Written by Kaitlyn Ramsey, Worcester State University
More than any other socio-cultural force, corporate media define one’s body image, which is the idea of what one’s body is or should be like. In fact, “the American ideal of beauty has become so pervasive that 50% of three- to -six year old girls worry about their weight” (Kilbourne, 2016). There are thirty million people of all ages and genders that suffer from an eating disorder in the United States, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Out of these thirty million people, women make up 90% of the populous. Eating disorders tend to start in the teenage years but can also start at the ripe old age of eight. Eighty percent of ten-year-old girls have dieted. Young girls are more afraid of being fat then they are of nuclear war, getting cancer, or even losing their parents. Why at such a young age do people develop such a devastating mentality?
The media create a false sense of beauty. The average American is bombarded with about 3,000 advertisements on a daily basis, and spends a total of two years watching television commercials in their lifetime, according to Jean Kilbourne. The reason for the body image hype is that at the center of many of the advertisements that are shown, not only on television but on billboards, storefronts, magazines, and social media, there are images of the female ideological beauty. These images of beauty are defined through tall, slim and light skinned models. Victoria’s Secret is one of the top producers of this ideal of beauty. The “models” that appear in the Victoria’s Secret franchise are then digitally altered for an even more unrealistic and unattainable example of what a women needs to look like to be socially accepted. This is the ideal that women and girls compare themselves to everyday. Not being able to live up to these extremely high and impossible expectations and having a flawless appearance can cause depression, anxiety, and low self-confidence. Along with the low mental stability, those affected look for the “quick fix” to their body. This is where the development of eating disorders come into play, along with fad dieting, the abuse of diet pills, or even expensive and potentially dangerous plastic surgeries.
The Victoria’s Secret industry is a billion dollar industry. They sell lingerie, bras, panties, sportswear, bathing suits, and target young girls for their top selling PINK collection. In October 2014, Victoria’s Secret launched their “The Perfect Body” campaign to promote their “Body” collection. However, “The Perfect Bodies” that were used in the campaign were those of flawless supermodels. Victoria’s Secret was suggesting that these supermodels were the examples of “The Perfect Body” ideal. Under social pressure, in November 2014, Victoria’s Secret changed the slogan from “The Perfect Body” to “A Body For Every Body.”
The slogan was only changed after a petition was signed in the United ” Kingdom, with over 16,000 signatures, that this advertisement was emphasizing body shaming for women. The advertisement was changed only on Victoria’s Secret’s website. Both catalogs and storefronts kept the original slogan, “The Perfect Body.”
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is an amazing sideshow of flawless bodies that audiences tune into watch every year. The owner of Victoria’s Secret, Roy Raymond, founded this tradition in 1977. This show’s estimated cost in 2014 was around fifty million dollars. Since this program is aired in 187 countries around the world, it is considered to be the most widely viewed fashion show to date. There are about fifty supermodels that take part in this affair. These are not just supermodels, they are labeled, Victoria’s Secret Angels. Among the major contract holders, the VS Angles include Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Adriana Lima, and Gisele Bundche, to name some. Along with these celebrities, musical performers take part in this giant charade as well, including Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and Lady Gaga. This is the show where leggy supermodels are posing in underwear that can be bought at a local mall—a great marketing trick for their widespread global audience. “Women have to say, I want to look like that, I want to have that spirit or the confidence and strength,” said Ed Razek, chief marketing office of Victoria’s Secret.
As Naomi Wolk explains in her groundbreaking book, The Beauty Myth, “men are exposed to male fashion models but do not see them as role models. Why do women react so strongly to nothing, really—images, scraps of paper? Is their identity so weak? Why do they feel they must treat ‘models;—mannequins—as if they were ‘models’—paradigms? Why do women react to the ‘ideal,’ whatever form she takes at that moment, as if she were a nonnegotiable commandment?” (Wolf, 1991, pp. 58-59)
The mass media may be engaged in the practice of producing art through fashion, but they are also producing commerce. Most messages in the media system are either explicitly or implicitly commercial— either straightforward advertisements or content designed to deliver audiences to advertisers in the most efficient and profitable way (Barnouw, 1978; Jhally 1990, pp. 45-46). In this case, Victoria’s Secret “Perfect Body” marketing campaign is a ploy for their giant conglomerate to turn a profit. The VS franchise does not care about the well being of the women or girls that they capture with the allure of their advertisements. As many critical cultural studies authors have dutifully noted, “mainstream media in the United States are organized, produced and distributed in the service to maximizing profits, which results in ‘structural limits’ that impose guidance on what can and cannot be said and shown, and what sort of audience effects the text may generate” (Kellner, 2003, p.12; Butler, Lee, Liberman, & Webb, 2016, p. 41).
Given the prioritization of profit over people, skills in media literacy must be introduced to help counter the effects of global marketing and advertising, particularly around issues of body image. For starters, “if you are going to be media literate, it’s crucially important to know the economic basis of media production, and how that affects content, techniques, and distribution” (Aufderheide, 2016, p. 46).
Without the proper media literacy education, young people may be understandably unaware that most of the mainstream texts are made with profit as the driving goal. This in turn results in the support for the industry through a blatant acceptance of the “way things are” (Butler, Lee, Liberman & Webb, 2016, p.40). As a society we need to empower not only the small percentage of women that constitute the Victoria’s Secret Angel status; we need to empower “Every Body.” When Dove launched their “Campaign for Real Beauty” in 2004, the goal was to encourage women to love themselves and celebrate their differences, rather then being shammed. They sent their positive message through many different media outlets, commercials, magazines, talk shows, to spark the conversation. However, their goal remained to turn a profit, so many have questioned the their altruistic goals.
Ultimately, all advertisements seek to sell a product or ideology for profit. For those reasons, media literacy education is vital so that we can learn that beauty is only skin deep. By learning to look within ourselves and to develop intrinsic self-esteem, we can build confidence, social awareness and integrity—the true qualities of ideal beauty.
Student Author: Kaitlyn M. Ramsey, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Worcester State University
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Celebre, A., & Denten, A. W. (2014). The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.in-mind.org/article/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-of-the-dove-campaign-for-real-beauty
Frechette, J. D., Williams, R., (2016). Media education for a digital generation. New York: Routledge.
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Kilbourne, J. (2016). Advertising’s toxic effect on eating and body image. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/advertisings-toxic-effect-on-eating-and-body-image/
Snyder, B. (2014). 7 surprising facts about the Victoria’s Secret business. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://fortune.com/2014/12/02/7-surprising-facts-about-the-victorias-secret-business/
Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: W. Morrow.