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Images that empower women

  • 06 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.

'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