The Role of Advertisements in Shaping Women's Body Image

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Advertisements emphasizing female beauty as a measure of a woman’s worth has negatively affected the self-esteem of young women. The definition of beauty does not remain constant; changing gradually over time. Currently the definition of beauty is characterized by slimness. The emphasis on slimness as the only means for a woman to be beautiful has resulted in eating disorders, the most common being, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Anorexia Nervosa, commonly referred to as AN, is when a woman (or man) reduces their amount of calorie intake to the absolute minimum. Bulimia Nervosa (BN) is when a woman (or man) cannot control their appetite, so they binge eat. Feeling disgusted with themselves, they purge the food from their bodies. While such extreme measures are not common, the majority of young women put themselves on diets in order to achieve the ideal body type. However, the currently expected body type: tall, skinny, tiny waist and a big but, is unattainable to all but 5% of women. Women’s real unhappiness stems from the knowledge that they will never attain that specific body type. While women may know and understand that they will never be able to attain the ideal body type, they also ignore that information and strive to have that same body type. These feeling create a cycle of unhappiness and insecurity which then negatively affects a woman’s self-perceived negative body image.

Research has proven that advertising’s emphasizing the value of women’s beauty has a negative effect on women’s self- esteem and their perceived body image. However, little study has been done on the possibilities of improving a woman’s self-esteem and creating a positive perception of their body image through the use of media. Only two media campaigns set on improving women’s confidence and positive body perception have been successful. The grass roots campaign, “Pretty, Porky, and Pissed Off”, also known as PPPO and Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. Dove is a brand which focuses on soap and other cosmetics. The company is owned by Unilever which brings in around $ 57.07 B each year. PPPO makes little to no profit, as it is a little known group containing eight members. It gained some media attention. However, the group disbanded and was never replaced. The Dove campaign is relatively successful. Part of the reason that Dove’s campaign is not successful on a larger scale, is because it is only a small and almost insignificant campaign which is often overlooked when followed by a commercial emphasizing the belief that society’s definition of beauty is the only allowable form of beauty. Most young women, affected by advertising which specifically emphasizes thinness as the only beauty ideal, are unaffected by pro-positive body image campaigns, and regardless of them develop eating disorders. Since Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign is largely ignored, the goal is to discover a more effective way to target women and create self-confidence and positive body perception.

Advertising uses affective conditioning to link create an emotional link from one object or action to another. In the case of advertisements focusing specifically on beauty and the improvement of beauty, advertisements are linked to love, lust, and popularity. This idea emphasizes the belief that beauty is the only way to achieve those goals. Advertisements pair expensive cosmetics and cars and anything in between with beautiful and slim women. The pairing of the two creates the “slim ideal”. People desire certain products because they associate them with a slim and beautiful model.

The majority of the population aspires to become a celebrity because they believe that they are living the ideal lifestyle. The type of clothes, foods, and bodies that celebrities have are the bodies that women (and men) aspire to have. Those same celebrities are payed by the advertising industry to show off that company’s products. The association between the perfect slim- bodied celebrity and the product wealth creates an association between the two. Advertising agencies use the correlation between money, fame, beauty, and the consumer to sell their products. The consumer will never truly be able to attain the perfection of their role models. Though they will never be able to attain that perfection, they will still try. Believing that they will be able to attain that perfection through the purchase of this product and that product, the consumer will keep consuming, believing that though they are unable to attain their beauty goals currently, that with their next purchase of beauty products they will.

Consumers understand that the perfection of the celebrities and models shown in the advertisements is not necessarily real. Advertisements airbrush the models, use special lighting, and photoshop to make them unnaturally beautiful. While the average consumer understands that, as with the knowledge that material possessions will not improve a person’s beauty and popularity, they do not truly believe it. Consumers feel that that amount of beauty is only possible through the purchase of those goods. They recognize the models seen in advertisements as the height of perfection, without recognizing that models themselves have a negative perception of their own body image. “If you ever are wondering, If I have thinner thighs and shinier hair will I be happier? You just need to meet a group of models because they have the thinnest thighs and shiniest hair and the coolest clothes and they’re the most insecure women on the planet” (Model, Cameron Russell). The entire industry is built on the idea of unnatural and unattainable beauty as the sole importance of a woman. Therefore, even the women depicted as the pinnacle of perfection feels insecure and are naturally unable to fully meet the beauty standards of society.

Advertising dictates not only the body and fashion trends but also society’s views on the body. The emphasis on the beauty and the body of women touch all circles of life. Woman who are talented in their own right, are often criticized or praised, not for their skills and their success, but for their beauty. In the case of female athletes and politicians, the focus turns directly to their looks. Female athletes are not only characterized by their strength but their looks as well. The media called the female athletes ‘beautiful’ where they did not call men handsome suggesting that there is an “incongruence between the delightful female image and the intense and competitive athlete” (Higgs and Weiller 1994 p. 241). As observed in the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Clinton’s appearance was the first thing the media paid attention to and her policies the second. Clinton was unable to meet society’s standards as a beautiful women and was criticized for it. This reduced Clinton’s political power, making her a woman lacking in beauty first and a politician second.

Anti-fat prejudice is adopted by children around the age that they begin to attend school. While they do regard fat as a negative trait, they do not yet compare their own physical appearance to the standard beauty norms. However, as the child progresses through school, the repeated exposure to those anti-fat biases and the opinion of their peers, forces children to become self-conscious about their body image. The age that children now critique their own body image is steadily decreasing. A small percentage of white girls start dieting in kindergarten. Extensive research agrees that body image dissatisfaction is higher in girls than in boys. As girls begin to turn those anti-fat biases onto themselves they become dissatisfied with their own bodies. Around 40% of all white middle school girls already view their body image negatively. As a girl ages, she will begin to feel more and more self-conscious about her body image. This is caused by more extensive exposure to advertisements, television shows, and magazines emphasizing the “Thin Ideal”. The beauty is not just emphasized more but the negative anti-fat biases increase so that a fat women is often extensively made fun of.

Image conflicts affect 95% of woman in the Western World. Media enforces the idea that beauty and thinness are the only ‘truly feminine’ body type, wherein beauty and thinness are the only socially acceptable woman’s body. A woman’s sexual attractiveness stems from her thinness and her beauty, therefore, if she wants to form a meaningful sexual relationship, she must comply to the gender enforced body stereotypes. 1% of the population in the United States is affected by an extreme eating disorder. 1-2% of adolescents between the ages of 13-18 experience eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. The ratio of female to male adolescents suffering from AN and BN is 10:1. The concentration of the population’s people suffering from AN and BN are typically stewardesses, models, athletes, and dancers. The women in those professions are often subject to eating disorders because they all have a strong influence on beauty and slimness. While AN and BN typically only affected women of certain classes in the past, it has now become a problem faced by all classes and all races. Even poorer countries (2nd and 3rd world) are have many girls affected by AN and BN due to the worldwide spread of Western consumer culture. The ‘ideal of thinness’ has become an ethical value as well as a physical value, this is known as ‘cultural disturbance’. Because the value of thinness has become so prominent in Western culture, it has developed into a moral, physical, psychological value which determines a person’s place in the world. Women and young girls, then internalize the thinness as their sole value (social and personal), which then spreads to all aspects and values of their lives like self-esteem, self-recognition, and self-destruction.

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The internalization of model figures begins in young children around the ages of 3 and 4. First the value of thinness is taught by parents and then it is enforced by society. Women are then taught that the norms governing the female way of life (shapes, clothing, relationships, and care) define the ‘ideals’ of femininity. Aesthetics and grooming provide a means for social recognition in which the ideas of self and the normative principles of the group converge. The aesthetic ideals for women are: youth, beauty, and thinness. Therefore, the beauty products seek to emphasize the negatives of old age, plainness, and regular body types. The fear of old age, plainness, and a regular body type, force women to buy products, which create a tendency towards uniformity and the blurring of individual physical traits. The sexualization of consumption: the demand to expose the body to others as well as submitting the body to competitive and permanent examination. The sexualization of consumption engenders the insecurity in adolescents, as they seek to fulfill the normative demands of attractiveness.

Naomi Wolf’s sought to identify the real definition of beauty and the causes and consequences of the “Thin Ideal”. Wolfe recognized that women were often unaware about how much the importance of women’s beauty effected them both in their careers and in their personal lives. She used women on TV especially reporters as her example, stating that they got their positions because of their beauty as opposed to their own merit. Obviously they were offended. In order to discredit Wolf, she was attacked by the media from men and women alike. They spun the story that as a feminist she believed that women shouldn’t shave, wear lipstick or bras. Wolf defended herself arguing that it was a woman’s right to chooses how she dressed and how she maintained her own body. A woman should be allowed to dress as she pleased, not having to conform to the mainstream style. However, Wolf was branded as a feminist with the public calling her “un-American”, because she questioned the very ideal of femininity. At the time feminists were regarded as ill-mannered and freakish women. The media went so far as to suggest that anyone who identified with the beauty myth must have personal shortcomings. I.e they must be fat, ugly, lesbians, or incapable of satisfying a man.

Excusing The Problem: Eating Disorders and Statistics

At first people suffering from Anorexia and Bulimia were considered to be anomalies. Wolf identified them as victims of the “Thin Ideal” but public opinion did not follow her thinking. Instead they linked eating disorders to personal crisis, poor parenting, and psychological maladjustment of the individual. However, that argument was disproved when studies found that a large percentage of women, all from different backgrounds and different body types and different races. They were identified as women trying to attain the “ideal” body shape and weight. The National Eating Disorders Association and the National Institutes of Health agreed to the statistics that between one and two percent of all American women; between 1.5 and 3 million women suffer from eating disorders. The death rate caused by anorexia in girls ages fifteen through twenty-four is 56% per decade, making it the leading cause of death. Making Anorexia the biggest killer of all teenage girls in the United States. Progress has been made by making people aware and wary of eating disorders. From a young age (usually around the time students reach Junior High School), children are educated about eating disorders; the dangers, symptoms, addictive nature, and how they can be treated. Information can be found in most schools, Doctor’s offices, libraries, gyms, and sorority houses.

Changes in the Beauty Myth

Every decade or so a new fashion trend is pushed by advertising and the media. The trend is not necessarily in clothes but in woman’s physique. In the 70s and 80s the trend was “Heroin Chic”; Women who were practically emaciated but with big breasts and angular faces. The end of the 80s brought in the “Thin Ideal”. While the “Thin Ideal” has remained relatively constant, slight changes were made. The 90s pop culture pornography suddenly made breasts a defining aspect of women’s beauty. The culture came to emphasize the value of the perfection of women’s breasts so much that millions of women called for silicone breast implants. However, the trend did not last for long. The scrutiny of the silicone breast implants leads the business to grind to a halt. The silicone was harmful. Advertising turned away from that trend and began to treat smaller breasts as more acceptable and desirable.

The definition of beauty is again changing. Though not as rapidly as people would wish. In fact, it takes two steps forward and one step back. While Barbie was once the iconic model of “Thinness”; blonde, tall, thin, asymmetrical, perfect, and white; the makers of the Barbie doll have created different Barbie doll portraying girls of all sizes, shapes, and colors. The American Girl Doll and her companion magazine have begun to teach girls to love their bodies and themselves no matter how they look. The most popular model is an African American model. Advertisements now portray a large variety slim (not anorexically thin) women. Plus size models are now accepted in the fashion industry. But the question really is, are they really accepted or are they just decoys to make the public think that the new beauty is everyone. Kate Belts admitted in an interview with The New York Times that she removed Renee Zellweger from the cover of Vogue because Zellweger had just finished filming the Bridget Jones’ Diary, for which she had to gain weight making her the weight and shape of an average woman.

“Thinness” isn’t the only aspect of beauty that continues to be admired. Youth is probably the second if not the first aspect of beauty currently. Model Elizabeth Hurley was fired from her job as an Estee Lauder spokeswoman because at thirty-six, she was getting too old.

Based on those dolls it would appear that the beauty myth is beginning to break up and begin to accept all girls and women as beautiful. That might be in one part true. There is now an extreme emphasis on the sexualization of the female body. Before it was “Thinness” that mattered so much. While “Thinness” is still a key component of beauty, sexuality is beginning to take its place. Children younger and younger are becoming forced to live up to the sexualized ideal. Fashion brands like Calvin Klein have begun to eroticize sixteen-year-old girls. Guess Jeans ads pose what look like nine-year-old girls in provocative and sexual settings. Even the bunny in the newly released children’s movie Zootopia has a woman’s curvaceous and sexy body. The Kardashians, probably currently the most famous family in Hollywood rose to fame through a sex tape and a provocatively sexual and crude reality TV show. Sex is the new beauty myth.

Slenderness has always been visually glamorized. However, it had not been emphasized to such an extreme before the late 80s and early 90s. Being flawless became incorporated with the idea of slenderness. Women’s bodies considered slim only a decade before would be considered fleshy. Slenderness was soon replaced by the ideality of skinny. Any bulge on a woman’s body, even in some cases breasts, were considered gross. Even the slightest amount of curves was considered by the fashion industry to be fat. However, extreme dieting is not as effective as people believe. The skinnier a person is, the more prominent a bulge or a lump would be. In order for a woman to get rid of those almost invisible bulges and lumps, she would either turn bulimic or anorexic. Eating disorders develop usually from outside forces objectifying or humiliating the woman. Anorexia and Bulimia can result from rape and abusive relationships. Rape can in some cases face women to turn to Anorexia because they are shamed as a victim. When it is made out to be the fault of the woman who was raped “she was dressed provocatively”, the woman will try to destroy her female figure so that she appears unattractive and not as someone who could attract any male attention onto herself. Those are two contradictory views on anorexia. There is an extreme cultural value in thinness but it has been a certain type of thinness as observed by the two cases. There is a tipping point where thinness becomes emaciation. On the other end of the spectrum, thinness becomes curvy.

While most women do not suffer from such an extreme concentration on their weight, it has become part of the way they perceive the female in both beauty and success; “people … think that someone thin is automatically smarter and better” (17). Slenderness in women is often associated with self-control, competence, and intelligence. While the idea of curvaceousness is associated with the blonde bimbo from a cartoon. In a survey done by Susan and Wayne Wooley, seventy-five percent of the thirty-three thousand women surveyed considered themselves to be “too fat”. However, according to BMI records, only 30 percent of the women surveyed were actually over-weight. Another study done with 100 women found that 95% of the women surveyed estimated their body sizes to be 25 times larger than it actually was. Society has taught women that they must look a certain way. So even women who do not think that they are fat, will look in the mirror and try to pick out all their flaws and all of the places where it might “benefit” them to lose some weight.

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