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NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 199-203

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Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image by Vickie Rutledge Shields with Dawn Heinecken. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, 224 pp., $49.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.
Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century by Rebecca Arnold. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001, 192 pp., $52.00 hardcover, $22.00 paper.
Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture by Debra Gimlin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, 181 pp., $48.00 hard-cover, $16.95 paper.

Three recently published books explore the variety of ways in which women not only learn to tie their value and self-worth to their appearances, but also struggle to find ways to challenge and subvert the tyranny that such a concern exerts in their lives.

Measuring Up, How Advertising Affects Self-Image explores relationships between idealized images of female bodies in advertising and the ways that those images shape male and female perceptions and behaviors toward female bodies. The author, Vickie Rutledge Shields, argues that the ubiquitous and endlessly repeated images of youthful, slender, and beautiful bodies in advertising represent an impossible feminine ideal, perpetuate a singular monolithic aesthetic, and establish the primacy of appearance to women's lives. Images of women in ads likewise affect the assignment and enactment of gender roles within culture. Although [End Page 199] Shields surveys opinions from both men and women, it is apparent from the analysis she presents that ads have a particularly negative impact on women's lives.

Shields compares responses of men and women to eight ads identified by scholars of gender and advertising as representing prevailing stereo-types of sex roles and ritualized gender behavior. What the voices of the real life people in her research reveal is that ads have a deeper impact on how women view themselves than is true of their male counterparts. The repetition of images of idealized female bodies becomes fundamental to a woman's feelings of self-worth and social valuation and also contributes to a variety of social pathologies ranging from sexual harassment and subordination to eating disorders, low self-esteem, even rape. Ads likewise establish women in no uncertain terms as objects to be improved upon to merit the gaze of the all important-male Other. Shields notes that the impact of advertising is especially dramatic in the lives of adolescent girls who, lacking a strong self-concept, often look to advertising for guidance on how to act and look. But the "symbolic annihilation" or deliberate exclusion of images of gays and lesbians, the aged, the disabled, and people of color is equally harmful, because it suggests an identity unworthy of representation in the dominant ideology of images.

Interestingly, women, unlike men, possess the ability to theorize about how advertisements cause them to view themselves as objects rather than subjects. But such awareness does little to contribute to their ability to escape being influenced by them. In fact, ads, which focus on the body as a site needing constant improvement, actively and deliberately create anxiety around issues of women's appearance and capitalize on that anxiety with an array of products that promise perfection. The inevitable failure that follows such an impossible offer creates even more self-doubt and anxiety, thereby perpetuating the cycle of buying and self-loathing on which marketing relies.

Fortunately, Shields identifies several factors that may enable women to negotiate and resist advertising's oppressive ideology. One of the most important is the family. By incorporating a wider variety of qualities into what it celebrates about children, families can offer an explicit critique to an ideology focused exclusively on a monolithic image of an acceptable and desirable body and moderate the importance of appearance in children's lives. But Shields argues that it is the transformation of images of women in advertisements that offers the most hope. Given their abundance and prevalence as purveyors of meaning, ads...


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