Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The Commodification of Female Body Image in Post-War American Advertising Culture

By Sophy Leys Johnston

John Berger, in his renowned text Ways of Seeing, writes of the manipulative power of advertising in its promotion of self-criticism. ‘The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is’, Berger argues, ‘and offers it back to her for the price of the product’.[1] Emphasis here is placed on the feminine subject, vulnerable to manipulation by a male dominated, capitalist industry and placed in opposition to the objectifying ideal of femininity that the advert presents. In the context of post-war America, following masculine fear over the transgressive duties (such as factory or land labour) carried out by women during the war, pressure was mounted in order to encourage women to return to the domestic sphere and fulfil traditional housewifely duties. Ultimately, a woman’s appearance and body image was in many ways their only means of gaining what little agency was available to her given their inferior social, economic and cultural status in every other respect. This suggests that the control and manipulation of female body image is linked inextricably to the oppression of women. The profitable nature of this advertised body ideal that proved tirelessly persuasive in its encouragement of women to diet, thus came hand-in-hand with an oppressive means of emotional and behavioural control, beneficial only to the elite masculine authorities at the top of the advertising chain.[2]

The source below (see fig. 1) proves a prime example of the adverts targeted towards middle-class women in post-war America. Published in 1950 within the Hollywood magazine Photoplay, the advert harnesses celebrity endorsement and the glamour associated with the image of a Hollywood actress to motivate the reader to purchase the ‘vitamin candy’, Ayds. Promoting a quick and, supposedly, effective method of weight-loss by means of appetite suppressant, the advert perpetuates an ideal feminine body image by equating beauty to thinness. It is worth observing too that this ideal of a slim body remains deliberately vague and unfixed so as to create a perpetually unattainable goal and thus enable the permanent necessity of the product advertised.

Figure 1: Advertisement for ‘AYDS’ from June issue of Photoplay, 1950, source: Ad-Flip Archive, [accessed 22 January 2020]

The sole image featured within the advert is of actress Ann Sheridan, presenting her as objectively representative of the glamour, luxury and success associated with Hollywood socialite culture. The advert in this way objectifies the actress, performing her role in society as an object of male desire and simultaneously links the success of her career to her bodily appearance. In positioning this aspirational image of female beauty, the advert presents a critique of the women reading it to encourage commercial investment, and so ‘steal[ing] her love of herself.’[3] Burger corroborates this by arguing that ‘ads instructed women to examine themselves critically…in an effort to save their highest-valued commodity- their looks’.[4] As such, the very process of advertising instils the commodification of the female body and societal standards of beauty.

The underlying implications of the advert’s message, however, reflect a wider cultural and social manipulation towards its female audience that remains prominent in contemporary advertising culture today. The projection of a conformative bodily ideal for profit, for instance, exemplified by the promotional phrase ‘you lose weight with the first box ($2.89)’, proves that it is far from simply a fashionable trend or a genuine reflection of beauty, but rather the construction of a capitalist, male dominated institution. Moreover, the masculine control of female bodies reveals a problematic form of behavioural and emotional oppression that was prevalent within post-war American society. Manipulative rhetoric permeating the advert’s text places great emphasis on ‘lovel[iness]’ as a behavioural standard of femininity, achieved by means of weight-loss. Once more, ‘behaviour that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue.’[5] Vandermeade further posits that, corresponding with women’s return to the domestic sphere during the post-war years, ‘maintaining beauty became part and parcel of being a good wife’.[6] Thus, rather than benefiting their female audience, the “false needs” of advertising culture, such as Ayds’ promotion of weight-loss, serve male desires for a contained housewife, subordinate and subservious to their husbands. As Wolf concludes, the very “myth” of a homogenous beauty standard is, in reality, dictating and ‘prescribing behaviour and not appearance.’[7] Attempts to control female bodies through slimming products such as Ayds, is in fact ‘summoned out of political fear on the part of male-dominated institutions threatened by women’s freedom’ and the progressive, liminal roles they performed during the war that began to deconstruct binarised notions of gender and the socially constructed “myth” of gender roles.[8]           

The advert does, however, present a number of limitations as a historical source. Through the preservation of an image of the ideal American woman, the source does not offer a realistic reflection of female experience within the post-war period. Thus, the question remains: how can historians retrieve the voices that were considered un-ideal or non-conformative and therefore neglected by history? Burger offers a potential solution by proposing a shift away from ‘examining the ideal image’ of the 1950s housewife, towards ‘that of the actual lived experience’.[9] The source nevertheless remains valuable, for whilst it does not portray anything of the reality for women living in this era, it can be used to expose the overwhelming mass of pressure and manipulation faced by these women. It is perhaps worth applying similar analyses and rigorous questioning to the adverts of today’s culture in which the female body continues to be controlled and manipulated. Like the women of post-war America, the experiences of 21st Century women remains far more diverse than the highly stylised, projected ideals of glossy magazine advertisements would have us believe.

[1] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 2nd edn (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008)  p.128

[2] Myra Macdonald, Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1995), p.201

[3] Berger, p.128

[4] Tarin Burger, ‘As Advertised: Depicting the Postwar American Woman from Bride, to Wife, to Mother’, (Masters thesis: Florida State University, 2012), p.4

[5] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (London: Vintage, 2015), p.13

[6] Samantha Vandermeade, ‘Fort Lipstick and the Making of June Cleaver: Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941-1961’, (Masters thesis: North Carolina State University, 2015), p.24

[7] Wolf, p.7

[8] Wolf, p.10

[9] Burger, p.34