Body Shame Bowl XLVII: Advertising Cultural Ideals Does No One Any Good

This post previously appeared on adiosbarbie.com, and can be found in its original context here.

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Calvin Klein’s Ad “Gears”

Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere away from any form of mass media, you’ve probably noticed a common theme in print ads and commercials. Advertisers are now not only selling us products, they’re selling us another object that we consume by virtue of just seeing it: ourselves. Not only are we buying tortilla chips and light beer, we’re buying the media’s definition of the perfect body type, the perfect brand of femininity or masculinity. And ad companies are cashing out: last weekend’s Super Bowl pushed profits sky high.

Advertisers spent nearly $4 million for a 30-second ad during Super Bowl XLVII, a marketing extravaganza masquerading as a football game (oh, and a Beyoncé concert). Although we occasionally run into heartwarming horses and opportunistic sandwich cookies reminding us that we can still dunk in the dark, these innocuous images are few and far between the sleek, slim, toned, nearly naked women that dominated Sunday’s commercials. From topless women eating sandwiches to body proportions so impossible they actually had to cast robots to get the right figure, advertising companies were up to their old tricks of presenting ideals of feminine beauty and gender roles that are impossible to live up to. 

Is it any wonder that 53% of 13-year-old girls and 78% of 17-year-olds are dissatisfied with their bodies? When the media presents nothing but images of ultra-sexy women, digitally manipulated to fit our cultural ideal of perfection, consumers with bodies that look different in any way (read: every one of us) are left feeling unrepresented and sub-par. It doesn’t matter how unattainable those body types are. Personally, it doesn’t matter how many times the trainer on those at-home workout videos tells me I can look like a model with a few more reps: to look like I belong in any of these commercials, I would have to somehow add about eight inches to my legs while simultaneously losing a few pounds and altering my bone structure. We know perfection is impossible and a lie besides, but we try to emulate it nonetheless. It’s at this crossroads that problems arise.

While being bombarded by bombshells in bikinis and women as accessories rather than humans, we tend to forget that the media’s presentation of an ideal body type doesn’t only affect females. The parameters for the perfect male body type are equally well defined, even if they take a different shape.

The existence of polls on what both men and women consider the ideal male body (WARNING: images may be triggering for readers in ED recovery) reveals in no uncertain terms that the “women should order the salad, men can do whatever they want” mentality is as big a lie as Manti Te’o’s girlfriend. Men are expected to fit the Christian-Bale-as-Bruce-Wayne physique: broad shoulders, narrow waist, abs so defined they look like the individual compartments of an ice cube tray. Still, that same poll points out the Catch-22 of the ideal body: 86.7% of women surveyed think the ideal man needs to be as muscular as Batman, but 91.2% think that an obsessive workout regime would be a turn-off. Is there another way to look like Christian Bale? I’m thinking not so much. Even Christian Bale would tell you that he wasn’t born looking like Christian Bale.

The fact is, movies, TV shows, video games, and advertisements tell us that there absolutely is a body type that men should adhere to, and if they aren’t naturally born with it, then they’d better do everything they can to get there as soon as possible. Commercials like Calvin Klein’s “Gears” reinforce the hyper-masculine, ultra-muscular ideal, and gag-worthy spots like Go Daddy’s “Perfect Match” use that same stereotype through negative reinforcement. Men can either be the quasi-cyborg straight out of a CGI studio, or they can be the dorky computer programmer who will only ever get the girl out of pity: nothing in between. Unfortunately, the restrictive nature of male gender roles often gets left out of the body-image conversation amid the feminine fray.

The consequences of media-produced masculine expectations are far-reaching and serious. While it is true that 90% of those suffering with eating disorders in America are female, that leaves the often-brushed-aside conclusion that 10%, or at least 1 million people, are males. In addition to the slew of biological and genetic factors that are believed to trigger the onset of eating disorders, men as well as women struggle with the consequences of unrealistic cultural standards of beauty. 

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How many men do you know that naturally look like this?

Think about this: Barbie’s unrealistic proportions have been circulating in the feminist blogosphere for over a year. But if a GI Joe action figure were 5’10” tall, he would have a 29-inch waist, a 55-inch chest, and 27-inch biceps. That’s right: his arm muscles are the same size as his waist. The standard for men is different than for women, but it’s no less attainable, and no less healthy. 

Do we want to spread the message to our young men that in order to look good in Calvin Klein underwear, they need to be a six foot three cyborg made almost entirely of rippling pectorals? 5-12% of high school boys have reported using steroids in order to achieve muscle tone and bulk up. Can men look this way without them? If the title Calvin Klein gave to its commercial is any indication, a few drastic changes would be in order. Like, I don’t know, becoming a robot. 

What are Calvin Klein and companies like it telling us about the role of masculinity in American culture? Does a man not have any value or any hope of being attractive unless he can crush a car with his thighs? According to the media, not so much, and Americans are swallowing these gender expectations easier than this snake eating an ostrich egg whole. The men the media shows us aren’t men: they’re computer-altered professional models whose purpose in advertisements is to present a set paradigm of masculinity for viewers to accept without question, in the same way that fashion models and commercialized women further the belief that the word “woman” should be replaced with a Victoria’s Secret model’s bust, waist, and hip measurements. 

The worst part? We know we’re being manipulated: Go Daddy received nearly 8,000 tweets calling out its sexist and offensive advertising campaign, and USA Today rated it the worst commercial of the entire night. But hosting sales for godaddy.com jumped 45% after the commercial aired. 

It’s still working. 

The conversation about our cultural standards of beauty and attractiveness need to evolve; the trends of steroid use, eating disorder prevalence, and body dissatisfaction mentioned already should be enough incentive, but Super Bowl ad after Super Bowl ad gives us variations on the same impossible body. How long are we going to wait? 

Please, advertisers, can’t we have more ads with talking animals? Like this one. I laugh every time. I’ll take a charging pug over a genetically enhanced half-human supermodel any day of the week.

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