I am a victim of the advertising industry. Granted, according to prominent cultural critic Jean Kilbourne, the cultural critic of Killing Us Softly 3, every woman acquires ridiculous ideals of physical perfection from the 3000 or so ads she encounters on a daily basis. But for several years I experienced the horror and humiliation of disordered eating, a DSM IV classification of unhealthy eating behaviors. While the behaviors associated with disordered eating are not as severe or life-threatening as those of anorexia or bulimia, they remain extremely unhealthy and often lead to more severe eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia and overall damage to body image are a few hidden gems of women’s advertising. The manipulative nature of the advertising industry provides a major contribution to these eating disorders, a reality that many victims fail to recognize, as the ads play largely to the subconscious mind. As such, victims are inclined to blame themselves for their diseases and continue exposing themselves to Cosmopolitan and other magazines that are full of ads depicting emaciated, but glamorous women.
When skimming through Cosmo with a critical eye, it is shocking how pervasive the use of underweight models truly is. I never noticed this as a high school student, sneaking looks at the magazine in the check-out aisle at the grocery store, or while exercising on the elliptical at the fitness center. No, I was more interested in the equally appalling articles that taught me how to “Choose the Best Jeans for YOUR Body,” “7 Ways to Make Him Ache for You,” and “Flatten Your Belly in 10 Days.” But when purposefully looking for an advertisement denigrating to women, I was amazed at how many I had to choose from. There was the Buffalo Jeans ad with a ménage a trios of computerized looking models, the Sam Edelman model naked but for the massive snake wound around her body, and infinite other possibilities. In the end, I chose the ad that, at first glance, appeared less sexual than others, but held a message every bit as damaging.
The ad is for French Connection, a British clothing retailer with stores located throughout Western Europe, the United States and Canada. French Connection targets style-conscious young women and men, often through the use of controversial ad campaigns. For example, in 2001, the company began branding clothing with the acronym “FCUK,” which, of course, is reminiscent of another four-letter word. French Connection insisted that “FCUK” stood for “French Connection United Kingdom” and nothing more, but this claim didn’t seem to hold up as well when the company began selling shirts with messages such as “too busy to fcuk,” “fcuk fashion,” “no fcuk in worries,” “hot as fcuk” and so on.
Recently, French Connection launched a new print campaign that clearly draws on traditional gender stereotypes. These advertisements depict “The Man,” a bearded hunter-gatherer type of guy who shares such pearls of wisdom as “Eat Meat. Dress Well,” and Never Ask Direction. Never Ask Time.” Opposite of “The Man,” is “The Woman,” a stylish coquette, who unlike the man, seems incapable of speaking in first-person. Instead, she poses passively behind such headlines that introduce her: “This is the woman…oops, we awaked her.” The French Connection advertisement that I found in the April 2010 issue of Cosmopolitan features “The Woman,” standing on one leg and looking as if she’s about to topple over. “The Woman” represents the stereotypical ideal of beauty. She is tall, thin, Caucasian and pretty, in a demure kind of way. Her hands are in the pockets of a blazer jacket that a company like French Connection might ordinarily market to men. The model purses her lips in concentration, perhaps in hopes of keeping her balance. And she appears to be gazing down at the headline, which tells us, “The woman is not undersized. The jacket is oversized. But the effect-it is the same.”
It is not so much the French Connection picture of “The Woman” I take issue with, although it leaves plenty to be criticized, including her passive stance and the stereotypical attributes we have come to expect in fashion models (Caucasian, young, thin, etc.). Given the fact that she is reasonably well-covered and her pose isn’t explicitly sexual, the visuals in this advertisement seem rather tame when compared to those placed on adjacent pages. No, it is the text that gives me such awful qualms. The message is that you don’t have to actually be “undersized,” just so long as you look like you are. As far as I can tell, it is impossible to appear as gaunt as the depicted model without actually being emaciated in the first place. A fat woman in an oversized jacket will just look like a fat woman draped in clothing that doesn’t fit. But even if the advice on how to appear “undersized” is misleading, the intent of the advice is worse: nothing matters as much as looking thin. This message is emphasized by its placement in the center of the page and over the picture of “The Woman.” The overall color scheme is black and white, with the background and the model’s apparel colored in an unassuming grey, thus further emphasizing the starkly contrasting white text. The model, with her passive stance and her dull colors seems to fade into the background, unnoticed. So, not only are the readers supposed to have a slim appearance, they are supposed to fade into nothingness. After all, a larger, more vivacious woman would attract too much attention.
The text at the bottom of the French Connection advertisement asks Cosmopolitan readers to “Discover The Woman at YouTube.com/FrenchConnection.” Maybe, I thought, maybe there is something more to this hapless young woman than what is shown in the print advertisement. So I trekked over to YouTube’s French Connection channel to “discover the woman.” The one big surprise I got from watching the online video was that “The Woman” looks like “The Girl” when her facial expression isn’t clenched as in the print ad. She could pass for a high school student dressed in very expensive clothing. She didn’t seem to have any more verbal insight than a high school student either. Apparently, she can read, but the the video clip shows her seductively posed on a daybed, reading a romance novel, another venue in which young, beautiful and passive women are idealized. The rest of the video shows her talking on the phone and staring dreamily out the window while waiting for “The Man” to arrive for a date, again sending a message that women are supposed to engage in passive and feminine activities and wait for their prince before going out. Heaven forbid a woman take some initiative and go out to work or play on her own.
French Connection, in its print and online video ad campaigns, reinforces familiar and inaccurate stereotypes about what a real woman is. The company seems to believe that a woman’s top priority should be her appearance. She should be youthful, attractive, and most importantly, thin. And she should do whatever is necessary to achieve physical perfection, whether that means buying an oversized jacket or taking more drastic measures.
French Connection is directing impressionable young women to strive for physical perfection, even though it is completely unattainable. This is not the message advertisers should be sending to adolescents and college-age women, who already are likely to feel self-conscious about their bodies. It is advertisements like French Connection’s “The Woman” campaign that set young women on disastrous paths of body dysmorphia and crash-dieting that often spiral out of control into eating disorders. Seeing as I am still a part of this vulnerable demographic, I am determined to avoid Cosmopolitan and other magazines that teach young women to hate themselves. I don’t need to look at advertisements with shallow stereotypes and other two-dimensional portraits of what it means to be a woman.
Killing Us Softly 3. Dir. Sut Jhally. Perf. Jean Kilbourne. DVD. Media Education Foundation, 2000