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."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."
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.
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."