In chapter 11 of Susan Jeanne Douglas’s book, Where the Girls Are, she discusses the exploitation of the female desire to be attractive. She highlights how the mass media began promoting idealized body forms and implying that any woman could achieve the same standard by using specific beauty products. The promotion benefited the media, which would capture attention, and cosmetics manufacturers, who would have demand for their products increase as a result.
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However, the continued assertions that women could reach unrealistic standards and were not attractive due to their faults have had a negative effect, particularly on young women who grew up surrounded by them. The culture of narcissism and implicit body-shaming perpetuated by the media has ultimately harmed women.
The change in mass media rhetoric came on as a result of the civil rights movement, which liberated women and enabled them to pursue careers in many work fields. As Douglas puts it, “women’s liberation metamorphosed into female narcissism unchained,” with the implication being that being free meant that women should not exercise restraint (246). Upon becoming independent and able to earn money and spend it however they saw fit, women became a target for media promotion. They had new needs and were led to believe that the pursuit of pleasure and beauty alongside other private desires was the answer. The potential profits represented by the new consumer category were the motive behind this move by the media.
The change was part of a broader trend, wherein producers and advertisers partnered up to create a narcissistic consumerist culture. Douglas mentions Christopher Lasch’s book, The Culture of Narcissism, which describes the advent of this phenomenon in America. Lasch notes that the nation’s capitalists realized the worker’s value as a consumer and began manufacturing new consumer demands to replace those that were satisfied with technological advancement (72). Women, the new entrants in the workforce, were caught up in the effort as various companies realized their worth. As such, they were unprepared to deal with the coordinated effort to make them feel inadequate and keep them wanting to buy some new product.
With that said, the consumerist culture of the United States applies to men as well as women and targets both categories equally. However, women were culturally oriented to be receptive to narcissistic culture, as female beauty has been a topic of much promotion for a large portion of human history. As Douglas describes it, narcissism “was the story of our lives, of how we had been socialized since childhood” (248). As a result, while everyone was affected by the various promotional campaigns, women were particularly receptive, and the continued intensive advertisement bombardment affected them strongly. Self-loathing and perceived inferiority are at the core of narcissism, and the amplification of these emotions led to unhealthy tendencies.
Women began worrying over their bodies again, and it was in the media’s interest to promote values that they could not achieve through effort alone. As such, advertisements emphasized sex appeal and impossible figures over fitness or health. Furthermore, the goalposts of the ideal female body periodically changed to keep women dissatisfied and make them buy more products. As a result, they were continually bombarded with negativity and led to compare themselves with models and beautiful actresses. Many women ruined their health without achieving the goals they desired, and the process continues today. Douglas proposes to stop obsessing over idealistic bodies and focus on health and fitness, though she acknowledges that it is challenging to do so.
Douglas, Susan Jeanne. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. Times Books, 1995.
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Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.