Jean Kilbourne Battles Advertising's Toxic Portrayal of Women

Hundreds of students gathered in McGuinn 121 on Wednesday night to listen to speaker Jean Kilbourne, marking the midpoint of Love Your Body Week. Kilbourne’s talk, “The Naked Truth: Advertising’s Image of Women” addressed the realities of how women are portrayed commercially and the resulting harmful effects on society as a whole.

Jean Kilbourne is an internationally-recognized speaker, author, and filmmaker who has spent her time studying the portrayal of women (as well as alcohol and drugs, both of which she shows to overlap tremendously with gender) in advertising.  Kilbourne was the first person to methodically begin analyzing the advertising of women back in the 1960s. Her ideas were seen as radical back then, but over time, they have gained immense popularity and are now widely accepted.

Kilbourne opened by discussing the concept of advertising in general and how much of an impact advertisements have on our daily lives. The average American is exposed to 3,000 ads a day, most of which we don't pay much conscious attention to but whose messages our minds subconsciously retain.

Photo courtesy of Jean Kilbourne / Facebook

Photo courtesy of Jean Kilbourne / Facebook

“Advertising tells us who we are and what she should be,” Kilbourne said, referencing the myriad of advertisements depicting perfection and flawlessness that consumers then strive to achieve. “The most important aspect of this flawlessness is that it cannot be achieved,” she continued—and when we can’t achieve it, we feel ashamed and guilty.

To support her point, Kilbourne displayed countless images in which women had been Photoshopped and professionally made up to achieve looks that are unrealistic and unattainable for real women. In these ads, women were made to look thinner, fitter, and younger.  This brought up another important point of Kilbourne’s talk: the pressure on women to look young, even as they age.

“Older women are considered attractive only if we look infinitely young,” Kilbourne said.  She elaborated that as men grow older, they seem to be judged for their money and status (a stereotypical expectation of men that is just as harmful as those placed on women). On the other hand, women’s self-worth is consistently determined by their appearance, no matter how old they are.

Young girls are especially vulnerable to being influenced by advertising, explained Kilbourne. She showed several ads in which young girls were sexualized, made to look more mature with their suggestive poses and made-up faces like those of older models. She then pointed out that such ads contribute to the normalization of sexualizing children, which has dangerous links to the sexual abuse of children.

Another major issue Kilbourne addressed is the objectification of women in ads. In many advertisements, men are shown dominating women and treating them as sexual objects. Not only are women seen as merely sexual beings, but they are, in many cases, literally made into objects. In one ad, a woman’s naked body was used as a table to display shoes, belts, and sunglasses. In another, the woman was transformed into a bottle of Michelob Ultra beer. The danger of this type of objectification, Kilbourne says, is that it contributes to a culture of violence against women: Dehumanizing women makes it appear okay to commit violent acts against them.

Kilbourne doesn’t ignore the fact that men, too, are often objectified in order to sell products and attract consumers. When men are objectified, however, they are made to be bigger, more dominating, and more powerful, whereas women are typically made to be smaller, more submissive, and less powerful.

These harmful aspects of ads are damaging to the self-esteem of women of all ages, causing them to feel like they have to do whatever they can in order to look like the models they see. When they see other women being objectified and controlled, women lose confidence and feelings of self-worth. To combat these issues, we must work to change this “toxic cultural environment” in which we live, Kilbourne said, because “public health issues can be solved only by changing the environment.”

So what gives Kilborne hope, if advertising is still portraying women in harmful ways just as it did in the 1960s? She said that she has hope because now she is not alone in her stance on women in advertising, and because of the number of young people now involved in spreading awareness on the subject.

Kilbourne ended her talk on a positive note by presenting advertisements that challenge the media's typical portrayal of women. These included an Always commercial, in which girls fought back against the insult “Like a Girl,” and a White House video, “1 is 2 Many,” which campaigned against the sexual assault of women on college campuses. Hopefully ads like these will help point our society’s depiction of women in a more positive direction, because, as Kilbourne said, “It is important to challenge not only these ads but these attitudes.”

“During her presentation today I was struck by the fact that I forget how much Photoshop and airbrushing are used in the images we see," said Maggie Kilgallon, MCAS '16, after the event. "I compare myself to them, knowing there is no way I could ever measure up but forgetting the fact that even those women can’t measure up to the doctored images of themselves!”

By provoking such thoughts, Jean Kilbourne’s talk greatly contributed to the conversation and promotion of positive body image at Boston College. This event, along with the other programs sponsored by Love Your Body Week, continue to ignite progress in the way we see (and love) ourselves and others.