In a way, it’s nothing new. We have been hearing about the connection between excessive thinness, retouching, lack of self-esteem and eating disorders for a million years.
In the ’90s, there were the Superwomen and the depression caused by unattainable depictions of having it all. Today there is a whole host of other mental health issues exploding all around us, and we should take a look at advertising’s role in those, too.
It starts early. When a girl’s selfie doesn’t measure up, she can be ruthlessly bullied. Loads of selfie-surgery apps smooth skin, whiten teeth, make eyes rounder and noses thinner, but what happens when their actual faces and bodies look nothing like these images? Women who previously sought cosmetic surgery in order to look better in selfies are now seeking it to look more like their selfie.
Advertising can also portray a consequence-free lifestyle of burgers, booze and binge-watching. This can lead women to believe that there’s something wrong with them if eating a 2,500-calorie cheeseburger deluxe in front of the TV every day leaves them fat, pimply and anxious.
My Instagram feed is chock-full of ads for stuff that is meant to make life better but only gives a paralyzing anxiety from not living up to any of it.
Portraying women as the keepers of the home, the love source of the children, the caregivers of the parents while men are seen to be breadwinners, pals and all around good-time Charlies sets expectations in both genders that limit aspirations and opportunities.
Consistent stereotypical objectification of women’s bodies can lead women to self-objectify. Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts have said that this nonstop objectification ends up requiring a certain percentage of brain space be dedicated to constant monitoring of their physical appearance and safety, leaving little time for flow but plenty of opportunity for anxiety, shame and depression.
Women and girls have been manipulated by the media in so many ways for so long that it’s simply a part of our culture. And advertisers have concurred, saying they’re mirroring reality, that they’ll change when society changes. But come on—we know we have influence like never before, and we have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to move the cultural needle like never before.
So, what do we do?
Avoid generalizations and stereotypes
Seems obvious, but it’s an easy trap. The harried working mom. The 25-year-old mom. The 25-year-old skincare model. The 25-year-old everything. Even stereotyping men as business travelers, technology naturals, the drinkers of beer reinforces that if this is the only way we see men, then men must not belong doing the dishes, buying baby clothes or bringing snacks to soccer. In real life, there are men and women busting out of these tired depictions all over the place. Look around and include some in the creative.
Include women in roles of power and authority
On the job site, in the lab, in the kitchen (as the chef, please!), in the driver’s seat and in the pilot’s seat. Don’t just show women kicking ass; employ ass-kicking women. Give women examples of what could be on the screen and on the job, and they’ll be more likely to consider the possibility for themselves.
Cast women to sell products that are almost always targeted to men
After all, women influence over 80% of buying decisions. Investments, liquor, heart surgery: Women need them. The people women love need them. Let’s acknowledge that reality in the work.
Ensure women are in roles of responsibility
Make sure they have a voice and also that it is heard when it comes to making and approving the messaging. There’s a much smaller chance that something tone-deaf for women is going to make it out the door if the door is being held open by a woman.
Don’t be lazy
Ultimately, this is what it all comes down to. Don’t stick with conventional ideas of beauty. Don’t stick a lone woman in a boardroom thinking you’ve checked some kind of box. Don’t try to sell me anything with four perfect-bodied, athleisure-clad ladies having coffee at an outdoor café. Don’t do it.
We’re in a creative industry. We get paid to change opinions, sway decisions, be at the front of culture. Let’s use this muscle and might to make women feel better instead of worse. Let’s depict the world we want to live in, and someday soon we will.