Sunday, July 09, 2006

Size matters.

There's a commercial running now--for NutriSystem, I believe, though it could be one of the other diet-in-a-box plans; the specifics aren't really important here. What is important is the gist of the ad, about how this wondrous new meal plan enabled the featured spokeswoman/model to lose a substantial amount of weight, such that she is now a "size 4 again!"

There are several implied (if not overt) messages to this ad campaign. Number One, that it's inherently desirable to be a size 4. Number Two, that lots of "everyday women" are size 4s--and indeed, that being a size 4 is something of a natural state among young women, that is until you let yourself go all to hell (often after that most unspeakable of misfortunes, childbirth) and balloon up to, oh, an 8. Number Three, that what society (translation: a man) really wants in a woman is for her to be a size 4. In case you think I'm "reaching" a bit with Number Three, the ad explicitly hammers home that very notion at the end by having the woman toss a sly grin to the camera and purr, "I feel soooo sexy...." [Unspoken but unmistakable implication: "I was not as sexy when I was a size 6, or an 8, or..."]

Here we have more symbolic proof of how the "self-improvement" industry seeks to "enrich" and "empower" women through a nonstop, totally unfair assault on their psyche, sense of personal peace and, yes, self-esteem. (Hey, just because I don't buy into the pop-psych myth that potrays "positive self-esteem" as the be-all-and-end-all of successful living, that doesn't mean I think it's good for people to be beaten down. Especially if it's being done for exploitive purposes.) In order to sell you their products, they first have to make you feel crappy about the woman you see in the mirror now. What better way to do that--in an instant!--than to imply that if you're not a "size 4," you (quite literally) don't measure up? Especially considering that the average American woman nowadays wears a size 11 to 14 in most clothing.

Along the same lines is a feature touted on AOL's welcome page yesterday morning. You may not be able to view this content if you don't have AOL--I'm not sure how that works--and they may or may not have taken down the link by now, but when I logged on yesterday, the front-page teaser depicted a woman, who appeared to be in darned good shape as it is, doing "countertop push-ups" in an effort to regain her "pre-baby body." Click through to the main story (which, of course, is linked to all sorts of related advertising) and you can see even more clearly that this woman has no visible pregnancy-tummy. Whatsoever. In fact, she has no visible body fat. Anywhere. So what "pre-baby body" is she trying to regain, exactly? (I guess this woman needs to be a size zero to feel sexy again.) You might rebut that, "Well, they're showing her After, not Before." And in fact, it's something of an axiom in advertising that, if you're promoting your product or service in a medium where attention spans are very short (e.g. television or "the online experience"), you have to go with your best visuals and only your best visuals, because the consumer's first reaction is everything. On TV or the Net, it's not like it is with print; you don't have time to let viewers sit down with those full-page Before-and-After spreads and absorb the full weight, as it were, of what you're telling them. You hook 'em right away or you lose 'em. Thus the images you use must connect instantly, and in an appealing manner. Thus again, even if you're marketing to an audience that is somewhat out of shape (as most Americans demonstrably are*), you can't actually show women who are all that out of shape in making your pitch. You have to show women who already look like the idyllic image you're trying to communicate, the sexy mood you're trying to set. Thus, yet again, if you're going to show Before-and-Afters, the women in the Befores can't be too far "out there." And since the women in the Afters are expected to look even better, this naturally means that those women end up resembling Miss Universe contestants.

So yes, maybe these ads make a certain perverse sense in strict marketing terms. That's still a very sad truth for women. Because the end result is that such campaigns further reinforce the already culturally entrenched notion that no matter how slim you are, you're still not slim enough. And call me cynical, but I think the industry is pretty happy that way. After all, the more content you are with the way you look now, the worse news that is for people trying to get you to "fix" yourself.

Industry apologists have told me that they're out to "inspire" women to "look and feel their best." I'm sorry, that doesn't cut it. Why does a woman need to be rail-thin in order to "look and feel her best"? Accordingly, why does a spokeswoman need to be rail-thin in order to be deemed an inspirational role model? Is nothing less than the ideal acceptable? (And, to repeat, who ever said size 4 was the ideal? In whose universe?) In truth, how many women, real women, with real bodies and real pregnancy bellies, could look like that AOL model, no matter how hard they tried? Most important, how many rhetorical questions can a guy ask in one post? So I'll stop now....

* and remember, none of these advertising pitches is about fitness or health. It's all about vanity. They don't care one iota about whether you have "healthier tomorrows." They're just out to extract as much money as possible from you today.

1 comment:

Cosmic Connie said...

Wow, Steve, you *have* posed a lot of rhetorical questions for us to not answer. But you make some very good points, nonetheless.

I have always wondered just exactly what a "size 0" is. I don't recall there even being such a thing when I was growing up. I suppose size 0 is the new size 6. Which means that, according to the fashion Nazis, any woman larger than the current size 6 is really getting into water buffalo territory. It seems obvious that "size 0" is something the fashion industry invented to make women think they are skinnier than they are.

So why stop there? Why not start using negative numbers? Being a size 12 would then become desirable, as long as it was -12. No, wait...I am already seeing the flaw in my plan. All of the numbers above 0 would suddenly be considered "plus sizes," so the fashion Nazis would have to come up with yet another euphemism for real-person sizes.

This whole thing is making me dizzy. But then, the fashion industry makes me dizzy...