Saturday, February 4, 2012

The zesty joy of weight loss

The other day I saw a particularly squicky ad. Of course, advertising is one of the worst places to look in terms of rampant negative stereotypes and terrible messages, and unfortunately I'm so used to seeing women in bikinis flocking to men because they have the right beer/cologne/shampoo/high speed network that I just can't feel angry every time. But sometimes it's the more subtle, insinuating messages that seem worse to me, personally, and that was the case with this Special K cereal ad that I saw. It starts by showing the feet of many women standing in front of their scales, nervous about stepping on. Then, as each of them steps up onto the scale, instead of showing numbers the little digital screens read 'joy', 'spirit', 'freedom', etc.
So let's start with a simple fact: losing weight isn't a magic wand for making life better.
It doesn't make someone become a happier, more confident, better person. There's definitely the societal notion that weight loss makes a person healthier (an often blatantly untrue generalization), but the interesting thing about this and many other commercials is that they don't even mention health when trying to market weight loss to women. So the question then becomes why is losing weight, even if it's a choice that has nothing to do with health, considered to be a good thing by default?
I think that a lot of it comes back to the fact that society expects women to be objects of beauty and sexual desirability for (heterosexual) men. Women are taught that their worth as a human being is inherently linked to their sexual desirability, and the current final word in beauty is being skinny. Women are inundated with messages that thin is beautiful, and since we've been taught that beauty defines us as people, that means that being 'fat' is something that makes you less of a person, and being 'thin' makes you a better person.

These messages about the inherent benefit of weight loss are, of course, everywhere. The hosts of celebrity gossip shows ask actresses what diet they're currently on with no doubt as to whether they are indeed dieting; because no woman in the public eye could possibly consider not striving to be 'beautiful', and no woman striving to be beautiful could eat with no regard for becoming/remaining thin, right? All the time, in TV fiction, in ads, in reality shows, we see people complimenting women on their weight loss, with the inherent assumption that the woman in question wanted to lose weight and is happy about her weight loss. No one ever considers whether the weight loss was intentional, whether her previous weight was healthy and suited to her, whether the weight loss might be caused by stress or illness. A simple congratulations seems to be all that's needed, and the woman in question is, of course, flattered (not upset that people are scrutinizing her weight and making judgements based on it, which is how I'd feel if someone tried to congratulate me on losing weight). And so we see, once again, that the attitude has nothing to do with health and everything to do with societal beauty standards. The woman is skinnier, and therefore prettier, and therefore it is a good thing.

Weight loss is just one more way of stripping women of choices regarding their own bodies, one more way to shame and control them, and one that's not only emotionally damaging but also incredibly physically damaging.

It took me awhile to realize why I found this particular ad so disturbing. There are the obvious issues of selling weight loss to women as a way to improve their lives, but I see that a lot in advertising. What really got to me was the imagery of the scale reading confidence, joy, zest. This commercial literally defines the entire character of a woman by a single number: her weight. And that is just fucking disturbing.

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