Distorted mirror: why the media is failing to reflect today’s women.

Last month, I looked at  anti-ageing adverts and the implications of their dangerous inference that ageing is a solely women’s issue. Sexism in advertising is rife and sadly, anti-ageing ads are just the tip of the iceberg.

Advertisers’ sustained misrepresentation of women reaches as far as the eye can see, an undeniably cult example of which has to be the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. For weeks in the run up, the media examine the models in forensic detail, offering up tips on how to achieve that model figure with the perfect Angel arse. A mere cursory glance at the comments below any such articles crudely exposes the impact of this scrutiny on women’s own self-perception, with the hashtags ‘bodygoals’, ‘thinspiration’ and ‘thighgap’ gaining ever-increasing popularity in 2015. The VS catwalk is socially-accepted sexism in its purest form, a multi-million dollar publicity stunt born out of the objectification of women’s bodies perpetuating a dangerous myth: that one single body type alone equates to beauty and success.

Caroline Nokes, Tory MP and chair for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, has hit headlines in the past weeks as she picks up the baton from many campaigners before her on the age-old size debate in the fashion industry. It’s been a contentious subject since the ‘90s and despite increasingly vocal warnings against emaciation as an aspiration, there has been little to no change in the advertising arena. Nokes rightly defends the importance of realistic representations of women in our media stating, “If someone can come forward and offer an explanation of why a size six woman is too large to model clothes when the average woman in this country is a size 16, then I am very happy to hear it”.

Nokes herself has been criticised as an ‘obesity-enabler’ and, ironically, her position as chair of the committee has put her own size under media scrutiny, making the importance of what she’s doing all the more stark. Portrayals of women in the media need to be inclusive and truly representative of their diversity. That should include young, tall and slim women, but it should also include the 99% of other body types, ages and demographics that are sorely underrepresented.

Advertisers change when consumer habits force them to but when consumers are presented with so few alternative examples, how can they flex their purchasing power? Advertisers need to recognise that their rhetoric is harmful and wake up to a growing discontent for media misrepresentation, although I fear they’ll be loathe to do so without a legislative nudge.

Female empowerment has come a long way since the ‘50’s – all the more reason to stamp out the out-dated, cultural misogyny in our advertising.

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