Thursday, May 7, 2009

Nudity, Normativity and Advertising

This blog culminated in this paper:

From sex to birth, bathing to changing clothes, nudity is an inescapable human experience. Even more, in the United States we are inundated by advertisements with sexual content, depicting nude models to sell everything from phones to chairs. And if there’s not outright nudity, there’s always the possibility of nudity (denoted in women by revealing clothing). Advertising’s mantra “sex sells” is practiced whole-heartedly. But as prevalent as nudity is in advertising, it lacks any meaningful diversity. Looking at advertisements makes it clear that not just anyone can show up at a photo shoot and strip down to nothing. There are rules for who can join and how, which happen to be very divided along gender lines.

Advertising’s number one platitude is the overrepresentation of women. To predict that women appear nude more often in advertising, then, would be very reasonable. In truth, women are 3.7 times more likely to be “suggestively dressed, partially clad, or nude” (Reichert 408). But are these just any women? Of course not. Even a cursory glance at American advertising reveals what bodies are acceptable to use nude: thin, white (or light), young, long legged, cisgendered, nondisabled, etc women.

Interestingly, these images, not so subtly aimed at heterosexual men, are more prevalent in magazines targeted at women (Reichert 409). And even more interesting is the research on the appeal of nudes and erotic imagery that has found that men responded better to female nudes in advertising, while women tended not only to favor demure and semi-nude ads and full female nudity caused a greater tension in women than in men (LaTour and Henthorne 28).

Why is this? To find out, it is useful to look at research on how men and women perceive nude bodies. Beth Eck performed a small study in which she interviewed males and females about their reactions to male and female nudes. In this research she found that the men and women she spoke with were much more comfortable looking at photographs of nude women than men (698-702). What’s more, while both men tended to view photographs of women as “objects of pleasure or derision” (697), men do so by exerting their heterosexuality and masculinity through their perceived right to judge the female models and women do this by using the models to reflect on their own bodies (697).

This account sheds some light on why ads employing female nudes, though reportedly less appealing to women than depictions of other models, are featured in magazines targeted at women. Advertisers looking to sell products (especially beauty products) count on women to evaluate the models in relation to themselves. The nude body in advertising posits a normative body as the object of (heterosexual) male desire and one that women are supposed use to critique their own bodies, noting how they fall short of being desirable to men and living up to the expectations of other women.

Men, too, can fall into traps regarding the female body. I posted several articles on a social news site as part of my artifact and engaged several users about it. One of the images I posted for the article was one of Eva Mendes in a PETA advertisement but several users quickly derailed the comment thread when they began assessing her looks and at one point several gave her a “score” as though it were a competition (Newsvine). I got the sense from the discussion that not only are men expected to evaluate women, but they are also all supposed to reach the same conclusion. When I asked one commenter what he or she thought was unattractive, they linked me to an image of two women from a porn site and allowed me to decide which was unattractive, because presumably there is only one answer.

But for as bad as it is to not find the right women attractive, it is infinitely worse to find men attractive. In Eck’s study, when looking at male nudes males asserted their masculinity and heterosexuality in quite the opposite way than they did with female nudes. Instead of feeling the right to judge other males, male respondents felt indifferent or asserted their heterosexuality verbally, fearing that their being in the presence of male nudes would code them as homosexual (700). Even women preferred the female nude. In one case, a female respondent felt that the male nude was attractive, but “would rather just see him like that [above the waist].” (699). Several women found the nudes distasteful and a few of the ones that admitted they were attracted to the male models also noted that they were ashamed of it (703).

So it seems that positive or non-neutral attention to male nudes is perceived strictly as within the domain of male homosexuals (Eck 700-703). And while the sexualization of men has certainly increased (Reichert 408-409), the marginalization of male images as for the homosexual gaze seems to still largely inform advertising memes, necessitating that advertisers create images that don’t appear to be intended for male homosexual consumption. I analyzed several images on my blog that are largely in keeping with this. Like images of females, images of males seem to propagate a normative body. But unlike the images of females, those of males are not focused on beauty or eroticism but an ideal of masculinity. While female models are often in poses that emphasize their butts and breasts and genitals, male models are often nude in ways meant to display their fitness. Female models’ breasts and vaginas are usually covered (though in the case of print ads, not always), but they’re covered in ways that draw attention to them (though covered, the shape and size of the breasts are often made very apparent, for example). In men, however, the covering of the penis is subtle, usually by something casually draped over it, positions that naturally hide the penis, or in some cases jeans or above the waist shots.

In addition to this, advertisements deflect the homosexual gaze by putting men in silly situations. Curiously these situations, for some reason, allow the nude models to be less than ideal. That isn’t to say that their bodies are not policed in certain cases, rather there is the admission of male bodies that are imperfect, real even. This is one of the biggest differences between nude men and women in advertising. Male bodies that break the masculine ideal at least have a place, somewhere, in advertising. Women, on the other hand, are rarely featured in a normal state, and are often nude in situations that are abnormal. This extends beyond the world of advertising. Television sitcoms and movies frequently feature heterosexual couples in which there is a man outside of normative body type dating or married to women held to the impossible standards for women.

But by focusing on advertising I do not mean to downplay the importance of human agency. Rather, I chose to look at advertising because it survives as a result of human agency. Advertising is not an apparatus independent of human will. An ad campaign’s effectiveness and a product’s (often even a brand’s) very survival depend on advertisements accurately reflecting the qualities that target audiences value most.

Advertising, then, is a process through which the desires (not reality) of mainstream culture are mirrored and sometimes manufactured. This, then, brings us back around to Eck’s research. Her observations say most profoundly that mainstream audiences are complicit in not only driving the heterosexual and masculine ideals that permeate even advertising directed at women, but enforcing a particular brand of both that mocks reality. The need for advertisers to sell products combined with their need to appeal to a heterosexual (and often homophobic) audience creates the recipe for the nudes we see in contemporary advertising.

Works Cited:

Eck, Beth. "Men are much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images." Gender & Society 2003: 691-710. SAGE Journals. Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington. 11 Feb 2009 .

LaTour, Michael S., and Tony L. Henthorne. "Female Nudity: Attitudes Toward the Ad and the Brand, and Implications for Advertising Strategy." Jounal of Consumer Marketing 1993: 25-32. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington. 31 Jan 2009 .

Newsvine. “Nudity and Social Causes: PETA and Women” 21 Apr 2009

Reichert, Tom. "The Prevalence of Sexual Imagery in Ads Targeted to Young Adults." Journal of Consumer Affairs 2003: 403-412. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington. 12 Feb 2009 .

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