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Sex Sells, but at What Price?


We’ve all heard the expression ‘sex sells.' In fact, it’s most likely too familiar for most of us. Every day we are bombarded with sexualised images tied to often unrelated products and services. Objectifying depictions of women are used to sell everything from car insurance to web software and even fast food. Brands are increasingly using women's bodies and to lesser extent men’s bodies, as commodities in the pursuit of high profit margins.

For most millennials, this exposure to sexualised images takes the form of model-filled Instagram feeds, suggested content and ads that seem to follow you around the internet. At times, it feels difficult to escape the constant barrage of body-focused advertising. As most of us probably already know, these sexualised ads carry more harm than just being annoying.

Countless studies have associated sexual objectification in the media with body image issues, decreased self-esteem and eating disorders. Scarily enough, new research shows that this is even beginning to affect the way that children see their bodies. In a 2014 study of 4000 Australian children, kids as young as eight or nine years old expressed feeling unhappy with their appearance. Unsurprisingly, the dissatisfied children had higher levels of emotional and behavioural issues than those who were happy with their bodies.

Clearly the commodification of bodies in advertising is damaging the way we view ourselves, but what can we do about it?

Firstly, we should understand how cultural depictions of bodies translate to insecurities, particularly in women.

There are a few interesting psychological theories that explain how images in the media shape our self-identity. One of these is the Objectification Theory, which proposes that girls and women are raised to internalise an “observer’s perspective” of their bodies. We view ads where women’s bodies are used as props, objects of sexual pleasure or even represented as a collection of disjointed body parts such as legs and breasts. After being exposed to these images over a long time we start to see ourselves through the same lens.

According to Joan Chrisler, a well-recognised contributor to feminist psychology, this act of self-objectification leads to a kind of dissociation between the body and the self. In other words, the more we see ourselves as objects, the more we become detached from what’s really happening in our bodies. This is probably the most disturbing impact of self-objectification. By losing the ability to recognise natural processes, women are at higher risk of missing vital symptoms and body cues indicating a health problem.

If that’s not bad enough, the act of self-objectification has unsurprisingly also been linked to low self-esteem, sexual dysfunction and higher levels of anxiety. Some studies have even induced self-objectification in participants and noticed that it decreased their verbal, math and spatial abilities. Self-objectification therefore not only impairs intellectual and creative abilities, but also acts as an immensely powerful force that shapes our consciousness in ways in which we are not always aware.

A similar approach, Cultivation Theory, sheds some light on the relationship between exposure and body image. The more body-focused images you see, the higher the risk of self-objectification. Furthermore, by consuming a lot of appearance-focused media, the pursuit of the ‘ideal body’ becomes normalised as both an attainable target and a commendable hobby. In other words, if you are only exposed to images of the ‘perfect body’ on your Instagram for example, you’re more likely to start seeing your body as an object. The high density of fitness products and various ‘diet tea’ items intensify the idea that your body is a kind of project to be worked on, perfected and improved to the point of emulating the ‘ideal’.

In the case of platforms like Instagram and Facebook, a good strategy for avoiding harmful body norms would be to unfollow influencers and brands that use body-focused images to sell products. Of course, this is not as simple as it seems. Blocking out models and sexist ads can minimise your risk of self-objectification, but it doesn’t change the fact that women’s bodies are being appropriated for profit. While social media is undoubtedly a major source of objectified images, we need to recognise that ultimately it is pre-existing ideas and cultural norms that determine how we use technology.

For this reason, it’s worth considering how women’s bodies became the advertising industry’s favourite commodities. In her 2017 article, Between innocence and experience: the sexualisation of girlhood in 19th century postcards, Elodie Silberstein challenges the idea that sexualised imagery of girls and women is a new phenomenon. She points to the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1874 as a catalyst for kicking off a European postcard craze. Postcards may sound innocent, but the industry quickly took a dark turn. Soon enough, some of the bestselling postcards were those that featured girls and women posing in suggestive and provocative positions.

It’s important to note that the Industrial Revolution, the backdrop to the postcard frenzy, dramatically changed the way people lived and experienced the world. As factory jobs became the norm, young women began leaving rural areas for work in the city. This migration made them particularly vulnerable to physical and economic exploitation. Postcard companies, taking advantage of these conditions, successfully profited off the ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ dichotomous depiction of female sexuality. While this two-dimensional view of women had long been present in art and literature, the postcard craze was the first time that businesses were able to exploit women’s bodies on such a wide scale.

Although the Victorian period seems far behind us, this example shows that commodification of the female body is nothing new, but as Silberstein argues, a “socially ingrained phenomenon”. It might not sound like a big deal but acknowledging the economic and social factors behind the commodification process is an exciting step in the right direction. Of course, what that direction looks like is still hotly contested. One writer suggests that advertisements containing women should focus on body areas that are not usually sexualised, such as hands and feet. This is an interesting suggestion but at what point does it become a form of censorship of sexuality?

This idea is addressed in a 2012 article Should girls have to choose between being a ‘tramp’ and being ‘good’? by Amy Shields Dobson from Monash University’s Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research. Responding to public outrage towards Target’s ‘sexualised’ children’s clothes, Shields Dobson argues that journalists, commentators and researchers involved in the media discussion inadvertently stigmatise the healthy expression of female sexuality. She laments the fact that so often “clothing, dance, or any possible kind of sexual expression by girls” is viewed through what she described as the “lens of a media and market-driven sexualisation”.

Central to her argument is the idea that the adults who are so concerned about protecting girls can actually cause more harm. By using negative language to describe female sexuality, these adults reify the ‘tramp’ vs ‘good girl’ dichotomies. Although Shields Dobson is specifically speaking about young girls, it does raise questions about the kind of language that’s attributed to women who do embrace the clothes, make up and attributes which are sold via the commodification of women’s bodies. Considering the physical and psychological harm caused by self-objectification, stigmatising female sexuality is far from helpful.

At this point, it’s clear that self-objectification is a lose-lose situation for women. Not only are they pressured into internalising body norms, but when they embody the attributes used in the commodification process, they risk being ‘slut-shamed’.

Thankfully, a 2019 study by the University of Basel provides us with some hope. When shown sexualised imagery in advertising, female participants had a negative reaction when the female models featured appeared to lack a sense of agency. This opposition increased when the female model was seen as being manipulated and when the model was viewed as relatable. This shows that there is an increasing awareness about how women’s bodies are being exploited in ads, but perhaps only with women who appear to be like us in some way.

Furthermore, while ‘sex sells’ is a popular expression, some studies show it might not even be the case. According to a 2017 University of Illinois study, sexualised ads did not increase recall of the brands or products being advertised. The ads that did feature sexual imagery even evoked a negative response from female participants. Similar studies have been done and produced the same result.

This raises an important question: if objectifying women does not increase sales, why is it such a popular advertising tactic? Rosa Louverture and Alison Pennington present a convincing response in their 2013 article. “Sexism,” they write, “is the product of a class-based economic system that gains and prospers from underpaying, or not paying, stereotyping, belittling and sexualising women.”

Given the susceptibility of the human brain to internalise cultural norms, challenging our preconceived ideas about our bodies seems the best step forward. In doing so, we are reminded that social norms and culture are indeed dynamic and thus our attitudes towards ourselves and each other are products of specific economic, social and political factors. It also gives us hope to believe that meaningful change is not only possible, but well within our reach.


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