How is women’s identity constructed through consumerism?
Consumerism is the ever-expanding social and economic order of consumption that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Women’s identity’s have been manipulated through consumerism, through adverts telling them how they should look like, how they should act and what they should own, to be the best person that they could be, although it will still never be enough. ‘The emphasis on women’s looks becomes a crucial way in which society exercises control over women’s sexuality.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page35) Through this essay it will show how the theories about women and the media, and how consumerism controls the way that women feel and react to advertisements targeted towards them. Rosalind Coward has strong theories and beliefs about how women have been subjected to feel certain ways when seeing many different advertisements, this will be shown throughout this essay with quotes from her book being supported by other sources.
‘The saturation of society with images of women has nothing to do with men’s natural appreciation of objective beauty, their aesthetic appreciation, and everything to do with an obsessive recording and use of women’s images in ways which make men comfortable. Clearly this is connected with feeling secure and powerful. And women are bound to this power precisely because visual impressions have been elevated to the position of holding the key to our psychic well-being, our social success, and indeed to whether or not we will be loved.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page34)
Through time women have been painted and photographed in ways which make men feel confortable, never looking directly into the camera or being painted so that the women is looking away, never catching the gaze of a man. When it comes to ideologies of men and women, women are seen to be the focus of an image, looking away from the audience or looking back suggestively, allowing men to look back at them without being challenged, so they can look for as long as they please without feeling guilty. ‘While I don’t wish to suggest there’s an intrinsically male way of making images, there can be little doubt that entertainment as we know it is crucially predicted on a masculine investigation of women, a circulation of women’s images for men.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page33) Coward s suggesting that because the image is created by a man, it is also creating from a male point of view, therefore will appeal to other men, as it is their way of seeing things. Through time the idea of gazing upon a women in an advert or image has advanced and targeted at women too. Showing the women what they could look like if they did certain things, which will allow men to appreciate what she looks like, as well as what the women in the advert or image looks like too. Most women have an overwhelming need to find ‘the one’, they believe that they have to act and look a certain way to find that special someone. With all of the advertising that is used now a days women feel like they have to look like the women in these adverts to compete to find a men who appreciates them aesthetically, but more importantly, compete with these women so that they feel they are beautiful enough. Naomi Wolf supports this idea by saying; ‘the quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it.’ (Wolf, N. 1900. Page12)
Not only women but also young girls are influenced by this idea of being perfect and beautiful. ‘It has been suggested that all children pass through a narcissistic phase where they become entranced by their own self-image.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page36). This is known as the mirror stage, where children start to be able to see themselves for the first time, and are able to pass judgment on themselves. It is something that is brought upon them at a young age, where they are vulnerable to things such as Snow White (fig 2), things that we think are innocent and just a fairy tale actually communicate a negative message to children. At this “mirror” stage in life young girls and boys will be subliminally taking what is taught in fairy tales such as Snow White and applying them in life. Young girls believing that she will only find her “Prince Charming” if she is “the fairest of them all”, and young boys believing that they shouldn’t be with anyone unless they are the “the fairest of them all”. ‘In a recent study of high school girls, 53 percent were unhappy with their bodies by age thirteen; by age eighteen and over, 78 percent were dissatisfied.’ (Wolf, N. 1990. Page185) Starting from a young age society makes girls/women believe that they should look a certain way, and women find themselves forever trying to improve the way they look to get to the ideal version of themselves. But they will never fully get there as there is always something else that needs changing, or some other product that is now available to enhance your assets, Coward supports this by saying, “Women’s relation to their own self-image is much more likely to be dominated by discontent (…) ’I’m not attractive enough’.” (Coward, R. 2000. Page37) Therefore no matter what women do, and no matter how many products they buy to enhance themselves, they will never be content.
‘Advertising in this society builds precisely on the creation of an anxiety to the effect that, unless we measure up, we will not be loved. We are set to work on an ever-increasing number of areas of the body, laboring to perfect and eroticise an ever-increasing number of erotogenic zones. Every minute region of the body is now exposed to this scrutiny by the ideal. Mouth, hair (…) legs, feet – all these and many more have become areas requiring work. Each area requires potions, moisturisers, conditioners, night creams, creams to cover up blemishes. Moisturise, display, clean off, rejuvenate – we could well be here all day, preparing the face to meet the faces that we meet.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page38)
Women often don’t only seek attention from men; they also seek envy of other women. Attention from other females is hard to measure, although from men is easily measured. Therefore advertisements that show the consumer a beautiful women, and make them envious, means that if they do what that women are doing in the advert, or look like that women looks, other women will also be envious of them. ‘The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.’ (Berger, J. 1972. Page131) Glamour is something that now-a-days can be sold, often for a large profit, and although everyone is glamorous in their own way, and everyone is beautiful to someone, publicity has molded the definition of glamour and made it what they want it to be to sell products. Women are no longer comfortable with the way they look, no matter what they do to try and make themselves glamorous they will never be good enough ’I’m not attractive enough’.” (Coward, R. 2000. Page37). Coward supports Berger’s idea that glamour is now manufactured and most women feel that they will never measure up, and has to buy all of these products to make them glamorous to even compete with those who are deemed to “have it all”. When in fact even arguably some of the most beautiful women aren’t good enough and have to be enhanced and improved. Jessica Alba (fig 1) on a photo shoot for the cover of a magazine isn’t even deemed as good enough, they have to change and enhance what she looks like to make other women enviable and want to look like that too. The original image of her, before they used Photoshop to “enhance” what she looks like, is beautiful and glamorous; it is also achievable to some women as its real. Then they change it so that it is “glamorous” enough for the cover, ‘manufacturing glamour’ (Berger, J. 1972. Page131) this makes women think that people actually look this way when in fact even the people who women are trying to look like, don’t look like that. It is an unreachable goal as the idea of looking “perfect” doesn’t exist, everyone is beautiful to someone, it is in the eye of the beholder, although women will still be pushed into trying to get there, or get as close as they can.
Although Hayden Noel argues the point that women’s identities are not molded by consumerism, but in fact women in consumerism mold the advertisers and marketers and the decisions they have to make. ‘Marketers need to now why consumers choose one product over another (…) Understanding consumers preferences and how they make decisions enables marketers to influence the choice process and determine how best to persuade consumers to examine their brand and place it in the group of item being considered for purchase.’ (Noel, H. 2009. Page134) Different people react different ways to advertising, men and women react differently, as men react better with humor and lighthearted advertising, whereas women react better with emotional and life (children and families) advertising. This is something that advertisers have to do, they have to appeal to their target audience with whatever product they have. ‘Marketers are cashing in on the increasing role of women in traditionally male-dominated markets.’ (Noel, H. 2009. Page81) Although this is good for advertisers and marketers, seeing all the new possibilities to advertise for women, this is their job and they are just doing it to the best of their abilities. It could also be argued that people see what they want to see in an advert anyway, everyone looks at things in different ways and has different perspectives; therefore it is the eye of the beholder, and not everyone looks at things such as Snow White in a negative way, they see them in the innocent way that the producers intended them to be.
Vance Packard agrees that it is the eye of the beholder as he says; ‘The subject sees in the picture what he “needs” to see, and thus projects himself into it – his anxieties, inadequacies, conflicts.’ (Packard, V. 1957. Page59) Only by creating circumstances which people can project themselves into will relate to the target audience, they need to feel like the message that is being communication is personally for them. Doing this is quite difficult for certain audiences, therefore women reacting negatively to the advert means that it is successful as they are actually reacting to it. Some people will react to the same advert but see it in a different way; it will still have the same outcome for the marketers although the audience will see it positively, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. For example The Victoria’s Secret Love My Body Campaign (fig 3) is targeted at women who are comfortable with themselves and have quite small frames and want to know somewhere that they can buy underwear from that will make them feel even better about themselves and confident in their bodies. The ‘Love My Body Campaign’ is designed to project a positive message about bodies, so it will reflect well on Victoria’s Secret. However it can be argued that the models that have been used for the Campaign are all of a certain size, which a lot of women would call “perfect” and some women will see this as a goal, to look like these women. ‘The image like a mirror reflects back to women their own fascination with their own image.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page37) They will do whatever they can do to look like these women, as they think that they would be envied and lusted for, if they did, although fig 1 shows that this may not be what the women actually look like and this could be an unrealistic goal. This advert shows the positive and negative way of looking at this advert, proving Vance Packard’s theory of that it is in the eye of the beholder.
Vance Packard also suggests on the other hand that ‘any product not only must be good but must appeal to our feelings “deep in the psychological recesses of the mind.”’ (Packard, V. 1957. Page53) This is a quote made by Dr. Dichter in The Hidden Persuaders, he tells companies that ‘they’ve either got to sell emotional security or go under; and he contends that a major problem of any merchandiser is to discover the physiological hook.’ (Packard, V. 1957. Page53) Packard is implying that marketers look into finding the way to get into women’s minds, trying to make them paranoid and feel insecure in their own bodies. As if the marketers are giving them the solution that they have always been looking for, when actually the only reason they are looking for a solution in the first place is because of consumerism and how women are molded to look and act a certain way to be deemed as “beautiful” and “glamorous”. ‘Women are, more often than not, preoccupied with images, their own and other people’s.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page36) The Campaign for Victoria’s Secret (fig 3) has been rebelled against in Dove’s Campaign (fig 4), when these adverts are put together it shows a clear reflection of how advertisers and marketers portray women in consumerism. It displays what real women look like in the Dove Campaign, showing how happy they are in their own skin, showing how adverts like Victoria’s Secret don’t affect them, as they now know that it’s not real. Where as in the in the Victoria’s Secret campaign it is presenting what marketers want women’s identities to be, it is showing all normal women’s insecurities in one advert, suggesting that if they buy the underwear from Victoria’s Secret they will look “glamorous” and how women should want to look.
The Dolce and Gabbana advert (fig 5) is a good example show how marketers and advertisers don’t try and sell the product, they try and sell the lifestyle that the product can give you. In this advert the lipstick is not very clear, although the situation the lipstick puts you in is very clear, and if the consumer buys this lipstick they will too achieve this lifestyle and be this glamorous. ‘The spectator – buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, and envy which will then justify her loving herself.’ (Berger, J. 1972. Page134). Berger supports this point, as the advert is showing the women looking very glamorous, and being desired by attractive men, therefore this Dolce and Gabbana advert is advertising a lifestyle not just a product. It is advertising a lifestyle, which is very unrealistic, as not everyone who buys this product will look like the women in the advert, or have the lifestyle she has, with the affection of a man. ‘Anxiety on which plays is the fear that having nothing you will be nothing.’ (Berger, J. 1972. Page131) People fear that in their lives they will not be happy unless they have found their partner, had children, and own nice things. It is seen that if you have a lot of money you are doing well in life, which means you can buy all these things that are advertised, which infers that having “things” means you will be happy in life. ‘The power to spend money is the power to live.’ (Berger, J. 1972. Page143) If a women doesn’t have a lot of money, the advert offers the opportunity to buy the product and live a lifestyle as if she did, whilst getting envy from other women for having this product and potentially living this lifestyle. For example in this Dolce and Gabbana advert Scarlett Johansson is wearing nothing but the lipstick whilst looking glamorous and wanted, suggesting that all you need is this lipstick to look like Scarlett Johansson, and owning this lipstick will communicate the message to other men and women that you have money and can afford to buy this luxury product.
Women’s identity is constructed through consumerism. Through time women have been objectified and there are many ideologies of what women should look like to be seen as beautiful, or what women should own to be socially accepted. There is an argument that suggests consumerism has been molded around the development of women and the current women-dominated market, although the argument is floored due to the fact that women have only developed to buy certain things and act a certain way because of consumerism and how adverts portray an ideology of women and their overall aesthetic. Starting from a young age, girls are lead to believe that there is a particular way to act and look to be considered as beautiful and glamorous. This is something that women don’t grow out of, as there are constant reminders of what women should/could look like, and people follow this sometimes very drastically, which is a huge danger that consumerism is responsible for. ‘The youngest victims, from earliest childhood, learn to starve and vomit from the overwhelming powerful message of our culture (…) Until our culture tells young girls that they are welcome in any shape – that women are valuable to it with or without the excuse of “beauty” – girls will continue to starve.’ (Wolf, N. 1900. Page205) Adverts such as Dove (fig 4) should be seen more, showing young girls and women that curves are beautiful, normal and womanly, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It all comes down to being accepted and not being judged, for what women look like or own, ‘The girl-child discovers herself to be scrutinized, discovers herself to be the defined sex, the sex on which society seeks to write its sexual and moral ideals. She learns that in this scrutiny might lie the answer to whether she will be loved.’ (Coward, R. 2000. Page39) Ultimately women just want to be loved, being envied by other women is something of a desire to make women feel better about themselves, but finding a love is the overall aim. Consumerism makes women believe that they won’t find love unless they are “perfect”, “beautiful”, and “glamorous” and look like then women in the adverts who are slim and Photoshopped, this is an unreachable goal, and isn’t necessary as everyone is beautiful someone, no matter who they are, what they look like, or what they own. Women’s identities are constructed by consumerism, sometimes in a positive way, making women feel good about themselves and actually helping them to achieve their personal goals, although it is also mostly negative, making women feel bad about themselves, thinking that they need to be like the women in the adverts, changing drastically to become what consumerism has portrayed as beautiful.
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