Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image

Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image

Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image

Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image


The mute gestures of advertising images are frozen for posterity by photographers and illustrators, gestures that, for better or worse, perpetuate a certain aesthetic, and eventually become emblematic of a period. The images of today show an internalization of the values of a society that has more interest in the body than in the mind. They are techno-enhanced blueprints of unattainable appearances that leave women and men feeling horrified, estranged, and restricted by unrealistic, silent mandates. Measuring Up looks at advertising as more than just a way to extract money from unsuspecting people but as a vehicle for conveying the larger views of a confining, body-obsessed culture.

By weaving theoretical and textual insights from feminist and cultural studies with the voices of real women and men, Measuring Up offers a unique reception analysis of the effects of repetitious exposure to advertisements of perfect bodies in our everyday lives. Shields examines a particular, complex relationship between the idealized images of gender we see in advertising and our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior in relation to these images. The study is unique in presenting audience reception in terms of ethnographic data, not textual interpretations alone.

Measuring Up engages with and informs current theoretical debates within these sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory literatures: feminist media studies, feminist film theory, critical social theory, cultural studies, and critical ethnography. This is an important work that explores the forms and channels of power used in one of the most insidious and overt means of mass influence in popular culture.


How do you “measure up” against the perfect bodies in fashion ads, in films, and on TV? Do you spend much time thinking about this question? Does trying to measure up have any real or lasting effects on your life? Are you critical of your body, its shape, size, or even color? Or do you consider yourself immune from mass media’s powerful prescriptions? If popular culture is an indicator of the concerns of everyday people, then evidence for the popularity of the subject of “how we measure up” is all around us. The lead story for the June 3, 1996 edition of People, for example, reads, “Too Fat? Too Thin? How Media Images of Celebrities Teach Kids to Hate Their Bodies.” TV talk shows and entertainment specials focus on eating disorders, celebrity plastic surgery, personal trainers, silicone breast implants, pressures from mates to look like models, and so many more ways to change ourselves. In the popular press, feminist critiques of the cosmetics, diet, and exercise industries, such as Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi’s Backlash, hit a nerve with millions of women readers, becoming bestsellers. In the academy, the influential work of Jean Kilbourne in her films Still Killing Us Softly (I, II, III) and Slim Hopes and her book Deadly Persuasion, Catherine Gilday’s film The Famine Within, and Susan Bordo’s book, Unbearable Weight, just to name a few, have entered into this terrain, theorizing the relationships among gender, media, and culture.

This book is about a particular, complex relationship between the idealized images of gender we see in advertising everyday and our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in relation to those images. Any woman who has ever avoided a trip to the beach because she could not bear to be seen in a bathing suit has first-hand knowledge of this relationship. Any man who has insisted on spending two weeks lifting weights before sporting a sleeveless summer tank top is in this relationship. Anyone who is frightened to leave the house without first rolling on a particular brand of deodorant is in a complex relationship with media images about gender and gendered behaviors. Anyone who chooses to implant silicone in healthy breasts is a partner in the relationship with culturally constructed beauty ideals. And anyone who starves him- or herself in response to cultural pressures and personal desires to be “thin” is head deep in this complex relationship. Whether we are deep in the relationship with advertising images of perfect bodies or in the average maze of everyday existence with them, on a cultural level advertising affects us all.

This book focuses on advertising as a key institution of socialization in . . .

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