Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ad Campaigns Target Body Image

A new ad campaign for the Brazilian yogurt, Itambé, has been garnering much criticism. At first glance, the ads seem to promote positive body images. They are recreations of famous movie scenes, featuring plus-sized women:

But one only needs to take a look at the fine print to realize that these ads for the Brazilian lite yogurt actually continue to enforce the same old ideas. The translated caption reads, "Forget it. Men's taste will never change." The ads are of confident-looking, beautiful women being told that they should wipe those smiles off their faces and start losing weight.

Most bloggers that I've read seem to be fairly outraged over this ad campaign, while reader comments seem to be mixed. One anonymous comment stated, "uh, heads up -- it is unhealthy to be obese. and it is not insulting to suggest that people lose weight be more attractive. i dont think it is backwards thinking to suggest that someone who is overweight ("over" = exceeds what is healthy) should attempt to lose that weight. the only unfortunate issue here is that it doesn't target men, too." Another says, "good someone had to speak the truth! fat is unhealthy and gross." Someone else comments, "It's disgusting to see marketing firms catering to the obese. Instead of promoting fitness and healthy lifestyles, the world seems to be accepting obesity. Who cares if she has a beautiful face, she is overweight and not an image that should be used in advertising."

On the other hand, there are comments such as these: "These women are beautiful, luscious, confident women -- how dare their modeling agency accept this kind of negative, hate spewing, misogynist work! It just goes to show that even when corporations profess to be changing their attitudes on weight issues and body image, they are still selling women out" and "the pictures are great, esp the last one. She is beautiful! But the tag line is awful & compeletly offensive. If you are overweight & want to do something about it, do it for yourself not to get a man." Finally, one reader states, "I think the tagline is sick but those women look fabulous!"

Itambé's website has a statement concerning these advertisements. The statement is of course in Portuguese, but thanks to my language skills I am able to bring you a loose translation. The company states that the ads were created by a Publicity Agency for some type of fair and that they were not approved by Itambé nor do they reflect the company's values. The company claims to be outraged by the ads and states that they value and respect all of their consumers. I find their claims to be somewhat questionable, but at least they made a statement. I also think it is nice that so many people have spoken out against these ads. It seems to me that we are at least starting to move towards a broader definition of beauty -- albeit at a painstakingly slow pace.

In my opinion, what we really need to start seeing is more publicity over the fact that there are a wide variety of shapes and sizes that can be considered "healthy." Obviously someone that is 400 pounds is not healthy, but whose to say that a 180 lb woman isn't healthy? Scientists and nutritionists are now beginning to ask the question, "Can you be fit and fat?" This 2004 article from The Washington Post explores this issue. Steven Blair, scientist and CEO of the Cooper Intitute in Dallas, states that focusing on ideal weights and BMIs is ridiculous. According to him, "Even with optimal diet and physical conditioning, there is a vast variation in weight." He published a shocking report which showed that level of fitness plays a much higher role in health and lifespan than weight does. Of the women in his study who were considered obese by current standards, it turned out that about half could be considered fit. Others claim that it is dangerous to send out the message that overweight can be healthy. I disagree with this because the fact is, there are plenty of people considered overweight who eat healthy diets and exercise regularly. What's wrong with sending out a true message? I don't hear it being said that weight doesn't matter at all and that morbidly obese individuals aren't at a serious health risk. What I hear being said is that our current standards for a healthy weight don't take into account the fact that everyone has a different natural body shape, and that for some individuals, being stick thin is not feasible nor is it within their "healthy" range.

One might even argue that it is more dangerous to equate a thin body with healthiness. Because our society does equate thinness with health, the focus seems to be completely on losing weight -- no matter how it may be done. Women are told to eat nothing but "Special K" cereal for two weeks straight to lose 10 lbs -- reality weight-loss shows make a competition out of becoming the most thin. After one of these shows ended, a contestant immediately gained back something like 15 pounds just from drinking water. Clearly whatever they were doing to lose weight could not be considered healthy. Many thin people walking around today are probably not very healthy either because rarely are nutritional diets or healthy lifestyles ever promoted. If we were just to promote healthy (and I mean, actual healthy and balanced diets) eating and moderate levels of fitness and uncoupled it from weight, things would be much better. First of all, one could no longer look at someone and assume that they were either healthy or unhealthy based on their weight. Secondly, setting up a healthy lifestyle as the ideal would target everyone and would take pressure off of those who are overweight -- pressure that might cause one to take no action at all. After all, eating healthy and exercising regularly would naturally result in weight loss for many, but it wouldn't set anyone up for failure. Adopting a lifestyle change as opposed to working towards a possibly unattainable goal is better for morale. America has such a dysfunctional view of healthy. It would be great if we could see that change! Maybe then we wouldn't have girls as young as 8 worrying about their bodies and facing plummeting self-esteem upon puberty.

Some parts of the media are actually beginning to contribute, as I've said. Back in the late 90s, The Body Shop started a campaign to "activate self-esteem." It developed the character "Ruby" for an ad campaign to promote healthy body image.

More recently, Nike has begun an ad campaign which promotes a more healthy view of women's bodies.

In the world of celebrities we have also been seeing more full-figured women. This past year we saw Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls while America Ferrera has been honored several times for her role in the show Ugly Betty. Queen Latifah is one of the new faces of Cover Girl, Tyra Banks featured two plus-sized models in the last cycle of the popular America's Next Top Model and Sara Ramirez of Grey's Anatomy is featured in this new Milk ad, which celebrates her curves:

And Dove brand has begun what it calls its "Campaign for Real Beauty." Dove's campaign focuses on the self-esteem of girls, the promotion of healthy body images, and the celebration of aging bodies. Dove-sponsored workshops for girls ages 8-12 focus on beauty, self-image and self-esteem. This campaign ad was featured during the Super Bowl:

Here's another short Dove film about self-esteem:

Dove also put out a film for their Real Beauty campaign which shows what they call "The Evolution of Beauty."

Finally, Dove's pro-age ads show that women do not stop being beautiful once they pass the age of 40. This ad was banned in the U.S. because it supposedly showed too much skin. Nevertheless, the print ads can be found in magazines across the country:

It certainly would be nice to see more corporations following Dove's lead and sponsoring issues such as these. I'm so happy to see this actually being discussed and talked about. It's time for women to take pride in their bodies. Only then can they really find the motivation to care for them and keep them healthy.