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Gender and body image in the media

How often do we look at magazines and advertisements on TV, as well as other pieces of media, and see ourselves? Our bodies, the complexity of our thoughts and feelings and the nuance of our experiences as women?

For decades, women have been subjected to media representation that creates and reinforces harmful gender stereotypes. Generations of young girls are exposed to a world of images and depictions of what they could and should aspire to be; depictions of physical attributes and personality traits considered to be ideal and desirable for women and girls.

Research shows nearly nine out of ten girls compare themselves to what they see in advertisements and media and half are negatively affected by it [1]. This is a concerning number, considering the material these young girls are provided and fed with online promotes unhealthy and dangerous habits. Women often informally recount how this impacts their self-esteem, but these narratives can also be supported by a multitude of data and research which allows us to see the grand-scale consequences and impact of this type of representation.

Women in Advertisements

A documentary examining magazine advertisements in the U.S [2] dives deep into women's misrepresentation and the real-life impacts this results in. Recurring themes in advertisements featuring women include: focusing on one part of a woman’s body, usually the breasts, and often not showing women’s faces (dehumanising); promoting one body type only, (extremely thin and often unhealthy); showing women as objects, like a keg or a car; depicting women as submissive, docile, innocent, and often dependent on men; models with weak posture and either childlike or sexual expressions.

It is pointed out that men and women live in two very different worlds, where women’s bodies are constantly scrutinised and objectified since childhood, and while men can certainly be objectified, there are little to no dangerous consequences they face. In fact, when men are objectified in media, they’re made to be stronger, more powerful, more violent, and dominant, and specifically dominant and violent towards women. This can promote the normalisation of a culture of harassment and oppression against women, while also negatively impacting men by reinforcing the harmful idea of hyper-masculinity and an opposition to what are considered “feminine traits” like sensitivity, gentleness, and empathy.

In a 2008 study done about women as victims in ads, results show women are most often portrayed as victims in men’s magazines and are mostly sexualised in their victim state. This has dire real-life consequences, as the authors of this study explain, mentioning other research which shows that “viewing images of sexually objectified women has been shown to increase men’s acceptance of rape myths, interpersonal violence and gender role stereotyping” (2008;587) (3). This means women end up suffering the consequences of men’s depiction in media as well as their own.

This isn’t just bad representation, it is a bad influence on young women around the world, with a strong impact on body image and mental health that has been seen to last throughout women’s lives.

A Turn For The Better?

As a result of these findings and research, there has been a significant reduction in the stereotypical and harmful representations of women in ads and media. As awareness rose regarding the blatant misogyny of such representation, so did a new approach to advertising: female empowerment. Companies such as Dove and Always focus on encouraging body confidence and self-love regarding gender. We are seeing more body types as well as racial backgrounds being represented in media, with an entirely different message than before: loving oneself and maximising your own, personal beauty.

Dove have done major reports in 2016 and 2017 (4, 5) on women and body image, which reveal that the U.K ranks very low on self-esteem and body confidence, with only 20% of women stating they like the way they look, a concerningly low percentage. Furthermore, the reports also revealed 69% of women say they get appearance anxiety from the pressure advertising and media puts on unrealistic beauty standards. Despite all this, the studies revealed 7 in 10 women and girls are proud of being women and a whopping 82% can see beauty in every girl.

These reports make clear that advertisements where women are badly represented have a lasting effect on women and girls of all ages and backgrounds - cross-culturally and intergenerationally. Although it affects women’s views of their own bodies, beauty, and attitudes, it doesn’t seem to exert the same amount of control over how women see each other. The power and strength of mind to not let the negative views towards yourself influence the way you see other women is commendable.

A Few Steps Back

Even so, with all the progress companies like Dove seem to be achieving when it comes to the depiction of women in media, there are major issues and controversies to be addressed. Namely, Dove being owned by Unilever, a company which also owns Axe – a brand of male grooming products known for objectifying and sexualising women in their ads – and Glow & Lovely (formerly Fair & Lovely), a skin-lightening cream company in South Asia which promotes the idea that a lighter skin tone leads to becoming both happier and more beautiful [6]. Contradictory messages across these companies can raise questions regarding the sincerity of Dove’s commitment to diverse and equal representation, especially considering diversity and inclusion are increasingly powerful tools for creating a positive brand image.

There are also those who believe that a campaign categorising the women depicted as “real” and “normal” can have consequences to women who still don’t see themselves in the advertisements [7]. This without mentioning the lack of representation for women with disabilities in media to this day.

Throughout this exploration of how women are represented in media we can see that although progress has been made, we are still a long way from painting women in a true and all-inclusive light. Currently, media plays a more than major role in young people’s lives. There is, therefore, a need to grow and flourish an online environment where all women, regardless of body type, age, religion, race, sexual orientation, or personal identity feel seen, heard, and properly represented. An environment which will eliminate the disparity of who we see on the screen and who we see when we look around. We have started to take steps in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Beauty is all around us, and it seems like such a shame to reduce the beauty we see in everyday women to a few stereotypes and an image both unrealistic and often unattainable.

By Mariana Almeida Duarte, Thrive Research Hub Member


[1] IPSOS, 'Women in Advertising'

[2] Media Education Foundation; directed by Sut Jhally (2010). 'Killing us softly 4: advertising's image of women'. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.

[3] Stankiewicz, J., Rosselli, F. (2008). ‘Women as Sex Objects and Victims in Print Advertisements’, Sex Roles, vol 58, 579-589

[4] PR Newswire, 'New Dove Research Finds Beauty Pressures Up, and Women and Girls Calling for Change'

[5] Dove, 'The 2017 Dove Global Girls Beauty and Confidence Report'

[6] The Illusionists, 'The Problem with Dove'

[7] The Inquisitive Mind, 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty'


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