“Consumer culture is best supported by markets made up of sexual clones, men who want objects and women who want to be objects, and the object desired ever-changing disposable, and dictated by the market” (Naomi Wolf ‘The Beauty Myth’ p.144)
It is now considered normality for magazines to depict explicit images of the female anatomy. Females are often depicted as being happily dominated by a man or group of men or gazing back at you as if she is presenting herself before a man, aroused and ready for action! Passivity and being submissive governs images of females’ even images of young girls, that any deviation is seen as abnormal. Even I, a female, enjoy magazines such as Front, which features a stream of nude female beauties appearing both passive and seductive! Am I then objectifying women? Do I want to be like the women depicted? Is it empowering? Or is still a boy’s party? Why did naked females become ‘normal’? Why are women still depicted as objects of desire?
A crossover in imagery in the 1980’s saw that high-class pornographic photography, such as Playboy’s, began to be used generally to sell products for women. Helmut Newton’s leather adorned nudes appeared in Vogue and David Hamilton’s photographs of naked pre-adolescents were sold in bookstores. Nudity and sex in females became all the rage. This made beauty thinking that followed crucially different from all that had preceded it. According to Naomi Wolf in Chapter 5 of “The Beauty Myth” entitled, “Sex”, “Seeing a face anticipating orgasm, even if it is staged, is a powerful sell: In the absence of other sexual images, many women came to believe that they must have that face, that body, to achieve that ecstasy”. (p.135)
Many contemporary advertisements aimed at women feature models who look sexual aroused so Wolf’s suggestion is a valid one. Whilst these advertisements are not meant to attract women with the models’ orgasmic faces and contorted bodies, we assume that the products being used cause their immense pleasure. But what’s more we assume that the women depicted are presenting themselves in front of a man, even when a man cannot be seen. Thus, by buying the product we too can be beautiful and deemed sexually arousing by a man as well as feeling pleasure.
In Mulvey’s male gaze theory women are objectified, becoming somewhat a fetish for the audience. Therefore females are being projected as the male fantasy through the male gaze rather than showing a realistic portrayal of women.
For example, in an advert of for MAX eye make-up, we see actress Carmen Electra, in a subtly sexually suggestive pose. Her mouth is part open, her eyes half-shut all mimicking signs of sexual arousal and orgasm. She is asked to “feast [her] eyes on the new MAXeye collection.” The readers are presumably female since the advertised product is cosmetics and the ad appeared in Elle yet Electra’s pose is not intended to attract the woman. The image is to be idealized and used as a model for women to base themselves from so they too can be the objects of a male gaze. There is no man present in the image, but we assume that there is one watching her.
Women are frequently seen nude or semi nude, whilst men remain fully clothed in advertisements. This highlights that there is an apparent double standard for men and women’s nakedness in mainstream culture. Wolf suggests, that whilst breasts are not as “naked” as penises or vaginas, breasts do correspond to men’s penises as the vulnerable “sexual flower” on the body. Women’s genitals are physically concealed, whilst men’s are not and women’s breasts are physically exposed whilst men’s are not. And so exposing breasts and not exposing penises seems unfair, as they are both physically exposed traits in the sexes.
Cross culturally, unequal nakedness almost always-express power relations. For example, in modern prisons in America, male prisoners will be stripped in front of clothed prison guards. Hence, the controversy surrounding Helmut Newton’s photography, which exclusively features men fully clothed and women fully naked, something still current with fashion photographers today. Women are routinely seen naked whilst men remain covered up. Sexual images in advertising and fashion are therefore heavily edited to protect men’s sexual and social confidence whilst undermining women. (Beauty Myth, p.139).
Masters and Johnson, asked in Playboy to comment on the average penis size and Playboy refused. Playboy was worried that an answer would have a “negative” impact on their readers and that “everyone would be walking around with a measuring stick”. (Susan G. Cole 1989). Yet a magazine filled with images of naked women and reducing her to her breasts is positive? We all know that men’s genitals are far from perfect yet women’s breasts there can be no other option.
This leads me to another worrying commonplace in advertising: women being reduced to their mere body parts, such as the breasts, in order to sell products (thanks Playboy). In Killing Us Softly 3 by Jean Kilbourne she states: “Women’s bodies continue to be dismembered in advertising over and over again, just as one part of the body is used to sell products which is of course the most dehumanizing thing you can do to someone. Not only is she a thing but just one part of that thing is focused on” [08.29].
And culture seems especially obsessed with breasts and is used to sell almost everything. Advertisements also encourage women to “improve” and “change” their breasts in order to be more beautiful and attractive. Such as in the ad with the tagline, “If you’ve got it flaunt it, if you don’t create it”. And again we buy into it. But when is the last time you saw an advert aimed at men encouraging them to change their testes? That’s what I thought. Women nowadays even undergo surgery to enhance their breasts, an ultimate feminine attribute. This has been naturalized so far that we do not even recognise these images or motifs as being objectifying, hence the successes of lad magazines taking over newsstands, rich topless models and wonder bras enjoyed by women and men alike.
Below are some images from issues of Lad’s magazines and fashion magazines and famous brands. Breasts, nudity and sexualisation are common trends. It appears that sex sells. The repetition of perfect breasts attached to smiling/orgasmic faces or semi-nude women contorted and seen in suggestive poses, it’s no wonder our ideas of femininity are distorted! Many girls now dream of having a boob job or aspire to be a model and can we really blame them? The sheer bombardment of these images could convince anyone that breasts, sexuality and beauty mean success, fame and happiness. No wonder women feel pressure to accentuate their feminine “attributes” through surgery!
As Jean Kilbourne states in Killing Us Softly 4: “As girls learn from a very early age that their sexualised behaviour and appearance are often rewarded by society, they learn to sexualize themselves and to see themselves as objects. They’re encouraged to see this as their own choice, as a declaration of empowerment-as a kind of liberation. But what this is really saying is that you have the right to be an object, to be passive, to have your sexuality defined in a rigid shallow limiting and clichéd way”
But why are we so comfortable and accepting of seeing women naked? In chapter 5 entitled “Sex” in “The Beauty Myth” Naomi Wolf states: “Men are visually aroused by women’s bodies and less sensitive to their arousal by women’s personalities because they are trained early into that response, while women are less visually aroused and more emotionally aroused because that is their training. This asymmetry in sexual education maintains men’s power in the myth…” (p.152)
Wolf goes onto explain that the asymmetries within the beauty myth tell men and women lies about one another’s bodies, to keep them sexually divided. The myth means we react and think differently about male and female bodies. Women are deemed the ‘sensitive’ sex yet there is no part of a woman’s body as sensitive or vulnerable as the testes. Both men and women’s nipples are sexual, yet only women have to keep their shirts on in all weather conditions. These constructs are not natural they are a part of a longstanding beauty myth, to keep men in power. Wolf’s observations are both true and eye opening. The differences we accept between men and women would explain why a woman being portrayed as sexual objects in magazines by both men and women is deemed ‘normal’ and acceptable.
Overall, femininity is heavily defined and constructed by the sexualisation of women in visual media. Women in advertisements, aimed at both men and women audiences, are often portrayed as sexual objects: their bodies’ mere tools for satisfaction, degradation and of course selling products, seen almost exclusively through the male gaze. Women are repeatedly depicted as being overtly sexual as well as submissive, which has become so ‘normal’ even us women are desensitized to the depictions of female sexuality. Half-naked women on newsstands, orgasmic faces and borderline pornographic images have for a long time become a ‘norm’ within the mainstream. When women’s faces are visible, it is expressionless in the rectus of ecstasy and advertisers give the impression that women need to look like that in order to feel like that. Breasts are deemed most attractive and female, so one must cultivate perfect breasts either through oils, bras or even surgery!
Some find it empowering, others objectifying. Either way females are predominantly reduced to pieces: breasts, nipples, legs and mouths all parts for exploration, satisfaction and marketing. The sexualisation of women in the media is seriously damaging and concerning. Women are much more than their body parts and sexuality but advertisers make us feel we should conform to these ‘ideals’ and so beauty becomes our main priority. Thus, what is deemed a ‘normal’ feminine identity is one that is comfortably reduced to flesh: an object of desire. Oh and large breasts.
Kilbourne, J (2002). Killing Us Softly 3 Advertising’s Image of Women. Northampton, Mass, Media Education Foundation
Kilbourne, J (2010). Killing Us Softly 4 Advertising’s Image of Women. Northampton, Mass, Media Education Foundation
Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Vintage. 131-147
Cole, S (1989) Pornography and the Sex Crisis. Toronto: Amanita Enterprises. 37