The impact of the media is profound when it comes to setting ideals of beauty and sexuality for women. Marketing and advertising companies have created a billion dollar industry based on convincing women they are not “ideal” and need improvement. We are not only influenced by the images that we see but the messages we receive that change our way of thinking. The media is one of the most powerful and effective forms of education whether we like it or not. In a day, the average person will be exposed to thousands of ads and spend the majority of time watching commercials selling everything from products that provide pleasure, sexiness, happiness, and youth. If you look at the ads aimed at women you will find messages about body image, age, and sexuality that make a life changing impact on a woman’s values, success, and self-worth.
The Internet is one of the fastest growing sources of information on sexuality and behaviour. The accessibility and anonymity contribute to the growing number of users for everything from educational to economic resources. The word “sex” is the most popular search term used on the Internet today and it continues to increase in availability of sexually explicit content. Our sexuality is strongly shaped by the society around us. We have to learn how to be sexual, it is not innate. What we learn from society is from the external cues we see from sexually-explicit material – both pornographic and sadomasochistic – that shapes our sexuality. There are both negative and positive effects on sexual health for women. It is more common than not to encounter pornography or sexually explicit material when seeking education on sexuality. The negative impact on sexual health from the media can lead to sexual concerns, low sexual self-esteem, and body image disorders. On the positive side, as the Internet grows, it also allows more opportunity for educational sites and resources for promoting healthy sexual behaviour and resources on intimacy, relationships, and safe sex. More often than not a search to find information on contraception or healthy sexuality will be limited to the findings of pornographic ads of beauty. Sexually-explicit material is widely accepted as a form to sell anything. It’s in the ad for running shoes, perfume, and even household cleaning products. A photoshopped torso, a bronze body with curves, a seductive pose or look to sexualize an image can create the message to be desired or sexy is what women want. In a sadomasochistic ad – used for selling jewellery, handbags and designer clothing – we might see bondage, a woman submissing to a man – mouth bound, on her knees, or hair being pulled. The message sent to women is that her private submission is highly desirable to men, and even “normal”.
Everywhere we look in the media we see images of the female body. Magazines and media also portray popular celebrities as underweight, young-looking, perfectly groomed sex symbols. Are these the norms? Women’s magazines constantly put out the message of losing weight to gain happiness. The message is clear that if you lose weight your life will be more satisfying. If you dress sexier, you will get what you want. If you act a certain way, men will desire you. Analysts conclude that these messages are mainly economic. By creating a difficult to achieve ideal, industries targeting women will continue to grow and profit as they push products to its female consumers. By creating a sexual ideal for women, they will continue to buy the products, wear the clothes, or model what is expressed as the norm according to popular culture. The world of advertising is full of beautiful people using products we want to use. What we learn from these messages is stereotypes.
Several media outlets have tried to portray a more natural woman and have received negative feedback from consumers. Therefore advertising companies continue to use underweight models because they sell products. Author Jean Kilbourne believes that the overwhelming presence of thin women in the media results in real women’s bodies becoming more invisible to the masses. Women compare themselves to models, to other women, and compete for male attention. It is a tragedy because it results in women internalizing stereotypes and judging themselves by the industry’s standards rather by those of their own.
Today’s world of media is much more difficult to live in than the past. It is now more acceptable to show skin and flaunt your sexuality. Sex sells and it’s selling all over the world. Women are rightfully concerned as to how the role of mass media influences their lives. The challenge for women today is to learn how to interpret and distinguish the images put out there in the media. According to Elizabeth Thoman and Dale Ann Stieber, authors of Growing up Female in a Media World, there is a set of skills women should use when interpreting messages in the media. These skills include observing women’s images in the media, seeking out alternative depictions and supporting women to make their own media messages, and sharing this knowledge with friends, family and community. What is seen today in the media is not always uniform. More women should expand their media experiences to get a better understanding and perspective of different images and how it relates to our sexuality. It is also smart to be confident in yourself and your own image and spread to word to other women. Don’t rely on a single source of information. The media has a very specific goal and that is to sell products through fantasy and unrealistic ideals, not tell us how we should look or be. Be who you are and own it. We are each our own creators of our sexuality and sexual health.