Images that empower women


Image from Getty Images LeanIn CollectionSitting 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.

'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, 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’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 liked that last paragraph, Catherine. Although the female of the species needs to show that she would not really stoop to that level! There is a strong surfing culture in our town and prominently displayed above a surf shop on the highway is a billboard featuring a thin, beautiful, young girl wearing the briefest of bikinis. Little wonder so many young (and not so young) women develop eating disorders. Well done to Jonathan Klein - continue the good work!
Pam | 05 March 2015

Aside from the feminist optic, there is a place also surely for the issue of Christian modesty, [traditionally a rampart against latent and not so latent forces of a sex drenched society be it on buses, trains, and endemic billboards ]
[A society beset with media reported wacko paraphilia and chronophilia[such aberrations recently dumbed down as mere unusual erotic personal tastes rather than mental diseases by e.g. DSM manuals.]
#Frankly, aside from politically correct[PC] gender issues, I suggest a renaissance of Christian modesty vis a vis graphic public displays of male/female sexualised body parts regardless of gender wars.[without advocating neo-Jansenism] .
#Such Christian Modesty antecedent to or correlated with statistically balanced P C gender equity issues!
Father John George | 05 March 2015

Yes, great photos. But at least 80% are of young and slim women. Even the older women are slim. Where are the millions of women of larger sizes? They are invisible in this supposedly representative collection. Surely the aim of this collection is to be inclusive. It fails.
Lorraine Parkinson | 06 March 2015

'...particularly in patriarchal, developing and war-torn countries.' That implies that there are non-patriarchal countries, Catherine! If you know of one, please let me know.
Penelope | 06 March 2015

Penelope, there are powerful queens:
#Elizabeth II (born 1926), Queen regnant of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms
# Margrethe II of Denmark (born 1940), Queen regnant of the Kingdom of Denmark

Father John George | 07 March 2015

There are many men out there who are unhappy with the use of what are generally perceived as impossibly attractive overly sexualised images of women in all facets of modern life. Many images of male "hunks" are as disempowering to the perceived "definitely non-hunk" males out there. The subtext seems to be that, if you're not an impossibly attractive member of either sex, then you are, necessarily, second-rate and will "miss out" on all that's important in life. That includes most of us. Much of the old order was rotten and did discriminate against women. But that sort of discrimination also disadvantaged men because it led them to seek an unreal relationship with a commodified entity rather than a real, living human being. One of the greatest problems in the modern world is for men and women to accept themselves and each other as real people, with real, not artificially foisted, needs including that for real relationships and I'm not talking primarily sexually here. Women's liberation also needs the complementary liberation of men from outdated views of what "a real man" is. Most our contemporary Australian vision of what that entails is utterly juvenile and totally unhelpful here.
Edward Fido | 07 March 2015

Interestingly Penelope, the former Indonesian President Mrs Megawati Sukarnoputrijokingly [jokingly called 'the real president] urged president Joko Widodo to enact capital punishment. Though the latter''s recent stormy presidential win was widely seen as reflecting popular voter support for "new" or "clean" leaders rather than the "old" style of politics in Indonesia.
Father John George | 14 March 2015


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