Killing Us Softly… with their ads
The other day I came across an interesting short documentary called “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” by Jean Kilbourne. Kilbourne was one of the very first to discuss the power of advertising in shaping our ideas about women and beauty in the 1970s.
Here is a link to the video (about 35 minutes long). (Note: I would not recommend the video to our brothers as a number of provocative images are shown to emphasize the points being made.)
The video is a bit dated, but I found the message she conveyed very compelling. I almost felt a sense of betrayal at knowing that my own way of thinking and understanding beauty has been shaped and influenced in this way. Also, it’s clear that those in advertising are going to extremes to be ‘edgy’ and to catch people’s attention and are really even going to the edges of decency and human dignity. Some of the images, especially of women tied up, looking like they’re being attacked, in explicit sexual situations and so on just indicated to me a real spiritual sickness on the part of the ones creating that. Everything that a person produces is a reflection of their spiritual state. The scary thing is that we actually take these images to heart, and they become normal and what dictate how we view ourselves and what is beautiful and what is not.
I was recently studying the Hadithatul Ifk – the incident of the slander against the beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) Um al-Mu’mineen Sayyidah ‘Aisha (radiAllahu anhaa). The incident is discussed in great detail (in Aisha’s own words!) in Sahih al-Bukhari, and there is a certain point in the narrative when Aisha is returning to the encampment of the Muslims on the camel of Safwan ibn Mu’aqqal. A number of people saw them approaching, and no one thought anything of the incident except one individual – Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul (who had a history of hostility and enmity with the Prophet salAllahu alayhi wa salam). He immediately began to slander the two of them. On discussing this point, one shaykh said, “This is the characteristic of a munafiq [a hypocrite, one who outwardly has faith but inwardly has hatred for the religion and for Muslims] – that they see something innocent and construe it as evil. It is a manifestation of an inner sickness.”
I believe that this is so true: that our inner spiritual ailments put a ‘lens’ on how we view the world. It is almost a type of projection. We see the world as we are, not as it truly is. At other times it can be a distortion – that we start to see things which are beautiful as ugly, and ugly as beautiful, good as evil and evil as benefit. Imam Suhaib Webb said once, “If you’re looking at the Mona Lisa and you think there’s a defect, blame your eye, not the artistry! If you are eating good food but it tastes bitter to your tongue, blame your mouth and not the cook.”
This is where the science of Tazkiyatun Nafs [Purification of the Soul] comes into play, and our struggle for purity and transparency of heart. Sometimes our actions and our sins affect us on such a deep level that we don’t even realize how they’ve changed us.
I really like the title of her documentary, ‘Killing Us Softly’, because I think this is really what these types of images do – every time we see one of them it slowly kills that part inside of us which knows that it’s wrong, superficial, biased, etc. The more we look at them the more we lose our own sense of humanity and individuality and the more we want to imitate.
I think we need to ‘take back’ the authority of who determines what is beautiful. There is a much deeper type of beauty that all this overlooks (intentionally; because if you’re worried about inner beauty they wouldn’t be able to sell products). “Verily Allah does not look to your bodies or faces but He looks to your hearts.” [Muslim]
Some things mentioned in the documentary [and her more recent documentary which can be found here]:
– Advertising is a HUGE, 250 billion dollar a year industry. The average American is exposed to 3000 ads every day, and spends three years of their life watching just commercials.
– Yet, everyone feels personally exempt and thinks they are not affected. Obviously it is influential and does have an effect (otherwise companies wouldn’t invest so much in it).
– Advertisements are processed mostly in the subconscious. A Senior editor of Advertising Age: ” Only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and reworked deep within the brain.”
– They create a ‘toxic’ environment that we all swim in like fish.
– Advertising sells products, but they also sell values and concepts: concepts of love, sexuality, success and normalcy
– They teach women that the most important thing is how they look. They put forward an ‘ideal female beauty’ that we all have to strive to achieve through time, energy and most importantly money.
– If we don’t achieve it than it means we’re not trying ‘hard enough’ and it leads women to feeling shame and guilt at failing.
– But the truth of the matter is that the flawlessness they promote is not possible! No one looks like this. Even Cindy Crawford said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” They only look like that after air brushing, cosmetics, computer retouching. Sometimes they even piece together bits and pieces from different people.
– It is an artificial, constructed image that we measure ourselves against. It causes us to be deeply dissatisfied with ourselves and for men to be dissatisfied with the real women they are with.
– A trend we see in advertising: bodies turned into things/objects (ex: woman as beer bottle).
This is the 1st step to justifying mistreatment of a person, dehumanizing the person.
– We also find women dismembered in ads (focus on just one body part) which is the most dehumanizing thing.
– The only body type we constantly see is one that fewer than 5% of American women have. You cannot diet yourself into this type, it is genetic. very tall, broad shoulders, small hips, etc. Excludes all other women, we never see them anywhere in ads of popular culture.
– ‘Conventional beauty’: Even black women have to be light with caucasian features.
– With breast implants women lose sensation in that area – they become just an object for someone else’s pleasure.
– There is an obsession with thinness: no wonder we have an epidemic of eating disorders.
– One ad: “The more you subtract the more you add.” = thinness.
– “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” – Kate Moss
– On the deepest level: being thin to ‘cut girls down to size’.
– Teaching our girls that the ideal is size zero: to aspire to become nothing.
– Obesity is a problem in our society but the solution is not to make women hate themselves.
The solution to obesity is the same as the solution with this obsession with thinness – it involves transforming our culture about how we eat and how we feel about out bodies.
– Girls are usually shown in images as being passive, vulnerable – an object not a subject.
– Older women infantilized, sexiness in being a little girl. On the flip side increasing sexualization of little girls.
– “Images that used to belong to the world of pornography are now common place.”
– Explicit, blatant sexual images but absolutely no emphasis on relationships or intimacy.
– Sex made trivialized by definition, and used to sell absolutely everything.
– far more graphic and pornographic than ever before
– Sex is both more important and less important than our culture makes it: more important because it has meaning, less because there is more to life than that!
– What women/girls learn from these ads is that sexualized behavior is rewarded by society.
– Sexualizing themselves is made to be seen as a statement of independence or a decision, but the culture doesn’t offer any other choices so it’s not an authentic decision.
– There is nothing wrong with wanting to be attractive but not at at the exclusion of every other quality and especially at such a young age.
– Girls who are exposed to sexualized images at a young age have huge increase in numbers of depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem.
– The American image of ideal beauty is going global, transforming other cultures.
– Famous study in Fiji of how TV totally ruined the girls views of their own bodies and their self-esteem.
– We see now more objectification of men – but their problem is not usually about sexuality and body image but that masculinity is so narrowly defined and always linked with violence, insensitivity, etc
– It is profitable for them for us to feel bad about ourselves.
– We need to be conscious of what these ads are doing and made aware about them. This is a public health issue.