"You look unreal."

Is it really a compliment?

We all probably think of images from the 1950s and 60s when we talk about sexist advertisements, which is not wrong. We do however tend to neglect the pertinence of the issue of our own days. In spite of feminist efforts, the commercial panorama has degenerated with the proliferation of photo retouching software, which has accelerated the shift from flawless to impossible bodies. The most harmful physical and psychological consequences fall on women, especially on the youngest and on society as a whole. It is not only about objectification, but degradation as much as offense.

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The unrealistic type of women advertising, marketing and fashion industries have created is much like a plastic doll, with big bright eyes, perfectly straight and white teeth, thick shiny hair, long and smooth legs, the tiniest waist, generous and gravity-defying curves, no wrinkles nor blemishes and scars, and no body hair, cellulite or fat on longitudinal and sculpted bodies.

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While in its first trend, advertising was meant to sell products in literal terms. At a later time, women began to be exploited and objectified as a way to sell. Today, oftentimes a strong female presence that has nothing to do with the product is used as a commercial expedient that takes advantage of subliminal and unconscious desires. Women are then seen in provocative attitudes, the focus being sometimes on specific body parts to gain the attention of heterosexual men, particularly when it comes to products of their interest.

The primary goal of ads is to create a need for a product or a service that the company can provide, while pushing for different demands according to the consumer’s gender. So, while men might buy a car because they associate it with the objectified woman in the picture, women might buy certain foods, clothes and cosmetic products in an attempt to look like the girl in the newspaper or on TV.

On the other hand, such images considered ‘ideal’ cause insecurity among women, which may want to purchase the product in hopes to attain the same figure. Fashion editorials make it even worse. Women working in fashion are noticeably susceptible to criticism because of their age, weight and sense of style, and this is not only true for those in front of the camera, but for those behind it as well. Just to take into account one example, sexism in the industry leads to fashion photographers, as much as other workers in that industry, being judged upon their appearance, obtaining fewer jobs and earning less than their male colleagues. The current tendency of image objectification as luxury, sexism as empowerment, materialism as self-care and physical plasticization as the feminine ideal, does not only hit women in the industry, whatever their role and however strong their bravura, but it has easily spread out to touch a greater part of society in the modern Western world.

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The problem: woman does not exist. She is the result of hours of pre- and post-production work, and solid modelling experience. The worst consequential phenomenon is perhaps that women themselves tend to judge other women according to their aspect, to their behaviour in society and to their excess or lack of feminine attributes. Valeria Secchi’s image ‘Woman’ itself was born as an ironic response to a woman who told her that ‘real women have boobs and hips’. This is why, at least 50 years after feminists first brought the issue to the surface, we still need feminist photography. Several brands and companies have moved away from such penchants to the advantage of ‘Photoshop-free’ images, which is a brilliant achievement, but these cases are still the minority, and it is not enough. We urge unrealistic beauty standards and social imperatives to be recognized as a problem that must end, and we need more images that denounce such phenomenon and encourage people to embrace diversity on all levels, to celebrate real women as they are and to valorise their strength and ability over appearance.

Photos by @ValeriaSecchi

Chiara Fazzone
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