The Right of Advertisers to Portray Female Bodies

Are we destined to gawk forever at Photoshopped goddesses?

Unless you’ve lived under a rock, you’ve probably found it hard to avoid the almost ubiquitous dialog about the unrealistic portrayal of female bodies in the media. Fashion companies are going out of their way to Photoshop models with stick-thin legs and other physical impossibilities, and the social reaction is growing louder and louder. Today I want to explore what consumers and companies can do to affect positive change in the portrayal of female bodies.

Below: Target gets caught with probably the worst example of Photshopping artificial thigh gaps and thinner limbs on their underwear models 


Exercising Our Right to Social Punishment

Democracy and Capitalism are systems that rely heavily on social penalties. We generally have the freedom to do what we want, but not without a reaction from our peers and clients. In theory, an Elvis impersonator has equal opportunity to become President, but in reality it is impossible. We impose punishments on those who choose to exercise their freedom in eccentric or abnormal ways.

As marketers and business leaders we have two choices – to be reactionary to changing norms, or to be leaders and push the conversation forward. With the highly socially conscious young generations of today, consumer communities can quickly form on social media and publicly shame companies who are too slow to react to necessary change in their branding and advertising.

Advertising media has a colorful history of pushing boundaries and changing our societal zeitgeist. The United Colors of Benetton advertising campaign of the 1990’s was an early example of how progressive advertising can break down barriers and challenge norms. The campaign showed provocative images (for the time period), which is hard to interpret as anything other than social commentary.

What did the Benetton campaign have to do with fashion? Nothing, but they recognized their ability to use their influence to change the conversation and challenge its customer’s thinking. The world was fascinated with the ads – they polarized opinion, but nonetheless pushed the conversation on beauty and social activism forward.

And they reaped the financial rewards – at the time they were one of the most recognizable brands in the world. They showed that activist advertising can be profitable.

Benetton - duck on oil



Fast-forward  to today, and the Photoshopping infringements of unscrupulous fashion advertisers are becoming more and more publicized. Consumer communities are  becoming more vocal about models whose before and after shots in glamorous magazines look nothing alike.

No, ‘real’ women don’t have pencil-thin necks and cheekbones as high as Mt. Everest. Their thighs really aren’t that thin and their lashes aren’t that perfect. They are idealized, and the problem we perceive is that what is being idealized is a fake and one-dimensional portrayal of female bodies.

What about idealizing men with bulging muscles? This isn’t a fair comparison, because we already equate masculinity to positive personality traits such as confidence, leadership, and strength of character. We don’t equate femininity to an equivalent set of positive character traits. This is the difference between idealizing and objectifying.

We must defend the rights of advertisers to portray human bodies in any way they want, but if we want change we must also vote with our wallets. We must economically and socially reward companies that portrays bodies in a positive and realistic way, and punish those who don’t.

Sadly, most CEOs don’t see a problem with the operations of their companies until it starts hurting their bank accounts. They’ll tell you that their social responsibility is to make a profit and provide jobs, not to be an active player in social conversations. In the social age the mounting evidence that corporations can, and should, affect social change, this blinkered view of how social world works will be increasingly unacceptable to shareholders growing up in the social world.

Censorship is not the answer. We cannot legislate a social conscience. We cannot legislate morality. Legal scholars have long known that morality is not equivalent to the law. The law provides a framework of freedoms in which we can make decisions, some of them moral, and some of them immoral. Making the freedom provided by the framework smaller and smaller is a dangerous game to play.

So what can we do? We can vote with our wallets, and continue to make our voices heard. Companies will feel the pressure, but like all things, this will take time. As more and more fashion companies post pictures of realistic models, the big players will have no choice but the cater to the changing attitudes of their consumers and their shareholders.

Let’s make the world a better place for everyone.


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