“It’s just a harmless advertisement”: On liposuction, media, and perpetuation of sexism

Article originally appeared on TheFeministWire.com, May 10, 2013.

Several weeks ago, Bucknell University, my alma mater, published its weekly campus newspaper. While just about every edition of The Bucknellian has some article or opinion piece that makes you raise an eyebrow or shake your head, this particular week’s paper contained something that sparked outrage across campus.

There was an advertisement for a new and improved liposuction technique, sponsored by our campus health partner, Geisinger Medical Center. It was titled “Get ready for bathing suit season with VASER Liposuction!” and claims to “help shed those troublesome spots that diet and exercise don’t seem to touch” with “the newest, minimally invasive option in body contouring”. Its timing was intended to target those with body insecurities so they would have a chance to have this procedure before they went on Spring Break vacation, in order to ensure that they would have the perfect body they would feel confident showing off–implying that they would not be able to be confident in their body on their own, or that they should not be confident if they do not get this procedure.

As a result of this advertisement, a professor wrote a letter to the faculty voicing his outrage at this ad, with the assertion that Bucknell students already have an unhealthy idea about fitness and nutrition. This lead to the president of the university contacting Geisinger to express concern, as well as the promise to put a system into place which would double check advertisements before they go to print to ensure that potentially harmful ads do not get published in the paper. 

In the following edition, the Editorial Board wrote a response to what they felt was “unfair censorship,” as action had been taken without contacting The Bucknellian itself. They claimed that the advertisement was perfectly acceptable because a) the information was coming from a known trustworthy source and b) college students above the age of 18 are legal adults and can be trusted to make healthy decisions for themselves, likening choosing to get liposuction to choosing to go tanning or to the bar. They also claimed that the advertisement was not sexist or prejudiced in any way, and that its placement near an ad for the bar and cheesesteaks proves that the ad is not “favoring the skinny.”

“The Geisinger ad itself is not prejudiced. It is not racist, it is not sexist, it is not favoring the skinny. Quite the opposite, actually. If the faculty had looked a little closer at the page, they would see that the liposuction ad is placed next to two ads for bars and cheesesteaks. The Bucknellian does not have a bias here. We don’t mind if people want to go to a bar and consume their weight in sirloin steaks and beer.”

While the advertisement itself caused anger, it was the Editorial Board’s justification of the advertisement that was the most harmful. In order to voice my concerns about the attitudes espoused in the piece and to offer critical thinking about why these types of advertisements are actually quite harmful, I wrote a letter to the editor. It was printed in the February 20th edition of The Bucknellian, and has been adapted for this essay, with minor notes and edits. The intention of this letter was to raise awareness for our already alarming perceptions of thinness on campus, and what behaviors are considered healthy or normal by many of the students.

Not only was our supposed “health partner” sponsoring the advertisement outrageous, the interpretation of the backlash as offered by the Opinions editorial entitled “The material included in The Bucknellian should not have to be censored” (February 13, 2013) was as well. It was also quite surprising that no one else had written a letter to the editor about this, given the reaction it caused on campus.

To give The Bucknellian the benefit of the doubt, we can assume that they did not knowingly intend to offend anyone or promote our culture’s obsession with thinness by accepting an advertisement offering women an invasive surgical procedure to get the best possible Spring Break body–that is, to say, a thin one. However, regardless of intent, allowing the advertisement to go to print did exactly that.

I say women because, while men are also explicitly and implicitly told that they should look a certain way, women are targeted by advertisements, magazines, and other media significantly more often than men. When men do not fit this ideal, the level of criticism received is nowhere near the level of ridicule faced by women. No woman is immune from critique, and women of color receive even more of this criticism because judgment of their bodies is still strongly rooted in racist stereotypes.

It is not necessarily our fault that we patrol women’s bodies. We have been socialized into the belief that the bigger you are the less you are worth as a scholar, teacher, parent, or person. This belief is one of the pillars of sexism in our patriarchal society. Women are disgusted by their own fat and others’ because we have internalized that message due to years of inundation. The only solution to falling out of favor with society is to obsessively exercise, surgically alter our bodies, and starve ourselves, and even when we have reached the “ultimate beach body” we are still not good enough to escape criticism. The conversation shifts from what we must to do to have that beach body to what we absolutely cannot do under any circumstances so we do not lose that beach body. The diet & cosmetic surgery industries rely upon those sexist, societally-enforced fears of being fat and ugly to thrive.

Pro tip: the best beach body is the body you have. I do not remember who said that, and I could not find the source because the first 10 pages of search results are all for fitness regimens or crash diets or surgery. Another version of how to get a “beach body”: Step one, go to the beach. Repeat.

Critical thinking is an aspect of education which is necessary for all people, students or not. Unpacking unspoken ideals and messages from society is crucial in the process of addressing problematic content, and the use of a more critical lens challenges the assertion that the location of the advertisement proves its intent was harmless.

The placement of the liposuction advertisement next to those for the bar and cheesesteak is a result of layout and formatting guides. It exists in the same location because that is where the advertisements go on that page, and those three happened to fit there together. It is not “proof” that there is no sexism behind the liposuction advertisement; it is nothing more than a convenient excuse.

Media does not exist in a vacuum. Everything we see and hear informs our beliefs and ideals about the world in which we live. If there were no outside influences on our thinking, it might be logical to assume that a person–generally a woman–who is seeking liposuction is doing so because she would like to change something about her body. Since this is not true, a more critical lens must be employed. Body image is influenced by media telling women that they are ugly or unattractive without the use of thousands of beauty products. These messages can cause a woman who was not insecure about her body to grow to hate it, and consider liposuction. For relevant comedic relief, I would suggest watching a satire commercial from BBC’s 2006 show That Mitchell and Webb Look highlighting the sexism in advertising. The commentary is this: “Women: You’re leaking, aging, hairy, overweight, and everything hurts. And your children’s clothes are filthy. For God’s sake, sort yourself out.” “Men: Shave and get drunk, because you’re already brilliant.”

In all seriousness, I would wager that if there was not outside influence on the way we view our bodies, procedures designed at squishing women into an “ideal” body type–like liposuction–would not exist in the first place.

Jiddu Krishnamurti is quoted as saying “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”

Justifying the ability or right to run an advertisement promoting invasive surgery as a technique to fit into our society’s narrow definitions of “healthy” or “attractive” by the favorite “you’ll see it in the real world” assertion misses the point that “the real world” (of which we are already a part) is wildly problematic and we should strive to resist it rather than perpetuate it. It is not censorship to ask an establishment to vet its advertisements, regardless of the origins of that request. Newspapers do not publish articles or advertisements with racist or homophobic content without expecting backlash; the apparent shock that an advertisement for liposuction would also receive backlash on account that it does, in fact, perpetuate sexist ideals of “acceptable” women’s bodies is surprising. While many papers are funded by money brought in from these advertisements, setting a moral standard to which to hold advertisers would bring more respect to every publication. Being asked to not promote or perpetuate sexist ideals isn’t being censored, it’s simply asking for accountability.

A wise man once said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” I ask that we all be proactive in that change and help counteract problematic media on campus in the hopes that the nation as a whole can shift away from its current obsession with thinness and move toward a less destructive attitude of health at every size.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted May 14, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Alyssa,

    A few questions, to help me understand the argument.

    Would you object to an advert for a gym (sports) club?

    To an advert for teeth whitening? Dentistry?

    A bar? Skydiving?

    I ask because all the above could be deemed to either be potentially dangerous or aimed at people’s insecurities.

    That being so, your argument would suggest that such adverts should not be allowed, or accepted. Hmm. I wonder.

    If something is not actually illegal, isn’t it better to trust people’s own judgment on the matter?

    • Posted May 14, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Hi Smiley,

      The issue with this particular one is that it was published in a private university’s newspaper. Our university (and all of them) have a standard to which we hold all students, faculty, staff, and publications, and that missed it. It is not illegal, but it is sexist and reinforces expectations of women that are unhealthy and problematic.

      I would disagree with an advertisement for the gym, teeth whitening, a bar, or whatever if they were racist/sexist/homophobic/etc or playing on stereotypes, yes. However, those are much different than invasive body recontouring surgery. If the ads were any of those things, then of course I would advocate for them to not be allowed. However, if we told the advertising companies that they weren’t allowed to use sexist ideals and ridiculous portrayals of women anymore, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. Ultimately, laws or regulations banning the use of Photoshop in kids’ and teens’ magazines is part of the movement away from problematic portrayals of women that kids internalize from the first time they encounter media.

      The point is that our own judgment is not solely ours. It is informed by messages and media, which are societally informed and enforced. We may think we make decisions on our own for ourselves, but we really do not.

      We may fundamentally disagree on what is acceptable or problematic advertising or media, and that’s fine. However, it is impossible to argue that the use of sexism in media is not problematic.

      • Posted May 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        Alyssa,

        I take your points, but a lot of them worry me.

        “… it was published in a private university’s newspaper.”

        What is so special about a private paper (or is that private university?). All newspapers are private!

        The term ‘sexist’ is very loosely defined, it seems to me. Unless I am very much mistaken, any advert aimed at any particular group can be called sexist; an advert for a football game showing two men cheering their team is sexist (because no women are shown). Even one aimed at breast cancer awareness could be deemed sexist if it is targeted at women (men can get it too).

        I really cannot get worked up if a (private!) corporation targets one particular group (it is their business, after all). I am really not offended that brewers tend to advertize in men’s magazines and not women’s.

        The same critique applies to the use of ‘unhealthy and problematic’ expectations.

        And the pick of the lot is that our ‘our own judgment is not solely ours.’ We are talking about a university newspaper, as you pointed out. I am pretty surprised that you have so little faith in what should be considered the most educated tranche of American youth.

        OK. Over to you!

        Oh, another teasing question: would you object if the advert included also targeted men?

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