Deadly Persuasion & Body Wars

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
September/October 2000 Volume 11, Number 5
©2000 Gürze Books

Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising
(By Jean Kilbourne. New York: The Free Press, 1999. 366 pp, $26.00)

Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies
(By Margo Maine. Carlsbad, CA: G ürze Books, 2000. 307 pp., $14.95)

Taken as a pair, these two books lay bare the incredibly pervasive, negative influence of advertising indoctrination and try to provide an action plan for those interested in fighting back. We’re all drenched by streams of virtually inescapable propaganda that shape our attitudes about our shapes. They contaminate our opinions regarding what really matters in life and affect overvaluations of our physical appearances and specific body parts.

The advertising barrages reduce the weaker, less self-confident, and more anxious among us to victims. These victims then devote much of their waking and even dreaming thoughts, emotions, time, energy, and resources to futile attempts to fulfill the advertisers’ insatiable demands. They undertake impossible quests to reach higher and higher, ultimately unattainable and unsustainable, peaks of beauty and perfection. This is all in hopes of being loved, admired, supported and accepted.

Jean Kilbourne’s Deadly Persuasion is the product of an astute student of media, a sometimes member of the Stone Center circle at Wellesley College, and an award-winning film-maker and public speaker who has previously written about the influence of alcohol and tobacco advertising. Her work has focused on how women are demeaned in advertising and often portrayed as stupid beings whose major purpose in life is to entice men. Using hundreds of magazine and newspaper advertisements to illustrate her points, she brilliantly elucidates the mind-numbing, hypnotic effects of advertising, so subtle and ubiquitous that we’re hardly aware of the multiple liminal and subliminal messages to which we’re subjected. And, the advertising is targeted at us in increasingly scientifically tested ways designed to appeal to each of our private egos. Her chapter titles tell the story. Examples: “Buy this 24 Year Old and Get All His Friends Absolutely Free: We are the product”; “In Your Face All over the Place: Advertising is our environment”;

” Bath Tissue Is like Marriage: The corruption of relationship,” and so on. In “Please, Please, You’re Driving Me Wild: Falling in love with food,” Kilbourne focuses on the female counterpart of advertising’s attempts to foster sexual relations between men and their cars. This is hard-core Haagen-Das. From this point on, her focus is on the steady pounding designed to slim and degrade, to push alcohol, push cigarettes, push addictions as pseudo-solutions to problems of loneliness, isolation, or feeling disconnected: “The More You Subtract the More You Add: Cutting girls down to size.” Subtle acts of “clique” violence toward women and even soft-core child porn have increasingly found their ways into contemporary advertising.

Kilbourne finally offers a few perspectives on how public health programs might make use of advertising media as part of a “systems approach” to reverse some of the more perverse trends, as in anti-smoking campaigns. Such “counter-advertising” campaigns might also be successfully aimed at teenage drinking, unrealistic dieting, violence against women and other major social problems. Kilbourne has no illusions. Her counter-advertisements are not simple solutions to complex problems, but they may help change zeitgeists and social climates. Unfortunately, the discussion concerning what might be done to counteract the effects of industrial advertising is the thinnest part of the book. We all know that political action and advocacy are needed. Let’s face it: we’re fighting billion-dollar industries with huge advertising budgets.

Here’s where Margo Maine’s book comes in, oriented toward the lay reader, and going a step further by suggesting action plans for those who “don’t want to take it any more.” In a very chatty style, she covers many of the problems touched on by Kilbourne that result in negative self-images and self-destructive behaviors by women.

Maine’s book basically provides us with concise, pointed, and telling exercises that deconstruct advertising propaganda. She exposes the propaganda memes (self-replicating quasi-infectious cultural ideas analogous to viruses or genes in biology) in which we all marinate and takes them on by means of liberally sprinkled, well-placed propaganda-combating facts and quotes. Her suggested solutions and detailed lists of resources are presented chapter by chapter, offered as tools that individuals fighting with their own demons in the trenches can employ in daily battles. Dislike your body? See the list of “25 Ways to Love Your Body” — affirmations, or positive cognitive implants. Uncertain about your attitudes toward fat and fat people? Take the “Size Acceptance Questionnaire.” The “Obesity Quiz: Fact or Fiction,” and a self-assessment test on “What Really Happens When We Diet” challenge ignorance and misconceptions. “Ten Ideas to Fight Fashism” (cute) helps cope with fashion addiction. “How does Violence Affect You?” invites honest self-appraisal about partner and family violence. “Aging Beautifully” guides successful coping over the long haul. Many other themes are covered as well. I particularly liked the sections on schools, sports and ballet. The schools chapter contains a “Weight and Shape Attitude Test for Teachers” and Eating Disorders Awareness Program (EDAP) related program suggestions. The one on sports offers a “Mom and Pop Sports Attitude Quiz” and “Questions about Coaches and Teams.” The chapter on ballet includes “Ten Shoulds for Dance Teachers.” There’s even a chapter for men, including “Questions for Men Wanting to Make Peace with their Bodies” and “How Men can Help Women.” All in all, this is an extremely sensible, wise and practical book.

— J.Y.

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