighteen read magazines and there is a diverse readership attached; 91% are African American, 87% Asian American and 86% Hispanic American (MPA Magazine Media Factbook, 2013/2014). President and CEO of Magazine Publishers of America in the most recent annual report said that “Magazine media deliver powerful relationships that influence, inspire and endure. The magazine media brand experience is based on trusted editorial, complemented by relevant advertising. This dual immersion in edit and ads satisfies the interests and passions of millions of readers. The reader’s commitment to this unique brand experience results in superior levels of ad receptivity, online search, and purchase intent” (Berner, 2013/2014). This explains the relationship between advertisers and magazines; it further explains how this relationship shapes the representation of female body image. Women perceptions of how they should look are formed by fashion and cosmetic advertisers in magazines. The advertisers are powerful and usually very effective in ensuring that their messages are received and believed (Mediasmarts, 2014). Women are the main target audience for magazine advertisements; advertisers expect that women will identify themselves with the images presented. Not in all its forcefulness could “advertising image work without being associated with it a kind of claim on identity”. The overall intention is to persuade the audience by winning them over through identification (Hall, 1997).
The Political Economy of Communication theory has been extensively studied by researchers in the likes of Christian Fuchs (2012) and has become an important aspect of discussion, particularly in the fields of media and communication. Political Economy as defined in the book Political Economy of Communication by Vincent Mosco, is the “study of social relations, particularly the power relation that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption of resources, including communication resources” (Mosco, 2009). This introduces the audience as a commodity: the primary product produced by the media in order to earn their principal revenues from advertisers (Meehan, 2008). The words control and survival are vital when it comes to understanding the political economy in this case. Control is framed politically because “it shapes the relationships within a community” and survival is framed economically because it involves the process of production and reproduction” (Mosco, 2009). In other words, females are represented in a certain way so that they sell advertisers’ products. The ideal body image continues to be plastered on the covers and on inside pages of magazines as objects used to generate sales. If we look at figure 1, we will see that the advertiser is not just selling a bag; that advertiser is also selling an image to the reading audience of that magazine. It is highly unlikely that the audience will be focused on the bag. The model is tall, thin, toned and represents the facial beauty standards of advertisers and the media. Researcher Christian Fuchs concludes that “no product is sold to users; the users are sold as a commodity to advertisers” (Fuchs, 2012). Emma Halliwell and Helga Dittmar agree that experimental studies confirm that consumers are highly motivated to make an actual purchase of a product after they have seen a beautiful model advertising it (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2004).
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Figure 1. Source: http://fashion.zarzarmodels.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Beautiful-Brazilian-Fashion-Model-Gisele-Bundchen-Modeling-For-Versace-Ads-Modeling-As-The-Highest-Paid-Model-In-Brazil-Brasil-1024x668.jpg