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Using Women's Bodies to Sell - Pin-Up Girls, Objectification of Women, and Self-Objectification

By August 14, 2008

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To sell clothing, yogurt, acne medication, and even breakfast cereal, women are featured in commercials and TV spots advertising the product. Okay, fine, that makes sense. We wear, buy, and use those items. But car mufflers, plumbing parts, heavy duty tools? What's the relationship there between the woman and the product in question?

We may laugh about how ridiculous it is, but we've been exposed to the use of women's bodies to sell products for so long that we don't give it much thought. (One terrific and bizarre example is from a 1953 calendar for a tools and parts manufacturer.) Many a famous pin-up girl got her start lending her beauty to glamorize otherwise unremarkable products; and the most successful women did more than sell products - they sold idealized images of themselves that exaggerated their best aspects and ignored or downplayed their worst.

In fact the Pin-up Files, a website devoted to pin-up art, explains that one very popular and successful painter of pin-up girls said he "felt the ideal pin-up was a fifteen-year-old face on a twenty-year-old body," and with a great deal of artistic license, he used his paintbrush to graft together these two wildly diverse females into one impossible image.

Does this matter? We've all grown up with this in our lives. So what's the harm?

The idea of the objectification of women - using women's bodies and turning them into objects - is nothing new. But it has led to an internalization of that objectification that a recent article in MS. magazine identifies as a dangerous trend:

A steady diet of exploitative, sexually provocative depictions of women feeds a poisonous trend in women's and girl's perceptions of their bodies, one that has recently been recognized by social scientists as self-objectification -- viewing one's body as a sex object to be consumed by the male gaze. Like W.E.B. DuBois' famous description of the experience of black Americans, self-objectification is a state of "double consciousness ... a sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."

Researchers have learned a lot about self-objectification since the term was coined in 1997 by University of Michigan psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson and Colorado College psychology professor Tomi-Ann Roberts. Numerous studies since then have shown that girls and women who self-objectify are more prone to depression and low self-esteem and have less faith in their own capabilities, which can lead to diminished success in life. They are more likely to engage in "habitual body monitoring" -- constantly thinking about how their bodies appear to the outside world -- which puts them at higher risk for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

Not every woman sees this as a threat. Tali Shapiro, a 25-year-old artist, writer, and creator of The Pinup Blog: Where Sex Object are the Object of Intellectual Conversation, likes to write about - and examine - the culture and history of sexy, scantily-clad women, and has even been dubbed "The Pin-Up Queen."

Yet there's a difference between the pin-up girls of the 30s, 40s, and 50s and the images we see today. Back then, artists edited what they saw, painting elongated legs, flatter stomachs, and more brilliant smiles. Today, we have PhotoShop to digitally alter photographs.

We can downplay paintings and recognize them as images created from the imagination, even if they're based on life. But when we see photograph after photograph of idealized, 'perfect' women, that burden is harder to bear. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then for many girls and women today, the words say, "You're not thin enough, not pretty enough, and not big-breasted enough."

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August 20, 2008 at 9:29 pm
(1) W.F. says:

We can blame the media, the companies for exploiting the women, and the society’s appetite for sexualized images; but a great part of that is the women/girls themselves who essentially are selling themselves/their body for the irresistible $$$ and for fame.
These women failed to see or understand the concept that they are their own enemies/our enemies in this battle to gain respect as human beings — equal, smart, important, respectful, and beautiful in our own right.

August 21, 2008 at 3:15 am
(2) Tali says:

Hey Linda,

You make extremely fair points. I know I grapple with these issues every day. There’s a strict dilemma for me, in my everyday dealing with pinups. On the one hand, I love images of beautiful women- they’ve memorized me ever since I can remember myself. On the other, every week I research a new article, looking into themes and general waves of thought in pinup art, and there’s a thin line between adoration and straight out porn, but it IS there.

I don’t know about exploitation or objectification- Titian drew nude women, was he a horny beast or an inspired artist?

I do agree, however, that it’s gotten out of hand. I just saw a snickers catalog (?!), yesterday, that all its model’s legs were digitally lengthened. It’s sick and disturbing to know that no image of a woman in the advertising industry is a real woman that’s actually in existence. Girls grow up with these images and always feel like they’re never enough, then get a boob-job when they’re 16(that’s irresponsible on the medical industry’s part).

In the end, though, I think it’s a personal weakness to go around blaming the media. We’re not in a vacuum and we’re all exposed to various feminist theories. We’re all responsible for ourselves to draw the line, between who we want to be and what society wants us to be. Vanity and self indulgence is a part of human nature, so is the misery of inadequacy. So yes, I’ll shave my legs (ridiculous practice), no, I won’t undergo plastic surgery. And I’ll teach my future daughter likewise, and hope she becomes one who thinks for herself (and doesn’t shave her legs).

Author of The Pinup Blog

September 27, 2008 at 12:38 pm
(3) Booga says:

First you have to evaluate what it means to objectify something or in this case someone. It means to reduce something to nothing. To make someone worthless in the eyes of others. Now just because someone takes off their cloths for pictures doesn’t mean they think any less of them self. Or any one else for that matter. Ok, now lets look at this from another point of view. What about when you see a man half dressed. Hu, what do think of that. Objection is in the eye of the viewer. What you need to think about is what effect you are having by saying what you’re saying. You promote the idealistic thinking that is that people need to think the way you do when you see another woman naked. Or using HER BODY(I’d underline that if I could). You are the one objectifying your own sex.
Now don’t get me wrong I hate the living hell out of porn. Mostly because it promotes the idea that sex is meaning and that it isn’t something to be held dear. But, still it, is someones, own, decision. And you can’t change that. All you can do is you yourself act respectful to your self and not continue to blame others for your problem.

October 13, 2008 at 6:06 pm
(4) wendy says:

i find it interesting that in your very first paragraph you are in fact demoralizing women and falling into the exact socialization of the female gender which you claim to denounce. how dare you judge that a female would have no use for tools, plumming equipment, or automotive supplies. my dear lady you are sexist, and beyond that, jealous of the beauty of the female form. it is tragic that you are so jaded that you are blind to the fact that a woman should be proud of her body and if her beauty if so powerful that it can woo the masses. so be it.

October 30, 2008 at 8:55 pm
(5) K.B. says:

I absolutely agree with you. While women do have the power tochoose to be content with their bodies, it is not always easy to do. The unfortunate truth is that anything that sells will be sold. And sex sells.
You can talk about the meaning of objectification, and anyone can feel objectivied or empowered by these pictures depending on their point of view. However, very few women want to be reduced simply to the sexual part of their identity. Yes, some do, and it is their right to do so. But when some women choose to model scantily or have their pictures airbrushed all other women are affected, and not by choice. It is then a matter of personal responsibility to some degree, but women will always be pressured to sell sex as best they can, and companies will always be selling it unless there is a large enough change in how we want to see women portrayed. That is unlikely in a culture that self-perpetuates sex as something both unreal, because real bodies don’t cut it, and cheap.

August 10, 2009 at 7:21 am
(6) Linkr says:

I have been bitch’n about this for years!! It’s not okay what the media & marketing is doing… and we get slam bammed with this “female body part” junk to sell products as if men are the only individuals in the world who are watching these ads and we females have tremendous buying power and do most of the buying.

June 9, 2010 at 12:40 pm
(7) jasim says:

I want Know about Womens sex How i Controll her

November 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm
(8) reba says:

I think what has been said here is only the tip of the iceberg. There is an epidemic of “self-objectification” in our culture. I know because I live it every day. It’s actually terrifying. I have virtually no self-esteem. Why is this? I have a great family, job, boyfriend. . .but there is an ever-present black cloud hovering over my existence. This black cloud is the cumulative result of years of being bullied(in many respects)by the ideals of femininity.
Now you can say what you want about it being a womans’ choice to “participate” in the culture of mass-objectification. Most of us do not want to capitalize on the sexualization of women in our culture. And yet, we are taught from a very young age how IMPERATIVE it is to be pretty. One of my first experiences of “play” as a child made a resounding and indelible statement within my impressionable, sensitive pysche. I need to look like Barbie. Whether it was the prototypical blonde Barbie or her darker-haired/skinned relatives-the message was clear-there was something much larger than me at work that wanted me to accept the homogenization of the female form. And the fact that I didn’t look like Barbie was construed as an epic failure in my eyes. And from that day forward, I have failed to “measure up”. I still feel like I have done something wrong. That being myself is not enough. I think that is what is most disturbing about the gender themes in our society. I could dedicate my whole life to doing great works, being a great person, but at the end of the day-sex sells. Being nice is not a priority. Take a look at the content of some of our quality programming;Bridalplasty, where the brides compete for the plastic surgery of their dreams before their weddings. What kind of messages are we promoting and yet, this is accepted. I am actually thankful that I do not have a daughter so that I won’t have to explain this to her. I’m exhausted by it all.

June 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm
(9) Nikki says:

Thanks Reba, great comments on an important article.

December 20, 2011 at 9:10 am
(10) Debbie says:

Thank you for writing this article. I feel quite alone these days. The reason for feeling alone is that it seems women have taken the approach of ‘if you can’t beat em’ then join em’. Inappropriate clothing, acting, and language runs amuck. Women have definitely played a large role in objectification.

I’d love to read an article that highlights another aspect of objectification in women. Another aspect being cheating in a relationship. How often have we heard the excuse from a man that his wife “let herself go”? I’m in my late 30′s. My body is changing. Starvation SEEMS to be the only way to lose weight. I’m not letting myself go, my body is changing. And with all of this media out there; be it cartoon characters of women that have a one inch waist and 6 inch chest and buttocks, movie characters, pin up women, etc it makes it so frustrating. The thought of quiting life is great. If there was a feminist group around me that I thought could make a difference I sure would like to join them. Sure, we should be thankful we’re in America where we’re not being murdered or covering ourselves, treated like animals. But this is not another country. It is America. We should all be treated equal.

December 26, 2011 at 5:46 am
(11) Rob s says:

Men think about sex ALL the time….women don’t
Women think about nice romance and warm loving relationships….men think about sex. sometimes when men are older they think about sex and a cuddle. Women still want the deep romantic caring man.
Sooo. what are the advertising people going to do ? Put a sexy woman, scantily clad, holding an “exhaust pipe”…OR put a nicely dressed lady with a bunch of flowers AND an exhaust pipe on their advert…remember men think about sex all the time (and their imagination isn’t too wild) so the image must be simple and attractive….big boobies and not much clothing sells the exhaust pipe ! mmmmmm boobies

May 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm
(12) Nate S. says:

The American pin-up girl can not be taken as a sybol of feminism. It is anything but. Most pin-up images from the 1940′s and 1950′s do NOT fit the monster/beauty contruction. Rather, the vast majority of them fir within convention and are not deviant. In fact, I would suggest that the pin-up was a male contrsuction that reinforced traditional, male-dominant gender roles. The 1940′s and 1950′s were the “golden age” of pin-ups. If you read interviews with the models, you will see they present themselves as absolutely submissive and feminine. The pin-up embodies feminimity with is glorification of the female body (for the sole purpose of male visual pleasure). Esquire magazine played a HUGE role in promoting the pin-up. This is the magazine that showcased Alberto Vargas’ work, and really brought the pin-up to the forefront of popular culture. Despite what Buzsek claims, the magazine was absolutely sexist. An article in 1937 presented “wife beating” as an acceptable and necessary custom. On so many levels the pin-up was firmly rooted in traditional male-dominant culture. What has happened is that feminists have essentially artifically superimposed feminism on the pin-up. In our current postmodern culture, brazen female sexuality is understood as having feminist qualities. Feminists have therefore tried to make the pin-up one of their own, ignoring the real context in which the pin-up existed.

October 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm
(13) Blakeney says:

I am so glad to hear that this subject is being talked about… I find the current interest in pin-up culture disturbing, especially when women are embracing it.

Good for Ms. Magazine. Not so long ago, many crude caricatures of people from different races and cultures were used to sell products. Thankfully, most of this archaic practice has been done away with and would now be considered inexcusable.

Stereotyping women, however, is still acceptable. And I’m afraid it will continue to be as long as people are unwilling to speak out.

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