2015 in review: Images that empower women

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First published 5 March 2015

Sitting behind a bus at traffic lights recently, my teenage daughter and I tried to figure out what the image plastered across its back was advertising. It was a pair of long, slim female legs. I peered at the tiny object placed in the bottom right-hand corner of the image.

Image from Getty Images LeanIn Collection'Is that toilet paper?' I asked.

'I don't know,' my daughter replied.

I do believe the legs splashed across it were advertising toilet paper. What connection these two things had I can't possibly say, except that the way in which the legs struck an awkward, fey pose might have suggested the person they belonged to needed to go to the toilet.

The photograph of a pair of disembodied legs on the back of a bus shouldn't come as shock to the modern bystander, for such images are used ad nauseam to sell unrelated products. But in 2015, this acute social focus on women's bodies — most often to the exclusion of their other, myriad qualities — should shock us. For the practice is more ubiquitous than it has ever been before, and is damaging in ways that are both insidious and long-lasting.

International Women's Day on Sunday 8 March focuses on urgent and often life-threatening inequalities suffered by women around the world, particularly in patriarchal, developing and war-torn countries. But while the day gives Australian women an opportunity to celebrate the gains they've made in the fight for equality, they should remain alert to the fact that the ongoing practice of objectification undermines those hard-earned rights. Multiple studies confirm that this tsunami of idealised images results in widespread body dissatisfaction, which in turn correlates with psychological impairment which is, in some cases, related to eating disorders. In short, a bombardment of objectifying images of women has spawned among this gender an epidemic of severe self-loathing.

A society that is saturated with narrowly-defined, sexualised representations of women quickly absorbs the narrative that those representations reflect a woman's worth. Moreover, the comparative lack of images of men and their body parts highlights a searing inequity in the value ascribed to men versus women. It suggests that men are sexual, watchful beings, while women exist to be watched and have no sexual impulse or reciprocal attraction to the male form. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Naomi Wolf, feminist and author of the ground-breaking work The Beauty Myth, says, 'To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked — where men aren't — is to learn inequality in little ways all day long. So even if we agree that sexual imagery is in fact a language, it is clearly one that is already heavily edited to protect men's sexual — and hence social — confidence while undermining that of women.'

Tiny strides are being made in the chipping away of this entrenched culture: early last year the non-profit LeanIn.org, founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, partnered with Getty Images to create a library of images that represent women in a realistic, empowering way.

The aim, said Getty's co-founder and CEO Jonathan Klein, was to break down stereotypes, 'kill the cliché' and change the conversation about how women are depicted in visual communications. The Lean In Collection contains over 2500 images which depict females in all their variety: young and old and in-between, fat and thin and average-sized, white and black and Asian, grey-haired and blonde and curly-haired, strong and determined and in-charge.

It is a refreshing alternative to the homogenous depiction of women in our popular culture. Even when the latest Bond 'girl', 50-year-old Monica Belluci, was paraded about recently as an exception to this rule, there was something deeply disturbing about her impossibly smooth face as contrasted with her younger costar, Daniel Craig, whose own face is etched with a lifetime of stories.

Change, if ever it comes, will be slow: according to Klein, revenues for the LeanIn Collection have doubled since its launch. But a cursory glance at our media would suggest that old, sexist stock photos are still in vogue. And as LeanIn.org's Contributing Editor Jessica Bennett says, 'The more media a young girl consumes, the less options she believes she has in life. A lot of the images we see on a day-to-day basis are really highly sexualised or they show women in ancillary roles… and that's just not the world we live in today'.

Perhaps it will take more than fresh stock images and goodwill to change the way women are represented: perhaps shock tactics are needed to illustrate the utter absurdity of the status quo. On this International Women's Day, I propose we temporarily transform society into one that presents women as valuable no matter their age or size, and disregards the men that women don't find universally attractive.

Our television screens will be filled with intellectual, grey-haired female newsreaders alongside young, handsome male counterparts; movies will be populated with women of all ages and abilities and the narrowest sampling of young men (or older men who have erased their wrinkles with Botox); and buses will be plastered with a pair of muscular male legs and just a teeny, tiny, imperceptible dot of something off to the right-hand side — something that might, or might not, be a roll of toilet paper.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, advertising, body image, feminism, Naomi Wolf, International Women's Day



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Existing comments

I have just excitedly opened the Lean In collection. What a disappointment! Still predominately tall lean young white women, and they all look successful and affluent too. Should we really have to google search for ourselves by a denigrating description, or are we ALL actually normal?
Pauline Small | 16 January 2016


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