This week I’ve been hyper-vigilant and paying attention to the way that women are portrayed in advertising. I’ve always been aware of the problems certain people might have with their own body-image (I certainly did) or the struggle to obtain a particular body shape. I’ve always understood these struggles. I’ve been there and done that, but I’m now pretty much at peace with myself.
But what I was never aware of was the sheer amount of often-contradictory messages about body shape and sexuality that women are subjected to. After discovering a particularly relevant essay in one of my history books, I knew I had to write about this.
Many people talk about how they would hate to be a teenage girl in modern times. There is a perception that all these messages about what to wear, how to dress or how skinny you should be are product of our generation. But in fact, target market with contradictory messages didn’t start with the millennials, the “Me” generation, or our parents. It started long before the Korean War.
According to Kelly Schrum*, Seventeen magazine started bombarding girls with contradictory messages in 1944: near the end of WWII.
According to Schrum in “Making the American Girl,”
“Starting in April 1945, the magazine devoted an annual issue to the theme ‘Boy meets Girl,’ in addition to articles on how to converse with and attract boys and the ubiquitous teenage romance fiction. Seventeen encouraged teenage girls to concentrate their energy on boys and to attract male attention, but strongly discouraged necking, petting, going steady, or early marriage.”
The magazine discouraged kissing and marriage, but still ran ads featuring wedding supplies. And although it ran articles supporting women’s education, it ran advertisements which disparaged educated women, implying that they would never be able to get a date.
These contradictory messages that young women and girls end up consuming, whether voluntarily or subconsciously, are becoming more and more perverse and the ideal body image is becoming more unattainable. The pervasiveness of these messages is new. But the messages themselves are as old as our grandparents.
* “Making the American Girl” can be found on page 109 of the third edition of “Major Problems in American History Since 1945,” edited by Robert Griffith and Paula Baker. I couldn’t find a copy of it online.