Lisa G

Mass Media Ethics

November 19, 2001


Women in the Media: An Accurate Portrayal?

Women today are bombarded from every side with advertising. Magazines, television, the Internet, billboards, etc. all feature advertisements, many of which use a woman to promote a product. Some of these ads target a female audience, such as diet foods and exercise equipment. Others may rely on a woman’s sex appeal to intrigue men to purchase anything from liquor to paint. The disturbing trend in advertising, in whatever medium, is the portrayal of women as increasingly thin. This raises the issue of how women are affected by such advertising: how their body image can be called into question by viewing ads and whether advertising is responsible for the number of women who diet or suffer from an eating disorder. After exploring this issue, it is necessary to seek the perspectives of various ethicists such as Kant, Rawls, and Mill to try to determine a proper use of the female image in advertising.

In advertising and the media as a whole, women are portrayed as thin. In a study of 33 television shows, 69.1 percent of the female characters were rated as thin and only 17.5 percent of the males were thus rated (Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 110). The thinness of the ideal woman has increased during the last century. In a content analysis of photographs in Ladies’ Home Journal and Vogue between 1901 and 1981, the bust-to-waist ratios of the women portrayed decreased through the years (Silverstein et al., 1980, cited in Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 110). “Present day women who look at the major mass media are exposed to a standard of bodily attractiveness that is slimmer than that presented for men and that is less curvaceous than that presented for women since the 1930’s” (Silverstein et al., 1980, cited in Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 110). This increasing emphasis on being thin has led to the advertisement of more products to help women achieve this ideal image. In a study of four women’s and four men’s magazines, there were 63 diet food ads in the women’s magazines, but only one such ad in the men’s magazines (Silverstein et al., 1980, cited in Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 110). In the same study, the number of articles about figure-enhancing products totaled 96 in the women’s magazines and 10 in the men’s magazines (Silverstein et al., 1980, cited in Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 110). 

Although advertising, magazine photographs, and television programs portray women as thin, the women shown are not always depicted in a way that shows how to maintain a slim appearance. A study done by Kaufman in 1980, (cited in Myers & Biocca, 1992, pp. 110-111), showed that 95 percent of characters in television programs and advertising were in situations involving food and many of them were consuming it without attention to whether the meal was balanced, whether they felt hungry, etc. “Television presents viewers with two sets of conflicting messages,” Kaufman wrote (p. 45, cited in Myers & Biocca, p. 111). “One suggests that we eat in ways almost guaranteed to make us fat; the other suggests that we strive to remain slim” (Kaufman p. 45, cited in Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 111).

The other main component in women’s portrayal in the media is the use of sex appeal. Sex is a popular topic of discussion in society today, and this is reflected in the media. “Newspaper articles, television programs, contemporary plays, advertisements – all urge adults, and impressionable children, to overcome inhibitions, overlook propriety and go for it” (Odone, 1998, p. 17). The media’s focus on sex comes across in its use of women in ads. “Advertisers have always tried to use sex to sell products, even when the product being advertised had nothing to do with sex,” according to Ann Purdy, author of “Beauty and the advertising beast.” “Car, alcohol, soft drink and jean ads often market women’s bodies as well as the actual products being advertised” (Purdy, 1991, p. 13). As the women portrayed as sexy are also thin, women are socialized to strive to be thin in order to be seen as sexy, too. According to Jean Kilbourne, creator of several award-winning films examining women’s portrayal in advertising, “the real tragedy of the stereotypes presented by the advertising world is that many women internalize [them] and learn their ‘limitations’, thus establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one accepts these mythical and degrading images, to some extent one actualizes them” (Purdy, 1991, p. 13).

As Kilbourne noted, women do seem to identify with the thin, sexy female models seen in the media. In a recent study (not directly named) discussed in Working Woman, twice as many women as men polled thought eroticism was appropriate in fashion and fragrance ads (Kanner, 1999, p. 21). The study found that “women associate sensual ads with romance and sometimes identify with the model” (Kanner, 1999, p. 21).

Philip Myers and Frank Biocca of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a study to see how advertising affects women’s self-perceived body images and moods. A woman’s body image is unstable and responsive to social cues, and is therefore elastic, Myers and Biocca wrote (p. 116). They found that a woman’s body image is constructed in a triangular fashion: By examining her objective body shape (the actual measurements) and the socially represented ideal body (“absorbed from cultural representations of ideals of physical beauty” p. 116), the woman develops an internalized body ideal that is somewhere in between her actual shape and the social ideal (Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 117). “This personal body image represents a goal for the individual. Advertising most often represents some ideal future self to the viewer in the process of selling a product that will aid the individual in attaining this ideal future self” (p. 117).

Myers and Biocca found that watching as little as 30 minutes of television programming and advertising can change a woman’s perception of her body shape (p. 108). Immediately after viewing an ad showing a thin, ideal woman, the women in the study felt better about their body image; they felt thinner (p. 126). “During this stage…the young women “bond” with the models and fantasize themselves as thin, beautiful versions of themselves” (p. 129). However, as Myers and Biocca noted on p. 127, the goal of advertising is not to reconcile women with their present body image, but rather to foster new worries and desires that can be solved by the purchase of a product. Thus, after the short-lived identification with the model and consequential uplifting perception of their body image, “many women are faced by the cold reality of the mirror, a reality that conflicts with the social ideal” (p. 129).

Clearly, then, the media are capable of influencing women’s perceptions of themselves. Considering that children and adult television viewers are exposed to approximately 5,260 attractiveness messages per year (about 14 messages each day), and 1,850 of these directly deal with beauty, the pressure to conform to the social ideal can cause problems for many women (Downs & Harrison, 1985, p. 17). 

It is the negative consequences of the conflict many women perceive between their objective body image and the socially ideal woman that causes ethical concern for advertisers and society at large. Women who are unhappy with the body image they have constructed in their minds, whether a direct result of seeing the ideal woman portrayed in the media, may take drastic steps to improve their objective body shape. A Nielsen survey in 1978 found that there was somebody dieting in 45 percent of U.S. households. Of all the women aged 24 to 54, 56 percent were dieting and the majority followed a diet for cosmetic rather than health reasons (Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 112).

A preoccupation with dieting to be thin can lead to dangerous, life-threatening eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. “Pressures on women to be thin and to achieve…may partially explain why anorexia nervosa has increased so dramatically. [Anorexics] respond to these pressures by equating weight control with self-control and this in turn is equated with beauty and ‘success’” (Garfinkel & Garner, 1982, p. 10). Anorexics starve themselves and bulimics binge and purge their food in an attempt to get thinner, no matter how thin they are by objective standards. In the anorexic or bulimic person’s mind, body size is overestimated. A study by Touyz et al. (1985) found that anorexics overestimate their body size by 5.51 percent and bulimics overestimate by 11.31 percent (cited in Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 114). This is not a trend only in people with eating disorders: Two out of five women overestimate at least one of their four body parts (cheeks, waist, hips, or thighs) by at least 50 percent (p. 115).

This overestimation and consequential dieting to try to be thinner has psychological consequences for women, such as low self-esteem. “Young women with small breasts, for example, are quite likely to perceive themselves as deficient in personal value. Women with heavy legs are programmed almost automatically for a lifelong inferiority complex, as are generally larger, heavier women” (Key, 1976, pp. 36-37). This may explain why women are so eager, then, to achieve thinness and feel better about themselves: They will then fit in with the socially ideal woman seen in magazines, television, and other media.

As society’s emphasis on being thin (and therefore sexy) is reflected in the media, particularly advertising, it is necessary for an ethical media practitioner to examine how their work contributes to/encourages this female ideal. No matter the medium, each media practitioner faces a particular dilemma in trying to portray the female image. As noted in Media ethics: Cases and moral reasoning, “advertisers choose to use thin models because they assume that they will be regarded by their target audience as attractive either directly (e.g., choose our diet plan and look like this) or indirectly (e.g., these are the kinds of good-looking people who use our product/service)” (Christians et al., 2001, p. 180). For advertisers, there is little incentive to use an average-looking woman in advertisements, particularly in fitness or diet ads. This is because viewers will be more enticed to buy a product if they see a great-looking person who is thin and toned from using a product, not someone who is still flabby and overweight after using it. “There is no compelling reason, short of a sense of “social responsibility,” for advertisers to change their behavior by using “healthier” models, somewhat closer to the weight of the average woman” (p. 180).

Some would argue that it is the responsibility of the media (magazines, television, etc.) advertisers use to advertise their product to refuse to place ads that portray women in an ultra-thin manner that may encourage eating disorders or low self-esteem. Christians et al. argue that media accept such ads because they provide revenue to keep the company running and also appeal to the media’s readers/viewers. As mentioned earlier, women (and society at large) are preoccupied with thinness and being sexy, an obsession at least partly due to the media’s likewise obsession. If media refuse to run ads or articles starring ultra-thin women, they face two consequences. First, if a magazine, for example, uses photos of more average-looking models to accompany articles, the advertisers may accuse the company of creating a “non-supportive climate” for their advertisements (Christians et al., 2001, p. 180). Second, if they try another route and refuse outright to run ads with too-thin women, they will suffer financially if other magazines still run such ads (p. 181). 

If one decides the media (advertisers and the media they advertise in) are too entangled to do much to enact change, then perhaps responsibility lies with the individual. The female reader/viewer always has the choice not to purchase products that use socially ideal women models in their advertising, or to boycott magazines that feature advertising or articles with ultra-thin women. While this may help the woman’s conscience and perhaps her self-esteem by not being exposed to such media, it will probably do little to change the media climate unless individuals band together in mass protest to economically damage the media’s well being (Christians et al., 2001, p. 181).

Thus the vicious cycle of the media promoting thinness as the key to sexiness and success, resulting in a societal emphasis on appearance (or the other way around), and the obsession of women with dieting, etc. to achieve this socially ideal image goes on. To find possible ways to break this cycle, it is necessary for media practitioners to look to several ethical perspectives for guidance, namely those of Kant, Mill, Aristotle, Rawls, and Judeo-Christianity.

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and ethicist of the 1700s, set forth what is termed the Categorical Imperative: “Act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law” (Christians et al., 2001, p. 15). Kant believed that moral law is universal and unconditionally binding (p. 15). So, put loosely, what is right for one is right for all. Kant said that what is right should be done out of duty/obligation. In terms of the portrayal of women in the media, if one believes in the journalistic value that the media have a duty to accurately portray society, then they should do so in all forms of media, including advertising. To Kant, it wouldn’t matter much if being accurate meant being less financially successful (as in the case of magazines that might lose revenue if they refuse ads other magazines are willing to run). He would say that accuracy would be important and should be followed no matter what. Practically, this might mean refusing ads with ultra-thin women, or, as an advertiser, to not use ultra-thin women in the majority of ads because they do not reflect the majority of women in the society. 

From the Judeo-Christian perspective, people should be loved unconditionally and should be seen as ends in themselves, not as means to a profit. According to this view, as Christians et al. explain, “we ought to love our neighbors with the same zeal and consistency with which we love ourselves” (2001, p. 20). Thus, if the kind of advertising advertisers are making and magazines and television are promoting causes harm to the majority of women in society, the media should try to remedy the situation to avoid harm and show love for the viewers and readers who rely on them. One could also look at the Biblical view that “humans are made in the image of God,” (p. 19) and therefore each one is special and worthy of love, even if their outer appearance is not thin. Advertisers, editors, etc. could cherish diversity of appearance rather than promoting one single ideal of ultra-thinness as the sole vehicle for sexiness. They could portray women of all shapes and sizes and help society learn to emphasize healthiness over thinness.

John Rawls would probably follow a similar approach. Rawls’ theory of the Veil of Ignorance promotes the idea that all parties involved in a situation should “step back from real circumstances into an “original position” behind a barrier where roles and social differentiations are eliminated” (Christians et al., 2001, p. 18). If one imagines this situation, all media practitioners and the general public, including women, would be placed behind a curtain/veil where they were all equal and had the same level of power. Consequently, perhaps they would see that if each of them were to be placed in an advertisement or article, they would want to be portrayed accurately and without harsh criticism for their appearance. This could lead to advertisers and media decision-makers changing their policy to recognize diversity and depict women in a way that would protect the weakest members of society, especially women prone to low self-esteem and eating disorders. If all advertisers and other practitioners agreed to follow this policy, then no one would be financially punished for not using ultra-thin women in the media. 

John Stuart Mill’s Principle of Utility, “Seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” (Christians et al., 2001, p. 16) would perhaps advocate a different approach. On the one hand, if one takes the view that the majority of women struggle with a negative body image and consequently diet and exercise to try to fit society’s female ideal, then Mill would be in cohorts with Rawls, Kant, and Judeo-Christian ethicists in trying to minimize harm so that people would not suffer. If it would benefit society the most to change its ideal view of women to something reflecting the real women in society, then Mill would want advertisers and editors to stop publishing works that showed an ideal that would make women miserable because so few of them could ever achieve it. 

On the other hand, if one takes the view that only a minority of women actually suffer to the extent that they become ill from an eating disorder and the majority find happiness in pursuing an elusive ideal of thinness, Mill might think the present portrayal of women in the media is fine. He would argue that advertisers and other media practitioners gain the greatest happiness when they get the greatest profit, and if using an ideal image of women that the public seems to strive for is the means to that profit, Mill would see nothing wrong with that. 

Finally, one can look to Aristotle for a middle ground approach. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, professed what has been termed the Golden Mean: “Moral virtue is a middle state determined by practical wisdom” (Christians et al., 2001, p. 12). In journalism, the Aristotelian approach can be seen in the journalistic values of fairness, balance, and equal time. When applied to the situation of women in the media, balance becomes very important. Like Rawls, Kant, and Judeo-Christianity, Aristotle would agree that all kinds of people should be represented in the media, not just the thinnest, because that would not be a balanced portrayal of society. On the other hand, Aristotle would recognize that to be balanced on another level, the need to portray women in society accurately should be taken with consideration for the media practitioner’s need to make a living. One way to do this is for the media industry to pursue its self-interests and follow the cues of the market to appeal to the emphasis society places on thinness. In this case the industry could use ultra-thin models in ads and articles if it decided that was what its readers/viewers wanted to see. But to be balanced, perhaps there would also be a disclaimer on each ad warning of the possibly negative effects of trying to look like the person in the ad, such as “Excessive dieting and unhealthy eating habits are detrimental to your health, both mental and physical” (Christians et al., 2001, p. 181). 

In my opinion, of the ethical perspectives explored above, Aristotle’s approach is the most realistic. I think the view professed by Rawls, Kant and others that would mandate that advertisers and other practitioners change their ideal to reflect society’s diversity is rather naïve and unrealistic because it would be extremely difficult to enforce such a law: How would one calculate total fairness? Require a survey of each company’s ads to see if they met a quota of models of each race and body type? I also think that Mill’s view of not doing anything because it brings advertisers profit and makes readers happy to see an unrealistic ideal portrayed in the media is wrong. Whether the fault of media, society places too much emphasis on external appearance, and not every woman’s body type will allow her to be as slender as supermodel Kate Moss, who weighed only 100 pounds at 5’7” (Christians et al., 2001, p. 179). I believe that, if the findings in my research are correct and the media plays a part in influencing societal ideals, then the media could work to change its dictates of what is ideal. Socially responsible media practitioners who want to be ethical could have more stories about being healthy instead of just thin. They could encourage women to accept themselves and each other as they are (following the Judeo-Christian ethic of loving one another). While the fact that not every media company would follow such a policy might hurt an organization that did in a financial sense, I believe that it would be possible to still stay in business. It would be worth any financial disadvantage to have the peace of mind that you were not contributing to eating disorders in the patrons of your company’s work.

I believe that for the most part, practicing ethics this way would have to be mostly voluntary, because as I pointed out earlier, mandating a law requiring accuracy and fairness would be difficult to implement. Still, the disclaimer idea is not without its merits, since the technique has been used before in tobacco advertising. 

One company that has tried to be more ethically responsible is Proctor & Gamble. In 2000, its marketing department formed a “sex task force” to examine the company’s policy toward sexually explicit magazine articles and cover lines (Kerwin & Neff, 2000, p. 1). One P & G spokeswoman (who remained anonymous in the article) said, “We review the content of magazines as we review the content of television shows we advertise in. It’s nothing new…It’s a very gray area, and of course there are going to be different points of view” (pp. 1, 60). She said the company wants to establish a positive environment for advertising its brands (p. 1). Also, last year P & G joined other advertisers (i.e. Johnson & Johnson) in sponsoring the Family Programming Awards to reward television programs that were “family friendly” (p. 60). Proctor & Gamble, then, is concerned about the fact that many media emphasize sex and is trying to find ways to be a successful company without following that trend.

Thus, women in our society today struggle with body image and the social ideal of thinness as the means to achieving sexual appeal and success. For many, this has led to a lifelong quest to attain this ideal via dieting, exercise, etc. Some have become ill from eating disorders as a result. The media industry is confronted with the fact that it has the power to influence society’s goals and ideals. To handle this power responsibly, the media must decide if it is handling the portrayal of women in a fair and accurate manner (which I believe it is not at present) and take steps to find ways to do so and still remain a financially viable enterprise. Several ethicists, Aristotle perhaps advocating the most practical course of action, provide guidance in this media quest. Perhaps the media will someday find a way to balance its readers’ desire to achieve societal ideals with their need to be portrayed in a loving, accurate manner.

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