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Week 6+7: Objectification of Women in Media

Last time I discussed objectification of women in the history of art and society. Now I will talk about objectification of women in media.

I would like to start with paintings again. It is known that the academic painters who portrayed nude would combine the most beautiful parts of many different bodies to create the most beautiful ideal form. With the invention of photography this became tricky. The photographer could never find that form, because he could never idealise his subject the same way the painters did, regardless of how beautiful the subject was. The subject was a real woman captured the way she really looked like.

But now many years later technologies evolved, and we’ve got Photoshop. It is commonly used in advertisement to improve the imperfections, and in a way it is substituting the old painters by creating the unrealistic ideal of beauty.

Figure 1 (painting): Jean-Baptiste Regnault, between 1793 and 1794, The Three Graces

Figure 2 (photograph): Gaudenzio Marconi, The Three Graces Though, there is a difference between idealised women in paintings and in media. The oil paintings portraying idealised women weren’t mass-produced and on show for everybody. The paintings would be found in galleries (or private possessions) and viewed by certain people only. The idealised women in media are supposed to reach everybody.

But before I start talking about Photoshop and objectification of women in media, I would like to discuss publicity itself.

John Berger compared the language of publicity to the language of European oil paintings. In publicity there are many references to the art work from the past. As John Berger says: ‚Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life. It is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and beautiful. But a work of art also suggest a cultural authority, a form of dignity and wisdom. An oil painting is a reminder of what it means to be a cultivated European. The work of art quoted by publicity implies that the purchase being proposed is both luxury and a cultural value. Publicity has grasped the implications of the relationship between the work of art and its spectator-owner and with these it tries to persuade and flatter the spectator-buyer.‘

Figure 3: Edouard Manet, 1863, Lunch on the Grass

Figure 4: Uknown

Figure 5: Dior, 2013, Secret Garden 2: Versailles The invention of colour photography made it easy to translate the language of oil paintings into publicity cliches. Photography can reproduce the colour, texture and tangibility of objects - something only oil painting was able to do until then. Both media play upon the spectator’s sense of acquiring the objects that are portrayed.

Figure 6 (painting): Pieter Claesz, 1649, Still Life with drinking Vessels

Figure 7 (photograph): Paulette Tavormina, 2014, Still Life With Jamón Ibérico, After L.M. But there is a big difference between the spectator-owner of an oil painting and spectator-buyer in the world of publicity. Oil painting was a celebration of a private property – you are what you have. But publicity promises you what you could be if you buy. The oil paintings consolidated the way of living of the spectator-owner and enhanced his view of himself. This is where publicity is different. The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better. It offers him an improved alternative to what he is. - Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. With publicity, we don’t buy just the products, we also buy an image/promise of what we can be. Now back to Photoshop and beauty. What is beauty and why so many women want to be beautiful? According to Google the word beauty means: ‚A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.‘ Especially the SIGHT. In my previous article I quoted John Berger by saying that for women to constantly watch/survey themselves has always been embedded in the society. They grow up in an environment that teaches them that the way how they appear to others but mainly to men is crucially important in their lives. He also says that ‘Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.’

So we live in a society where women believe that they will be more appreciated for what they look like than for who they are (or that what they look like defines who they are). Women spend more money and time on beauty than men and are more affected by anorexia and bulimia.

It was not until the start of the 20th century, when mass production coincided with mass exposure to an idealised standard of beauty (through photography, magazines and movies) that the industry first took off. The emerging beauty industries played on the fear of looking ugly and also on the pleasure of looking pretty, convincing women that their imperfections can be fixed by their products.

- The Economist, 2003, Post of Promise

And they keep on. With a little help of Photoshop they remove all the wrinkles and smoothen out the face, so they can sell an anti-aging cream. They remove thigh gaps, cellulite, extend the legs and shrink the belly, so they could sell bikini – also pass a message ‚This is what a bikini girl looks like‘. So we are constantly bombarded by these fake, unrealistic images, and they affect us.

Figure 8: RtopR anti-aging cream

Figure 9: Sauvage Swimwear, 2015 Though, here are several counter movements to show more natural bodies that haven’t been edited -the Dove campaing for example. But I think it’s a marketing ploy. Even brands that advertise more natural female bodies are still selling something. - Zehetner, Bettina, 2019, The Social Media Beauty Cult According to Renee Engeln there are three messages that women get from the media. Message 1: Beautiful is the most important, most powerful thing a girl or woman can be. Message 2: This is what beauty looks like, and, Message 3: You don't look like this. Women exposed to these messages are likely to feel depressed, ashamed and it lowers their self-esteem. So how women deal with these messages? They start worrying about their appearance – about skin care regiment, weight-loss goals, state of their thighs, etc. They start obsessively observe themselves. Women live in a world where they're taught that their primary form of currency is their appearance. Advertisers tell you how to be more beautiful, television programs, even news programs, ridicule women who fail to meet traditional beauty standards. Your appearance is so chronically observed by other people that, over time, you internalize that perspective, so you become an observer of yourself.

Instead of moving around, looking out at the world, you spend all of that time imagining how you look to the world. But you cannot chronically monitor your body's appearance and be engaged with the world - because between you and the world is a mirror. And it's a mirror that travels with you everywhere, you can't seem to put it down. It's beauty sickness that makes women self-objectify, that makes our young girls want to grow up to be sexy things. - Engeln, Renee, 2013, An Epidemic of Beauty Sickness

Figure 10: Spreadshirt, Sexy Thing in Training Babies at the age of 6 months can recognize corporate logos. Ads sell more than products, they are sophisticated and their influence is cumulative and subconscious.

The pressure on women to be unrealistically beautiful is ubiquitous. The women bodies are dismembered by Photoshop in ads for all kind of products. Young girls are getting messages that they have to be incredibly thin, hot and sexy. And they are going to fail because it is impossible to measure up with these fake ideals of beauty. According to Jean Kilbourne: ‚Girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they are 8, 9, 10 years old. But when they hit adolescence, and they often hit a wall, and certainly, part of this wall is this terrible emphasis on physical perfection.’

Figure 11: Michael Kors Sexy Ruby Fragrance 2017

Figure 12: Calvin Klein, 2015

Figure 13: Loreal Paris, Colour Riche, Beyonce Men’s view of female beauty is distorted, too, and it affects their relationship with the real women in their lives.

Men’s bodies are dismembered in ads, too. When men are photoshopped they are usually made bigger- which is a stereotype that harms men. However, men are less dismembered by ads than women. And also in a different way. Men are more objectified than they used to be but the stereotypes are less personal and less related to the body. And mainly there really aren't consequences as a result of that. Men don’t live in a world where they are likely to get harassed, raped or beaten, but women do.

When women are objectified, there is always the threat of sexual violence, there is always intimidation, there is always the possibility of danger. And women live in a world defined by that threat, whereas men, simply, do not. The body language of women and girls remains passive, vulnerable, submissive, and very different from the body language of men and boys.

- Dr. Kilbourne, Jean, 2014, The Dangerous Ways Ads See Women

Figure 14: Lynx, 2011

Figure 15: Burger King

Figure 16: SuitSupply,Shameless

Figure 17: American Crew, 2014

Figure 18: Vatnajökull, 2014, Gyðja for Men

Figure 19: Aramis the Fragrance Foundation Adult women in ads are often put into a role of little girls and little girls are increasingly sexualised. You can buy padded bras and tong panties for 7-year-olds. Boys are sexualised too, but in a different way - they are taught to be tough, invulnerable, and they are encouraged to look at girls as sexual objects.

Figure 20: Candies

Figure 21: Unknown Ads use sex to sell products. And ads is also where kids learn about sex. As Jean Kilbourne said: ‚The problem isn't sex, it's the culture's pornographic attitude towards sex, the trivialization of it. Sex is always used to sell. But it is far more graphic and pornographic today than ever before.’

Figure 22: Tom Ford, 2013

Figure 23: Calvin Klein, 2009 With the invention of Internet we gained easy access to porn. The language of porn became acceptable and mainstream. Young girls are encouraged to present themselves hot and sexy, and also to be sexually available while expecting little or nothing in return. They are taught that this sort of behaviour will be rewarded, so they start sexualise themselves and see themselves as objects.

Figure 24: Diesel, Be Stupid, 2010

Figure 25: Screenshot of an Instagram User

Figure 26: Screenshot of a Twitter User Inevitably, this can lead to violence, because these ads normalise dangerous attitudes like battering or sexual assault.

These ads don’t cause violence against women directly but they create a climate in which women are often seen as things, as objects. And certainly, turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person, and that step is constantly taken with women and girls. So the violence, the abuse, is partly the chilling but logical result of this kind of objectification.

- Dr. Kilbourne, Jean, 2014, The Dangerous Ways Ads See Women

Figure 27: Dolce & Gabbana

Figure 28: Duncan Quinn

Figure 29: Broomstick slacks I think Marina Abramovic demonstrated it well in her Rythm 0 experiment, where she turned herself into an object. Her audience was invited to do to her whatever they wished, using 72 items (some causing pleasure but some pain). It didn’t take too long for her audience to turn violent against her. (link in References) However, what is wrong with beauty itself? What is wrong with the idea of feeling desirable? Nothing, but. Our brains are so sensitive to beauty. We know it when we see it, we process it in milliseconds. This desire to be beautiful, the desire to be desired, it is not something you can completely shut off in the brain. Wanting to be beautiful is not the problem; the problem is when it's all our young girls and women want to be. - Engeln, Renee, 2013, An Epidemic of Beauty Sickness

Just out of interest I would like to attach a couple of examples from this research I found on the Internet. It discusses the role of a woman in advertisement and the difference of her role when the ad is focused on the female-consumer and when it’s focused on the male-consumer. The examples are demonstrated on Gilette products for women and for men.

And this is just one brand out of many. How is this all related to me and to my work? I found this material very eye-opening and I believe everybody (including me) should be aware of these facts. Because it is reality that has impact on our lives and in my case career as well.

I’ve never wanted to work as an advertisement or fashion photographer and now I’m convinced that surely I never will.

I’m a nude photographer and what I sometimes struggle with is society’s attitude towards nudity, because for a lot of people nudity equals sexuality. But that’s incorrect. I’ve already written an article where I explained the difference between nudity and sexuality. You can read it here:

But before I talk about my work I would like to share my experience with objectification. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment where I was appreciated for who I was and not for what I looked like. My mum was a great person who supported my artistic side and wanted me to be successful by gaining real life skills – I did a lot of activities like ceramics classes, painting classes, English classes. As a kid I was encouraged to play outside with my friends and went home basically just to eat and sleep. Often I would have dirty clothes and messy hair from climbing trees, and etc.

I did get a hold of girly magazines telling me what to do in order to look pretty and mainly showing me what actually ‚pretty‘ looks like. I’m very grateful now that I was never affected by that because I was happy with myself the way I was, which has remained. However, I have also always thought that other girls have the same attitude towards beauty because I never really knew anybody else’s perspective. Until the last couple of years when I learned that a lot of women are sad about their appearance because they try to measure themselves up with women from magazines, ads or social media. I’m glad I know now.

I also never knew I could be objectified for looking good. I like to wear pretty clothes sometimes – but just for the sake of pleasing myself, not to get attention. But I rarely wear pretty clothes nowadays because I’m afraid I would get comments – I always get comments or whistles when I wear a skirt or shorts. I always hated it but I didn’t know what exactly I hated about it – I couldn’t name it. I even used to think it is a sign I looked good, so I should be happy, right?! Even recently I was questioning myself: ‚why do I hate it so much? I’m a nude photographer, I take nude portraits of myself. In my pictures people get to see more of me than when I wear shorts. So why do I hate it now when I‘m dressed up?‘ I know now – because I was objectified. I felt like I had no control over my body and myself, I felt like I turned into a piece of flesh. I talked about this with my friend once and she had a good point saying that in my photographs I also choose what I show and how. But when walking down the street I can affect nothing about how I look like and what people get to see of me in that very moment (unless I wear clothes that don’t show absolutely anything).

I also have experience with life modeling. I was there fully naked to be drawn by the dressed up audience. I didn’t feel uncomfortable but I didn’t feel like myself either. The audience was there to draw me, therefore the atmosphere was different. I felt more like a still life object than an object of desire, but I didn’t really feel like a person either. Some people were even intimidated by me – they didn’t want to get an eye contact and shied away if our eyes met. They didn’t bother to say hi when they came or bye and thanks as they were leaving. Not all of them (some were happy to show me their work!) but more than 50% of the audience didn’t.

On contrary, I had completely different experience in sauna where I was also fully naked. It was a mixed sauna and the atmosphere was very relaxed. My guess is, that’s because everybody was naked. Everybody was in the same position, everybody was equal. But when I walk past men that keep staring at me, I feel like I’m the naked one whilst they are fully dressed up – that’s what causes the inequality in this case and that’s what makes me feel dehumanised. It makes me also feel defenseless. Especially because it’s considered to be completely normal.

But now, knowing a little bit more about objectification made me open my eyes more, and I know that it is not normal – it shouldn’t be.

I’m nude in my photographs because I genuinely like my body and I like myself. Even though using myself started out of necessity it became a lifestyle and now I really enjoy what I do. Through my photographs I'm expressing myself – my body is my tool for self-expression. Not to gain attraction from men.

However statistics speak different. On my Instagram 73% of my followers are men. Would a majority my followers be men if I was a landscape photographer? I’ve heard a saying and I believe it is true: ‚I’m a simple man. I see boobs and press „like“.‘ (No disrespect to my male followers! I appreciate every single genuine follower who follows me for my art and not for seeing me naked!)

So did I do something wrong? Am I sending a wrong message? I don’t think I’ve done something wrong. I also think that the reasons why it is like this have already been mentioned in my research above – men are taught to look at women as a sex object (especially if naked). And nudity is often mixed together with sexuality. There is really not much I can do about this. All I can do is to help spread the awareness of it. And why don’t I have a higher amount of female followers? I’m unsure, maybe they are busy following beauty related accounts – but this is my very rough guess. I’m very thankful for those 27% of women who follow me. A few of them even bought my calendars, zines and prints!

It felt very good putting all of this together. I really believe that this is an important message worth sharing.

Figures Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4 Figure 5 Figure 6 Figure 7 Figure 8 Figure 9 Figure 10 Figure 11 Figure 12 Figure 13 Figure 14 Figure 15 Figure 16 Figure 17 Figure 18 Figure 19 Figure 20 Figure 21 Figure 22 Figure 23 Figure 24 Figure 25 Figure 26 Figures 27, 28, 29 Resources John Berger The Economist The Social Media Beauty Cult Renee Engeln Jean Kilbourne Marina Abramovic, Rhythm Zero Gillette

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Lucie Nechanická
Lucie Nechanická
Nov 11, 2020

I agree with you - not point out the imperfections deliberately but not shy away from them either. Just be neutral about them. It's normal to have them. And it's great to be aware of the fact that it is normal. Thanks for your comment! :)


Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Nov 11, 2020

Very insightful :) I like the messages this article sent. I think it's nice you even have a 27% female following. I think you're doing well in how you portray yourself, avoiding erotic poses, and not photo shopping out imperfections. As an idea, it might even be nice to photograph more imperfections and not shy away from cellulite, loose skin or muscle. It's probably best to be neutral; not 'try' and show imperfections, but not shy away from them either. I have learnt from this article to view women more naturally, lean towards more natural photography and stray away from photoshopping any imperfections. Embrace it! Thank you!

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