The “brand” of Women: Who’s responsible? What can we do?

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by Red Slice on December 9, 2011

Last night, a therapist specializing in women and families told me girls as young as 8 years-old are dieting. That’s right….8. When I was that age, I was worried about completing my Strawberry Shortcake doll set.

What the hell is happening?!

In the last few months, I’ve had my eyes opened to how the “brand” of women is represented in our world and it’s caused me some concern. It’s my belief that it should cause everyone concern, whether you have little girls – or just hope for a better functioning society in general. It scares me – but I do believe we can change things.

I blog often about how brands impact our perceptions. Business brands carry both logical and emotional weight to them; for example, you shop at Walmart for the lowest prices, But you may pay more for Tiffany’s Blue Box to enchant, romance and delight. Branding is the story that is told and impacts how we relate to that company, cause or candidate.

I’ve never been a big “feminist” per se. I was turned off in college and in my twenties by what I perceived to be a movement that seems to play the victim, blame others and bash men. As I mature, I now see that while the messengers may have alientated some, the intent of the message is indeed valid.

First,  I encourage you to see the documentary Miss Representation. It talks about media’s portrayal of women, femininity, sexuality and the like. One segment focused on how women politicians are talked about so offensively by the press versus male candidates – and when you see the collage of clips and sound bites, you will be shocked this stuff is being said on TV in the 21st century – it’s disgusting. Another segment discusses how women in visible positions, like journalists, are just perpetuating the sexism themselves.  Female reporters sporting 3-inch heels and short skirts, female anchors wearing low cut blouses and heavy makeup, etc.  FOX News seems the worst at perpetuating this trend. But even a positive role model like Katie Couric , when she looks back at old broadcasts and what she wore, laments if she unwittingly helped contribute to this trend.

Second, I saw this insighful post from my friend Bronwyn Saglimbeni over at Sharp Skirts. It’s her “5 Aha! Feminist Moments” from the recent TEDx Women conference. She talks about the time being now to embrace women’s issues because its no longer a “pet issue” and women now make up half the population. This stuff affects all of us, people! She also talks about new ways we need to celebrate “celebrity” with positive role models (which gives me a ray of hope when I get depressed about the Kardashian-infested world my nieces are growing up in).

Women’s issues are no longer about men bashing. It’s about equality, fairness and a new world order. “Around the world, old power structures are crumbling and something new is emerging,” says Bronwyn.  Equality for women creates beter communities – for women AND men. Even Afghan men are finding that when there is equal education and opportunity for women, there is less violence and crime in the community at large.

In my opinion, the “brand” of women pervasive in our media and culture today – one of catfighting wealthy housewives, vapid spoiled rich girls, and shallow sexy “journalists” – needs to change to catch up with the REALITY of who women really are in our world. This is one case where the “brand identity crisis”  – when the brand does not match the reality – is dangerous: I don’t feel like women in the media or entertainment worlds represent me or my intelligent, contributive and supportive female friends.

The problem is that there’s a war on two fronts: the sexualization of women physically, and the juvenilization of women mentally. Reports abound about the state of “photoshopping women” for magazine covers and H&M was recently lambasted for inserting real model heads on fake bodies for their ads. Reality TV shows women competing for husbands on The Bachelor and tearing each other’s hair out in catfights on Real Housewives. Who’s fault is all of this negative  imagery? Who is demaning it? Is it women ourselves, contributing to the problem every time we thumb through an US Weekly at the nail salon to see what the Kardashian’s are up to, complain about our thighs being too big, get a Botox shot or tune into watch brides fight over wedding dresses on reality TV? Or is the men controlling many of these media outlets? I honestly can’t say for sure….

Many people (including me in the past) would say, “Lighten up! It’s just entertainment and everyone knows it’s not real.” And I get that. I confess to watching mindless TV and reading tabloid mags when I just want to escape or de-stress – it does make your own life seem like a dream! But collectively, what are we doing? Shouldn’t we start to model the behavior we want for our own young girls, so they don’t grow up thinking they will only be judged by their bodies being a perfect size 4, or that their women friends should be viewed as competitor who will only stab them in the back?

What am I saying to my 6 year old niece if she hears me complaining about my weight or sees me watching such trash on TV? What is she to think? Little eyes and ears are watching and learning from us all the time – even when we think they are not. Don’t believe me? Just ask any parent who has slammed their hand in the door, cursed, and then had to live with their 4 year old shouting that same word over and over again for the next 3 months in front of mixed company!

So what can we do? These are just some of my ideas….

  • USE YOUR VOICE: See what the Miss Representation movement is doing to combat negative portrayals of women and spread articles and blogs via social media that talk about this issue.
  • START AT HOME: Explain to the young girls in your life (and I mean 5, 6, 7) that models in magazines are altered and what they means. Tallk with them about the images they see and what they think and start a conversation.
  • MODEL BEHAVIOR: Don’t obsess about your weight or diet in front of young girls – show them healthy eating habits and a healthy appreciation for their bodies. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t combat obesity, but do it from a place of health not “physical perfection.”
  • FIND ROLE MODELS: Find role models of women doing amazing things and set up interviews for the young girls in your life. Tell them about extraordinary women you read about in the news. Let them play with Barbie, or watch Disney princesses if they like (this was a fond part of my childhood, too) but also expose them to women in all professions. If you have a female congresswoman or senator, draft a letter with your young gal to her. If they don’t see positive role models, they won’t know what is possible.
  • PRAISE MIND AND BODY: Praise girls for their talent and intellect, not just their looks. And speaking of looks, help them accept their bodies for all their unique qualities and strengths as well.
  • And if you have young boys in your life? You should actually try all of the above as well.

Katie Couric said, “The media can be an instrument of change: it can maintain the status quo and reflect the views of the society or it can, hopefully, awaken people and change minds. I think it depends on who’s piloting the plane.”

What other ideas do you have to combat this negative brand image? Do you believe there is or is not a problem?Would love to hear from you in the Comments?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather December 9, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Great post. Particularly loved the call to action. I think the more we can DO things that move us away from this reality that we have today, the sooner the reality will change. I think being conscious of our reactions in response to the portrayal of any human that is out of integrity and vastly contradictory with reality and using those reactions to fuel action in an equal and opposite direction will bring about swift and constant change. Thank you so much for your post!

Red Slice December 9, 2011 at 3:29 pm

“Fuel action in an equal and opposite direction” — I love that line, Heather! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Kelsey December 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I am so glad you wrote this article. I think it’s easy, as you mention, to de-stress with reality TV or gossip mags. I happen to be a huge fan of the Housewives. And as a grownup, I know that it’s showing an out-of-the-norm kind of lifestyle or portrayal of vanity/beauty. But it’s like with violent video games or music, where the parent groups stood up back in the 80s and 90s and said how dangerous it was for our kids to be exposed to this kind of “entertainment”…that it will desensitize them to violence, etc.. And I think we all could see the point. However, when it comes to how women are portrayed, no one has really stood up until now to question what this type of “entertainment” does to our kids…girls AND boys. And not just the Jersey Shore type of stuff…but even going back to princesses and Barbies.

I’m thankful these sorts of questions and concerns are now being raised.

Red Slice December 9, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Thanks Kelsey….As I said, I’d be a hypocrite if I said I never check out the tabloids every now and then or catch some bad reality TV every once in a while (alhtough I’m proud to say I’ve never seen Jersey Shore – as an Italian American from NY, it just nortifies me!). But I actually find myself a little sad inside when I do, not sure why! I guess it’s more about taking a careful look at how women are portrayed and helping younger folks understand what’s real and what’s “entertainment” Thanks so much for your comment!!

Norma Maxwell December 9, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Maria – this is spot on and when you said this was not a reflection of the women you know, of course it resonated with me. Same. I know so many amazing, powerful, and positive women that it is hard to believe some of the things we see in media are even real. Your comment about the Kardashians made me laugh out loud, because I have often wondered how I will ever protect my boys (the thought of moving to a Quaker community has occurred to me…lol). I want to protect them from becoming brainwashed into believing these kinds of images and displays of behavior are normal or okay…or God forbid, desirable. I want them to respect themselves SO MUCH that they naturally have respect, love, and admiration for others–especially women. If I had girls, I would be a walking ulcer just trying to figure out how to protect them from thinking they have to look and behave the way the media would suggest in order to be loved, accepted, and successful–such a load of c*aP! I think a lot of what the media gets away with has to do with, yes–certain men. But we have to share the blame for allowing it to happen. We have all become so incredibly busy, and it has become difficult to monitor everything happening around us–its overwhelming. The Internet, television, music, billboards, magazine, ipods, ipads, kindles…the list goes on for miles. I remember when the cereal isle had tops ten different kinds of cereal to choose from–now there are literally hundreds! The kids end up consuming the garbage and then society is lulled into thinking it is normal and okay to view and treat women in this way, and for women to behave like the women on the housewives and bad girls shows. It can be overwhelming. I so appreciate the practical action items you have provided, and I’m in! I can do that…and we all need to help keep this in front of each other so that we don’t forget to keep making sure our collective voices are heard and that it is time for this to stop. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this, Lady! xoxo ~N

Annie Searle December 10, 2011 at 6:24 pm

I’ve re-posted your thoughts on my own Facebook page, and would like to congratulate you for identifying the issues so clearly.

Red Slice December 10, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Thanks Annie! Appreciate the support.

Red Slice December 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm

It is true..there is so much to keep.tabs on. In the end, I’m not sure we can change things overnight but in looking at my own life, I can take some time with my niece to ensure she understands that some of the images she’s seeing might not be the reality! In the past, I may have just assumed someone else is telling her that but I think we all just need to put the onus on ourselves to deliver the right message. She might roll her eyes but at least I’ll know I did all I can! Thx Norma and thanks for raising responsible men, as that is just as important!!

Susan December 15, 2011 at 10:24 am

With the many influential and well respected women that emerged, it is great that slowly men are seeing the potential and capabilities women have. Though, I am not a victim of such sexism, I am disgusted and insulted on how other countries treat women. Women should fight and have the education they deserve.
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Red Slice December 15, 2011 at 10:59 am

Thanks Susan….how women are treated in some other countries is indeed apalling. Maybe if we can strengthen the way we treat women in the media in this country, we can provide a good example. Thanks for your comment.

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