The Toxic Effects of Media: Being A Woman in Culture

I have always known that advertisements were toxic to a woman's self-image, but I was unaware of how it affected other parts of a woman's life. Killing Us Softly 4, a film in which Dr. Jean Kilbourne discusses the media's depiction of women, really opened my eyes to how the media affects factors other than body image. Eating disorders, violence, colorism, the perpetuation of rape culture, and the oversexualizing of women and girls are just a few of the infinite problems that advertisements cause.

Dr. Kilbourne, who was once alone in her research, has now launched an entire field dedicated to eradicating the problematic nature of the media. As a four-part series with the earliest episode airing in 1979, it is indicated that this is a major problem that has been affecting women for decades, if not centuries (Killoy, et al. (2010)). However, this major problem has only gotten worse as technology advances. In today's world, media and advertisements are seen and heard practically everywhere you turn (television, billboards, radio, internet, and more) which means that we are being exposed to even more advertisements that are detrimental to women.

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Advertisements and the media not only promote one type of beauty standard while making all other women feel ugly, it uses females as oversexualized objects while glamorizing violence against them.

I selected this topic because it pertains to my own life experiences and those of many other women. Just by browsing through social media, I always find myself thinking something along the lines of "I wish I had clear skin like this model" or "wow I wish my body looked like that".

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However, I never question if these images are retouched or edited. I always assume that I have to change my appearance to fit into a certain ideal and it is a terrible way to feel about yourself. In high school, I would wear a lot more makeup because I felt I had to wear makeup for other people to see me as "pretty". Now as a university student, I realize that I do not need to wear makeup every day just to please others. If I do not value what I look like naturally or feel confident in myself, then no one will. It is important for all men and women to feel this way and to love themselves flaws and all.

Firstly, it has become evident in our society that a woman is beautiful only if she is thin. This societal belief causes unhealthy relationships with food and presents an ideology that being thin will make you happy. This type of message inspires body dissatisfaction in women and girls who do not see their body types in the media. Body dissatisfaction begins to develop among children of all different body sizes and races as early as age 7 (Grabe S, 2018, p. 460). This feeling can cause young and susceptible girls to engage in behaviors such as: binging and purging, extreme dieting and exercising, and starving themselves, just so they can feel the "happiness of being skinny". What is even more repulsing being the advertisements that encourage these self-damaging behaviors. In an ad from Killing Us Softly 4, there is a caption along with the image of women working out stating "exercise was her appetizer, fast food her main course." This ad is encouraging extreme exercise just to binge on junk food, which is always an indicator of an eating disorder (Killoy et al. (2010)). Crash-dieting through pills and programs like Jenny Craig are encouraged by ads but are proven to be incredibly ineffective as "95% of dieters not only regain whatever the weight they lose within 5 years, they go on to gain more" (Killoy et al. (2010)).

The promotion of the thin ideal and encouragement of unhealthy behavior to fit into this ideal is causing great amounts of physical and mental stress on women, and it is only getting worse. Cartoon characters, fashion models, actresses, and pageant queens are even thinner now indicating this unattainable ideal as normal (Grabe, S, 2018, p. 460). Once this ideal becomes normalized, women begin to feel body dissatisfaction. However, less than 5% of American women have this body type, excluding 95% who do not (Killoy et al., (2010)). But, what exactly is this ideal body type the media suffocates us with and declares as better than the rest? Women with the ideal body type are tall and thin with V-shaped bodies; some characteristics of a V-shaped body include long legs and small breasts. Generally, fashion models either have this body genetically or it is achieved through Photoshop. Therefore, in the majority of ads, we see on a daily basis, the model's body and face are completely changed through makeup and Photoshop; so, we are comparing ourselves to people who do not even look that way in real life.

Shelly Grabe, L. Monique Ward, and Janet Shibley Hyde conducted a meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies regarding the role of the media in women's body image. The results from this study indicated that there is a direct relationship between the amount of exposure to ads containing the thin ideal and body dissatisfaction among the study participants (Grabe, S, 2018, p. 471). Furthermore, it was also verified that there is a steady relationship between eating behaviors and exposure to the thin ideal. Therefore, women who were more exposed to the thin ideal are more likely to engage in bulimic and anorexic behavior (Grabe, S, 2018, p. 471). Also featured were potential ways to solve this crisis. One solution was the teaching of media literacy in schools and universities. Media literacy would teach girls and women to be more critical and aware of advertisements, hopefully resulting in less self-comparison and body dissatisfaction (Grabe, S, 2018, p. 471). I believe that media literacy is a course that should be taught in all curricula. This is because it will teach children how to understand advertisements, making them aware of the subliminal messages meant to make them feel bad about themselves.

The American standard of beauty exists worldwide, especially now due to the introduction of social media and globalization. This standard of beauty is described as "young, thin, white, and usually blond and blue-eyed" (Killoy et al. (2010)). Moreover, it is difficult for all women to feel completely secure in their own looks when comparing themselves to the constructed models in advertisements, but it is increasingly difficult for women of color. Women of color have generally been considered attractive only if they possess features that hold to the "mainstream" standard of beauty-lighter skin, straight hair, and European features (Killoy et al. (2010)). Women of color featured in advertisements are usually light-skinned and straightened hair. On the other hand, women who are not "light enough" get airbrushed through Photoshop. (Killoy et al. (2010)). In the African American and Mexican communities, colorism is what determines if a woman is "beautiful" or not. It is defined as "the system that privileges the lighter-skinned over the darker-skinned people within a community of color" (Hunter, M. L. (2002), p. 176). This concept stems from European colonization and it still prevailing in today's society Hunter, M. L. (2002), p. 190).

Additionally, colorism affects people of all genders but it has a greater impact on women. This is due to the fact that a woman's beauty and physical appearance generally holds more value over a man's. Women and girls are taught that our appearance matters more than what we have to say. Consequently, colorism only exists through the degrading, false, and racist view of darker skin tones being unattractive. Women in these communities are indirectly taught that they will only be successful, get a good education, or marry a worthy man if they are light skin (Hunter, M. L. (2002), p. 179). It is thoughts like this that encourage women to relax their hair and bleach their skin, both of which have irreversible and dangerous effects. Compared to past decades, we are increasingly seeing more diversity in advertisements and the media in general.

Now more than ever, women are being used as sexual objects in advertisements. When someone is constantly being viewed as a sexual object to not be taken seriously, problematic behaviors and attitudes begin to develop towards that person. These types of images in media causes sexist attitudes, sexual harassment, violence against women, and body dissatisfaction (Lavine, H., Sweeney, D., & Wagner, S. H. (1999), p. 1049). For centuries, women have been pinned against each other and split into two categories: virgins or whores. Now, they are expected to embody both sexiness and innocence.

However, this new ideology being forced upon women is not intending to sell sex but instead consumerism (Killoy et al. (2010)). The common theme of these ads is "if you buy our product, you'll feel sexy and confident." Additionally, the constant oversexualizing of women has led to the sexualizing of young girls. Models demonstrate child-like or passive body language while men appear powerful with dignity. Additionally, the female models are dressed like children and often have young features like wide-set eyes (Killoy et al. (2010)). In Killing Us Softly 4, Dr. Kilbourne displays many ads in which the adult model is clearly intended to look like a child. These ads often emulate child pornography, such as one for Lee's Jeans. The model is over 18, but she is portrayed to look younger (Killoy et al. (2010)). These types of advertisements have begun to normalize predatory behaviors against females.

Today's advertisements even sexualize a woman's eating habits. This arises from the shame and guilt brought upon women, from the media, for having an appetite. It is also important to mention that there is a direct relationship between the shame women feel for having an appetite and the sexuality seen in print ads and commercials (Killoy et al. (2010)). Moreover, advertisements for Oreo cookies and candy bars now contain sexually explicit language. A relationship, usually romantic, is depicted between a woman and her food (Killoy et al. (2010)). The models in these ads are often posed in a more seductive fashion with close attention being paid to the lips and breasts. One fast food chain that is notorious for their explicit advertising is Carl's Jr. Almost every advertisement features sexy models, often blonde, eating hamburgers in skimpy outfits or bikinis. Ads are becoming increasingly pornographic as well, showcasing just how sex-driven our culture is despite not incorporating sexual education into our curriculums. This combination is extremely dangerous for sexually active teens and young adults that may be unaware of the consequences of unsafe sex-pregnancy, STIs, STDs, etc.

Next, the sexual and pornographic content in advertisements have begun to normalize violence and harassment towards women in everyday life. Dr. Kilbourne offers reasons as to why this behavior has become normalized: 1) the portrayal of women as objects in advertisements and 2) the media's eroticizing of violence against women (Killoy et al. (2010)). In advertisements, women's bodies are constantly being mutilated or turned into an object. In this case, it is usually a woman's breasts that are focused on. Once a person's body is objectified they become dehumanized. Through dehumanization, violence against that person or group of people becomes acceptable (Killoy et al. (2010)). Therefore, advertisements that feature dismemberment or objectification are incidentally giving their audience approval to be harmful towards women.

Likewise, violence against women being romanticized in the media leads to the normalization of harmful behaviors. One example of this is what Dr. Kilbourne refers to as the romantic stranger, represented by a shadowy silhouette. In advertisements, the romantic stranger is approaching a woman who is often alone (Killoy et al. (2010)). These images are intended to mark the beginning of a romance, but any woman would see this romantic stranger as a stalker and a potential predator. This could potentially cause an impressionable man to assume that the best way to approach a woman is by essentially stalking them. There are countless examples of advertisements that feature what looks like battery and even murder (Killoy et al. (2010)). The effects of these advertisements are what instill fear in women when walking alone at night, getting in a cab alone, or wearing certain types of clothing when going out.

Despite all of the atrocities the media has brought upon women, there are still positive qualities to it. More and more women are beginning to criticize negative advertisements on social media, showing that it is not okay to normalize violence and shame women for their body type. In fact, young feminists use social media to hold companies and men liable for their harmful actions and words. Generally, these women speak out against rape culture and to stop culture's acceptance of it (Rentschler, C. A. (2014), p. 66 and 67). Rape culture is defined as a culture that promotes male aggression and violence against women which is made out to be sexy. For women, rape culture standardizes harassment and assault in our culture (Rentschler, C. A. (2014), p. 66). It is incredibly admirable for this generation of feminists to take a stand against cultural norms and expose its cruelties. Women need to know that their voices are just as important as those of men.

Therefore, Killing Us Softly 4 shows the devastating truth of what it is really like to be a woman in culture. In order to see change the depiction of women in media, it is necessary to speak out and criticize these companies. It is about time they are told that it is not okay to treat women like objects or say that only one type of woman is the most beautiful. By teaching media literacy in our school system, we can further eradicate this issue. Additionally, monumental movements like the 'Me Too' are paving the way for women to be viewed differently in media strong and confident while still being empathetic and kind. Lastly, femininity is not synonymous with weakness and it's time the media sees that.


  • Grabe, S., Ward, L. M., & Hyde, J. S. (2008). The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin,134(3), 460-476. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.460
  • Hunter, M. L. (2002). "if You're Light You're Alright": Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color. Gender & Society,16(2), 175-193. doi:10.1177/0891243202016002003
  • Killoy, A. Earp, J. Alper, L. Jhally, S. (Director). (2010). Killing Us Softly [Video file]. Media Education Foundation. Retrieved November 29, 2018, from Kanopy
  • Lavine, H., Sweeney, D., & Wagner, S. H. (1999). Depicting Women as Sex Objects in Television Advertising: Effects on Body Dissatisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,25(8), 1049-1058. doi:10.1177/01461672992511012
  • Rentschler, C. A. (2014). Rape Culture and the Feminist Politics of Social Media. Girlhood Studies,7(1). doi:10.3167/ghs.2014.070106

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The Toxic Effects of Media: Being A Woman in Culture. (2019, Nov 28). Retrieved from

The Toxic Effects of Media: Being A Woman in Culture
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