A Beautiful Ideal: Advertising As Proscriptive, Not Merely Descriptive

980 words - 4 pages

A Beautiful Ideal

Contrary to the popular saying, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty and beauty ideals are delicate representations of their respective societies’ unique social, political, and economic beliefs. Definitions of beauty change throughout history, and across cultural and geographic lines. As a result of the hegemony of the modern male in society, the standards of beauty are often reflected and observed through the objectification of women. While there is no penultimate standard of beauty, an analysis of the representation of beauty exposes beauty ideals as manifestations of advertising and consumer culture.
Advertising directly affects beauty ideals through the reinforcement of gender hierarchies. Mass media and advertising are responsible for the creation of the images that represent beauty standards. As Jean Kilbourne states in her movie Killing Us Softly 3, “To a great extent advertising tells us who we are and who we should be” (Kilbourne). Advertising determines the standards that people strive to achieve in society. Reflecting the male hegemonic standard, a binary opposition is established where men are portrayed as active, strong, controlling, and independent in advertising. In contrast, women are displayed as passive, weak, controlled, and dependent. This opposition is best represented through Sut Jhally’s description of hands in advertisements. He says, “Female hands are shown not as assertive or controlling of the environment, but as letting the environment control them… when women are shown holding something it often looks as if the hand is just resting there…In contrast the masculine touch is powerful and assertive… Instead of tentative the male touch is utilitarian, controlling, and bold” (Jhally…). Even a simple body part is manipulated by advertising to enforce traditional gender stereotypes. Jhally’s explanation is both descriptive of the current situation and it also exposes how advertising is prescriptive. The positioning of the hands reflects both how things actually are, but also the desired society. Likewise, advertising and the media become the channels through which the ideals of beauty are defined and maintained. In doing so, the beauty standards themselves become extensions and tools used to reinforce the masculine hegemony.
Subsequently, the consumer beauty culture that emerges as a means to achieve the beauty ideals solidifies the stereotypes promoted by the mass media. The accessories of the beauty industry are the means by which individuals hope to replicate the beauty standards. Although advertising has increasingly targeted men, women are still the primary market of the beauty industry. Again, the desire of the women to attain these beauty ideals reflects their subjugated status within society. John Berger posits, “A woman must continually watch herself... And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of...

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