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Grading on a curve: How advertising sells a poisoned image of women

By Heather Smith

How much do the advertisements we see every day actually affect us? According to Jean Kilbourne, they have a startling impact. In 1979 Kilbourne, renowned feminist author, speaker, and filmmaker, premiered Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. Now, over thirty years later, the fourth installment has gone public, redressing issues that Kilbourne states have gotten worse since she began talking about it. Killing Us Softly 4, released in 2010, discusses the effect of advertising on women’s self-esteem, their health, and how they are perceived by the public.

This film targets advertising specifically, an industry of 250 billion dollars a year in the United States alone, since the average American is exposed to approximately 3,000 ads a day. Kilbourne says of these: “Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy.” And, as you can probably guess, these concepts are built around physical image.

Ads sell "flawless" physical perfection

Killing Us Softly 4 explains how ads sell the goal of physical perfection to women, while at the same time setting them up for failure. And failure is inevitable, Jean explains, “because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness.” This apparent perfection is achieved through retouching photographs. Women are literally pasted together from several images, so that the onlooker may be seeing one woman’s lips, another’s hips, and another’s nose, all the while receiving the impression that this advertisement shows flawlessness.

And it is this perception which is dangerous, as females measure themselves against an impossible standard every single day.

A perfect example of this standard can be seen in one ad for Dep Styling Products which reads, “Your breasts may be too big, too saggy, too pert, too flat, too full, too far apart, too close together, too A-cup, too lopsided, too jiggly, too pale, too padded, too pointy, too pendulous, or just two mosquito bites. But with Dep Styling Products at least you can have your hair the way you want it!” This ad is basically saying that there is no way to have acceptable breasts, but you might as well buy something to make your hair look nicer.

There are countless other ads that degrade women while trying to sell them something, and Kilbourne sums it up when she says in the film, “Basically, we’re told that women are acceptable only if we’re young, thin, white, or at least light-skinned.” Additionally, advertising is sending the message that the perfect woman must be passive, childlike yet experienced and, above all, sexualized.

Idea of girls as objects promotes violence

The silencing of women is portrayed in many ways. Often women are depicted with their hands over their mouths, or their mouths covered in some way. Frequently they are infantilized with the clothing the models wear or the silly positions they are photographed in, whereas men are mostly photographed in positions of strength and solemnity. There is no emphasis on intimacy or relationships in advertising, and it has gotten graphic to the point of being pornographic. And, Kilbourne points out, “at the same time that we allow our children to be sexualized, we refuse to educate them about sex.”

As young girls are exposed to these ads, Killing Us Softly 4 explains, they are taught that they will be rewarded for sexualizing themselves, and viewing themselves as objects.

Killing Us Softly 4 highlights a particularly important example in clothing sizes in recent years. The invention of the size 0 and 00 gives the impression that a woman must aspire to become nothing if she is to be acceptable. These excruciatingly small sizes are then sent to be modeled, though most women cannot fit into the clothes. The “perfect” body type pedaled by advertising is one that less than 5% of the American population has, and one that cannot be attained without surgery or genetic predisposition. This obsession with thinness can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders, harming today’s women with the message that they must be thin to the point of becoming unhealthy in attempting to achieve it.

Dehumanization leads to cosmetic surgery and violence

This is not the extent of the negative effects of such advertising techniques. Women are dehumanized in advertising, which leads to widespread violence. Kilbourne is emphatic in her statement that advertising is not the sole cause of violence against women, but she also notes that it adds to the environment in which such things occur.

A way in which women are dehumanized is in image splicing. Only a specific part of the woman will be portrayed in the ad, effectively making her seem less than a complete human. Often, women are portrayed as objects such as a keg of beer, or a car. In Killing Us Softly 4, Jean explains that, “turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step to justifying violence against that person. We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism. It’s always the same process. The person is dehumanized and violence then becomes inevitable.”

The effect of hacking apart women’s bodies in advertising is manifold. In recent years, the number of cosmetic surgeries, 91% of which were performed on women, has increased by 457% to almost 12 million a year. Often this is done in pursuit of the implausible perfection, and includes things such as breast implants. Many women who have breast implants lose sensation in their breasts, thus becoming an object of pleasure, rather than the recipient.

It has also affected men’s perceptions of women. Studies have shown that “when men are shown photographs of supermodels in studies they then judge real women much more harshly,” says Kilbourne. And, as argued above, objectifying creates a path to violence. One third of the women killed in the United States are killed by their male partners or their husbands.

Portrayal of women in advertising affects everyone

But this violence is not only caused by the portrayal of women in advertising. Advertising directed at men focuses on the importance of masculinity. Talking and communication, often considered feminine traits are devalued, forcing men to the conclusion that they must not have any femininity in them if they are to meet the male standard of perfection. Indirectly, men are shown that feminine characteristics are synonymous with weakness, even in women themselves.

Killing Us Softly 4 ends on a moral note. What can be done to change this dehumanization and absurd ideal of women in advertising? Kilbourne thinks that the first step is to become aware of what is happening, and to promote citizen activism. This would include education, discussion, and media literacy.

“We need to disrupt the stories that advertising tells us about ourselves and our relationships,” Kilbourne says. “The changes have to be profound and global and they’ll depend upon an aware, active and educated public – a public that thinks of itself primarily as citizens rather than primarily as consumers.” In order to change the image of women as subordinate, silent, and weak, the concepts produced by advertising need to transform so that women are not taught that their sole value resides in their appearance.

To watch Killing Us Softly 4, visit

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