It’s bikini season! Is that what prompted the latest resurgence of the “Just Be Yourself Because You’re Beautiful” articles? Is the looming thought of revealing our less-than-perfect bodies the reason we need to be reminded that the thunderous clapping of our thighs is really a victory march and the pimples on our faces are our own unique topography?
Advertising in general and fashion magazines in particular are blamed for an impressive array of social evils: They are misogynistic; they set unattainable and harmful expectations for us common folks; they encourage men to objectify women; they incite women to be catty and cruel towards each other. Just last week in The Washington Post, columnist Esther Cepeda cited “ubiquitous women’s magazines and websites that ingrain false notions of physical perfection” as one of the reasons that “women hate each other.”
Something about this idea does not sit well with me. There have been standards of beauty for as long as there have been eyeballs and there will continue to be standards of beauty for as long as those eyeballs stay attached to brainstems. But we take a very personal approach to what we see, conflating aesthetic enjoyment with a call to action. For many women and men, it’s difficult to separate the visceral pleasure of flipping through a Victoria’s Secret catalog from the moral imperative to change one’s behavior. But if you don’t sprint to the car dealership after seeing a Porsche commercial, why claim that it feels like a mandate is being handed down to purchase the advertised product or to look like the professional model that stares adoringly at it?
The gorgeous, glossy ads that are allegedly the cause of so much consternation and teeth-gnashing are created to sell goods. If a commercial hits you where it hurts, if it makes you feel somehow inadequate or incomplete, if it offers you a glimpse of how your life should be and a glimmer of hope that that’s how it could be — if it promises a panacea for all your troubles — it can change your buying behavior. And that’s its purpose. If an ad also happens to be so psychologically clever as to send tremors through your self-perception, altering not only which brand of deodorant you buy next, but what you think of yourself when you look in the mirror, it’s a damn fine ad. If it bypasses the logic that should alert you to the fact that this person’s body is her source of income — and just like you don’t wear a size 00 and don’t have glistening hair down to your butthole, she could not do your job — then the ad has done its duty but you haven’t done yours.
Ads are meant to sell and human beings are made to think. Is it easy to resist a multibillion dollar industry hell-bent on influencing our behavior? Not at all. But if the goal is to preserve one’s sanity, there’s simply no better way than with the help of our faculty for reason. Our predecessors were explicitly required to dress a certain way, but the model on a billboard is not forcing us to look like her. Just because we might buy into an implied idea does not mean that society compels us to. We are merely allowing ourselves to be manipulated for profit.
So next time your eyes meet the radiant eyes of an impossibly beautiful woman in a fashion spread, and a sense of despair creeps in, ask yourself this: What reason is there to lose sleep and self-worth over something that has nothing to do with you? Isn’t it more enjoyable to remove oneself from the equation, depersonalize the exchange, and sit back to marvel at the combination of natural and synthetic beauty these ad execs have produced? Good advertising is brilliant, well-researched, and well-funded. It can be a cumbersome and unnecessary burden when taken personally, or free entertainment when observed at a distance. It only has the power to set unattainable goals if we believe those goals are meant to be attained.