The human body is a dominant subject in contemporary social discourse. Besides being a symbol of individual identity, the body, as presented in the media, is a powerful tool for understanding beauty embodied in its various visual forms. Contemporary marketing communications predominantly feature socialized slender visual forms. In the essay, Dove is advised to “produce bold, startling, and appealing images of women” in his campaign (Orbach, 2005, p. 387).
The body images in the Dove campaign represent cultural scripts present in the modern consumer society. Therefore, the body is a social script that reflects socialized views and opinions about beauty or attractiveness. In the essay, the Dove campaign features female body images of different shapes and sizes. In modern societies, slender or thin female bodies often symbolize beauty as opposed to an outcome of disordered eating. However, as evident in the Dove campaign, thinness is not always a representation of attractiveness because beauty has no universal standard. This paper argues that media depiction of the ‘thin ideal’ body is unrealistic, as conceptions of the attractiveness of the body form depend on cultural contexts and social situations.
Body Symbols in Media Marketing
The media imagery relies on existing cultural forms to create meaning. It mirrors cultural values and attitudes common to a particular group, and thus, has a big influence on the human conception of the ideal body form. Media outlets, particularly films and television, predominantly used slender models, thus, idealizing the thin body image. Media ads often lack plus-size models, underscoring the media’s idealistic nature, rather than realistic inclination.
Ads contain images and language that borrow from the local cultural contexts. According to Berg (2000), advertising must be adapted to the “prevailing cultural and linguistic standards” of the social group (p. 56). In this view, to understand the meaning attached to the media images, the advert must be analyzed in the context of the specific culture the same way interpreting a particular text requires contextual knowledge. Therefore, idealized body images in the media mirror the cultural meanings and values of a particular group.
In Western societies, body image idealization focuses on physical attributes. In females, slenderness and firmness are considered the core characteristics of feminine attractiveness (Berg, 2000). The media ads feature the ‘thin ideal’, which is a social construct with a big influence on young women. Because the media shapes public opinion, the target audience ‘read’ or interpret slenderness as the perfect body and strive to attain a thin body. In this regard, media portrayals of the female body provide a script to young women who ape the thin models or celebrities they see on the media. To attain the ideal body, women undergo dieting or anaplasty ignoring the adverse effects of such drastic actions.
Despite the ‘thin ideal’ being a dominant issue shaping social discourse, not all women can attain it. The images belong to models or celebrities who put up make-up to conceal their imperfections. The intention is to look attractive and fit the idealized body image. Thus, the beauty portrayed in the media is idealistic and non-existent in the real life. According to Malson and Burns (2009), media ads contain stereotypical feminine images that emphasize on the external appearance and shape.
In female magazines, the dominant message conveyed by the images is attaining physical attractiveness. Although, the models go through a stylist before posing for a picture, not all women can attain the images portrayed. In this respect, Dove in the essay uses feminine images in their “sumptuous variety that swagger the entire visual field” to appeal to a wider audience (Orbach, 2005, p. 388). Thus, beauty goes beyond the socialized feminine slenderness portrayed by the media.
Although the media portrayal of the ‘thin ideal’ is evidently unrealistic, it mirrors reality in modern societies. Media outlets convey dominant ideologies existing in society. Thus, the ‘thin ideal’ is a representation of the feminine body considered attractive in the society. It serves as a social script of cultural conceptions of feminine beauty and attractiveness. In addition, the media acts as an instrument of social change, as exposure to ‘thin’ idealized images shapes the behavior in young women. In this regard, media images convey visual messages that the audience considers socially acceptable and shuns others. For example, media ads rarely feature heavy women, as they are considered unattractive. In contrast, the ‘thin ideal’ is attractive and glamorous. However, since people are biologically different, not all women can attain thin, slender bodies.
The ‘thin ideal’ body portray messages about what the target audience can do to attain an attractive appearance. However, beauty is not exclusive to thin body shapes. As Orbach (2005) points out, bold and appealing feminine images in advertisements meet the expectations of the audience. Contrary to the argument that a slender image depicts the ideal body, other physical attributes, including skin and hair color, can represent beauty. Thus, besides slenderness, several other physical attributes influence the conception of the aesthetic value of the body.
Ideal Body Conception and Its Effects
As aforementioned, the media portrayals of the feminine body convey messages about socially acceptable attractiveness and beauty. Since the media mirrors the values and attitudes in a society, the ideal body is a cultural construct. In addition, exposure to idealized images has a big influence on the social behavior of the target audience. In particular, young women strive to attain a slender body, which is portrayed as attractive by the media.
The unrealistic standards of beauty can affect the body image of young women. Therefore, since the dominant message in media depictions is that the ‘thin ideal’ is attractive, women who cannot attain it are negatively affected by such ads. Malson and Burns (2009) assert that media exposure to idealized images leads to low self-esteem and dissatisfaction in women. The implication here is that young female viewers who cannot attain the perfect body shape can become distressed and resort to unhealthy behaviors, such as dieting. Some take up smoking to reduce weight while others undergo anaplasty to attain the socially acceptable physical appearance.
The body is a visual text, conveying social standards on appearance and attractiveness. According to Berg (2000), the media portrayal of the female body in the 1990s was the “powerful force” behind the thin ideal stereotype (p. 47). Furthermore, feminine magazines advertising weight loss products have been found to increase unhealthy eating behaviors in young readers (Berg, 2000). This finding indicates that the body is a visual text that conveys powerful messages that influence social behavior. Women also undergo painful procedures in a bid to conform to the beauty standards seen in media portrayals of the ideal body.
Women also develop negative feelings about one’s physical appearance after exposure to socialized media images. Grogan (1999) asserts that the exposure to slender media images subjects viewers to feelings sadness, guilt, and distress, which lead to low self-esteem. Thus, adolescents interpret body representations in the media as the ideal body shape. Since the body images are misrepresented, they harbor distorted ideal body conceptions. They develop unfavorable perceptions about their physical appearance, leading to feelings of low self-esteem.
The body, as a visual text, also influences individual identity and body image. Viewers internalize the body imagery displayed on the media, leading to negative criticism of one’s appearance. Body images concentrate on appearance, rather than on individual qualities. By internalizing the body images seen in the media, adolescent viewers develop unfavorable views about their appearance (Grogan, 1999). A negative body image is associated with binge eating and anorexia in women (Berg, 2000). Thus, the media images expose women to distorted messages about an ideal appearance, leading to poor body image. Nevertheless, body representations serve as a powerful marketing tool for reaching specific customers.
Media representation of the female body contributes to the objectification of the feminine body. In the essay, the female body is objectified when Dove decides to use images depicting feminine bodies of all shapes in his campaign to appeal to a wider audience. The intention here is to display images that meet the tastes and preferences of many viewers. His action underscores the argument that the attractiveness of the female body lacks a universal standard. Cultural contexts contribute to the objectification of feminine bodies. Thus, while feminine slenderness may be considered beautiful, some people may associate it with disordered eating.
The body also has implicit social meanings that borrow from specific cultural contexts. According to Malson and Burns (2009), society discriminates against people considered unattractive while adoring those with ‘flawless’ physical appearances. In this view, attractiveness has many social benefits, which explains why many young women would go to great lengths to attain an attractive figure. They experience the pressure to conform to stereotyped body types. In the essay, success in the campaign is pegged on producing attractive images of female models, indicating that not all images can gain social acceptance. Ideal images must be within the confines of the social definition of beauty.
Socialized Messages Associated with the Body
The media is the primary channel young girls learn about the ideal body. According to Berg (2000), television programs depict female models as thin and slender, influencing young women to associate thinness with success. In addition, judgmental family members or relatives convey an implicit message to girls that thin is beautiful. As a result, young girls develop an interest in their appearance. Through media depictions and parental/family sentiments, they learn to value their appearance.
The socialization process leads to ingrained attitudes about body shape and size. Thus, external messages associated with certain body attributes can influence young girl’s conceptions of beauty. If certain attributes, such as skin color or body weight, are depicted in a bad light, girls learn that such features are not attractive. The attitudes breed low self-esteem about oneself.
Girls also associate feminine slenderness to perfection. Socialized attitudes have shaped the view that a perfect body is thin. Young girls view images of media personalities, socialites, and celebrities learn that ‘perfect’ life is linked to slenderness. Magazines often carry images of successful celebrities, who, incidentally, have slender bodies. In this respect, the body’s appearance can be equated to socioeconomic success. However, such socialized attitudes often encourage discrimination against plus-size women.
Society portrays a ‘thin body’ as the ideal body shape. The media often carries thin images alongside weight loss products or workout videos. People learn that they can alter their body to attain a thin figure if they exercised more or used weight loss products. Others undergo surgery to alter their bodies into the ideal shapes and sizes. However, though weight loss and workout programs are popular, especially among women, they ignore the role of genetics in determining external appearance (Malson & Burns, 2009). Thus, not all people can be thin or slender like the model images depicted in the magazines and television programs.
The female body is also a symbol of social power. Malson and Burns (2009) argue that women’s perceptions of beauty depend on society’s conceptualization of what constitutes an attractive appearance. They evaluate their looks based on socially constructed ideals and values. In this respect, their “self-worth and social power” depend on the extent to which their bodies conform to these ideals (Malson & Burns, 2009, p. 118). Therefore, attractive women feel more socially powerful and confident than plus-size ones. As a result, anorexia is a more common disorder among women than binge eating.
Society values certain physical attributes over others. Feminine slenderness or the ‘thin ideal’ is considered a symbol of beauty in modern societies. Media portrayals of the body images reinforce the view that an ideal body is always thin. However, the findings show that socialized media messages are often distorted, causing negative effects on the self-image of young audiences.
Berg, F.M. (2000). Women Afraid to Eat: Breaking Free in Today’s Weight-Obsessed World. Hettinger, ND: Healthy Weight Network. Web.
Grogan, S. (1999). Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women, and Children. New York, NY: Routledge. Web.
Malson, H., & Burns, M. (2009). Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Dis/Orders. New York: Routledge. Web.
Orbach, S. (2005). Fat is an Advertising Issue. In C. Alfano & A. Obrien (Eds.), Envision in Depth: Reading, Writing and Researching Arguments (pp. 386-389). London: Longman Publishing. Web.