Fashion Marketing’s Effects on Women and What We Can Do

The scope of business ethics is incredibly far reaching. Leaving the typical scene of businessmen, board rooms, and dark suits, the fashion industry is one that is large and most importantly, fraught with an ethical dilemma that could alter the existence of the industry altogether. Chris MacDonald, a professor of business ethics, wrote, in reference to the ethics of the fashion industry:

The fashion industry is clearly a huge business, big enough that the new move by the Council of Fashion was actually first reported in the Wall Street Journal. And it’s about business ethics because it’s about companies, through their industry organization, taking action to change behaviour that has been subject to reasoned criticism in the past.

The reasoned criticism he is referring to is the commentary surrounding marketing and the objectification of women. Women make up the majority of buyers in the apparel industry. Yet women have been tricked and shoved into a deep trap that the fashion industry is perpetuating to keep a steady increase in sales. This paper is the exploration of this phenomenon and the harm that is intentionally being inflicted by this industry. Through the manipulation of body image in women and adolescents, the fashion industry has proved their disregard for the health of the average consumer and model by forgoing regulation for profit.

With the fashion industry’s predominant media attention coming from magazines like Cosmopolitan, and television coverage dominated by Bravo and E!, it is easy to underestimate the size of the industry and the scope that it has. In 2014, the United States women’s fashion industry sold over 212 billion dollars worth of clothes. While the fashion industry has seen staggering growth, it would be incomplete without the simultaneous growth of the global cosmetics market that helps perpetuate the same beauty standard. In 2003, the global cosmetics market had a total revenue of 30 billion dollars and has since then doubled to 62 billion in 2016. That money directly translates into the size and scope of the industry. As total revenue of this market increases so does the number of employees, access to products and most importantly, money for marketing and advertising. This extension of the industry is the crux of what causes so much harm and is what perpetuates the constant bombardment of standards of beauty and negative body satisfaction. Advertising spending in the United States is projected to reach record heights in 2016 after reaching over 189.06 billion dollars in 2015. But not only is the value of marketing increasing, it is also becoming increasingly pervasive. Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter have all been proven forces in marketing that have allowed these brands to increase the awareness of their products and make them seem more accessible. This not only heightens the amount of marketing and product placement that we see, but it further preserves the myth of an ideal body image as celebrities and models are now in once personal spaces. Regardless of the increased depth of this marketing, these products have been reaching deeper into the national psyche and are more involved than ever. As these companies and brands become more prevalent, they become more normalized and the advertisements that they show become a part of reality.

Fundamentally, the problem with the fashion industry is only marginally related to the products that they are creating. The real problem is in the effects of their marketing and what they are willing to do to sell their clothes and cosmetics. The amount of money spent on marketing annually is only a numerical representation of the effect it has on day-to-day life. Phones, televisions, buses, and any object with a surface can be easily transformed into ad space. This constant bombardment can be entirely innocuous, but the images they perpetuate and the objectification of women is toxic and deadly.

Understanding the problems that arise from these advertisements comes from a psychological approach to the understanding of body image, body satisfaction, and how marketing can affect these thoughts. Body image, in a psychological context, is, “A person’s perceptions, feelings and thoughts about his or her body, and is usually conceptualized as incorporating body size estimation, evaluation of body attractiveness and emotions associated with body shape and size.” This perception is sensitive to outside factors and has been found to easily be manipulated by repeated images of body ideals. In a 2006 study, researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology found that, “As the reported frequency of viewing fashion and body and health magazines increased as well as the regularity of watching any one television show increased, reported body image worsened.” In a 1990 study, women with bulimic symptoms were found to have large increases in body dissatisfaction as a result of exposure to thin models. The exposure to models and their perpetual manipulation as an ideal beauty standard can lead to costly effects on the psychology of women and how they view themselves.

These two studies provide the base for our understanding of what media does to the perception of body image and how that reflects on a person’s emotional wellbeing. Not only does advertising within these magazines promote body dissatisfaction, but it also creates a negative view of oneself. This only becomes harmful, however, when put into context on how serious body dissatisfaction can be, and ultimately, the damage it can cause. In a 2015 study, researchers in Norway examined the relationship between body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. The comprehensive study found that large considerations of body image and subsequent disatifaction lead subjects to experience high levels of disordered eating, self-esteem issues, and ultimately depression. The roadmap is becoming increasingly obvious. advertisements that create a heightened sense of body dissatisfaction lead to a host of psychological disorders that can leave permanent marks.

The spillover effects of advertisements and media targeted at adult women causes greater and more severe effects on adolescents. Girls between the ages of 11–16 have seen heavy media influenced manipulation, helping form a perfect body internalisation. Increases in materialism, negative body image, and toxic eating behaviors were all found to be tied in a close relationship with higher consumption of mass media and advertisements. This type of media attention can make young girls focus more on outward appearances and cause them to spend greater time discussing physical attributes than internal ones. This is apparent in a 2012 study on adolescent girls’ attention to advertising. Multiple advertisements depicted women doing different things: playing sports, hiking, shopping, eating food. Researchers then asked 20 adolescent girls what they noticed from these advertisements. Unanimously, all twenty girls focused on the physical characteristics of the women and their body image, how slim they were, and their overall physical appearance. Commonly seen as a problem for grown women, body dissatisfaction can trigger life long problems in adolescents and cause permanent struggles for young girls who are focusing on their outward appearance rather than their own interests. These polarizing effects at such a young age cause concern for the level of manipulation that companies should have over elementary school children.

The most confounding part of these results is this: if these advertisements can increase body dissatisfaction, which can ultimately increase disordered eating and depression, then why run them? Such negative feelings that are associated with these advertisements would push consumers away from products and messages that can be so harmful. However, that is the devious nature and intent of these advertisements. The anxiety associated with body dissatisfaction provides a motivating factor for women to then purchase these goods. You may feel dissatisfied in your body now, but if you buy this blouse your happiness will match that of this advertisement. A shirt that looks good on you is not nearly as a good a shirt that can make you look like a supermodel. Playing off the negative emotions associated with these advertisements allows marketers to instantaneously fill the void they create in the advertisement with the product they are trying to sell. These advertisements are predatory, destructive, and have proven to be harmful to women and children alike. Their direct influence on women is inherently only negative and something must be done to change this.

While the direct effect of these advertisements is troubling for women’s body image, the indirect effect of the sexual objectification of the female body leads to violence against women. In 2000, a study conducted by researchers from Penn State University concluded that, “Findings from the two studies suggest that even exposure to seemingly innocuous sexually suggestive advertisements can lead to disturbing anti female sentiments such as objectification.” This study comparing the effects of sexualized advertising on men and women showed something dangerous. After men were shown two advertisements, a female in a bathing suit selling cologne and one selling the bathing suit, they indicated an increase in behavior typical of objectification of the woman’s body. The severity of this cannot be underestimated. Women are treated like objects by men who see them as nothing other than a sexualized body. Devoid of feeling or emotion for the complexity of a human being, these advertisements depict women as useful for selling products and nothing more. Not only does the direct harm affect women, but it increases the chance that men will not view them as equals, further lowering their societal status.

Repeatedly, the fashion industry refuses to take blame for this harmful behavior and has gone on to ignore any calls for reform. While many titans in the fashion industry say it is a problem that needs to be addressed, very few have turned that into cohesive action. The British Association of Model Agents clearly lists their requirements for models on their website: “The minimum height for a female should be 5’8, with the most acceptable range being 5’9–5’11. These women should be approximately 115 pounds, and she should measure, bust to waist to hips, 34–24–34.” As the largest collection of modeling agents in the United Kingdom, this represents an industry norm, but most importantly an industry norm that is entirely unacceptable. This is considered relatively deep into the underweight category. If any of these women were to drop to 110 and increase their height even an inch, they could risk permanent infertility and organ damage. Not only do these numbers support borderline forced anorexia, but notable models across the world have come forward fighting against agents that try and abuse their weight. Miss Iceland 2015, a popular and successful European model, has entirely quit a recent pageant as staff from a recent competition told her to lose weight before her next showing. Going even further, The Model Alliance, a nonprofit formed to shed light on the modeling industry, reported in 2012 that 64.1% of models have been asked to lose weight by their agency and 31.2% have self admitted eating disorders. If the industry that is generating images of these models to sell products is forcing their employees to lose weight and ultimately endure psychological distress, how can nothing be done? If any other industry, albeit glamorous or not, created this type of environment, it would be exposed and shut down immediately. Eating disorders are the result of preventable psychological harm caused by the objectification of these women’s bodies and no care for their well being. These models are the cornerstone of the fashion industry and are those cast into the spotlight on billboards and in commercials. They are being abused by an industry that disregards women’s health and puts profit over the lives of their employees and customers.

Critics argue that it is not the fashion industry’s problem. Designers’ jobs are to design the clothes, agents jobs are to book girls that will fit the clothes, and models jobs are to use their bodies to advertise the clothes. Everyone in the process is active and aware of the risks and the rewards. Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director of the fashion houses Chanel and Fendi believes, “The idea of ‘regulation’ is revolting, but so much today, models are about looks, not about weight. For me, it’s not even an issue; it’s part of this new politically correct fascism.” Lagerfeld argues that weight is not on anybody’s mind while creating a brand, that it is about the model’s look. However, a model’s look includes their weight. These companies do not want to be told what to do, and will therefore keep doing what they have been doing until there are more consequences. Lagerfeld insists “There are more fat people in the world than too-skinny ones, and the fat ones have big, big problems. Nobody cares; they are not glamorous,” he continued, “We are designers, not doctors who have to care about ‘eating disorders.’” He insists that light is being shown on where it is not needed. Lagerfeld touches on a few sound arguments against the regulations that would prevent modeling in its current form. He not only discusses over-regulation but also the notion of personal responsibility. His commitment to unethical business practices illuminates why his disconcern for his employees is such a large and encompassing business problem. Government intervention in business is not always necessary. A well functioning government can exist without large powers and with limited authority. But the government’s authority should be present in business when the industry fails to self regulate and harms their employees or consumers. The advertising generated by these companies harms both their customer and their employees with thoughtless disregard for the psychological effects of their marketing strategies. It has been proven in this paper that these advertisements are harmful to women and that well established modeling agencies show little regard for the health of their models. This means the industry is failing and as a result the government is too. If the industry would portray advertisements that represent real women and treated their models with respect regulation would be gone.

Despite the criticisms, progress is being made. France has enacted substantial legislation on the matter of underweight models, implementing weight requirements and a register of healthy weight. Among the most popular ideas is a voluntary Code of Conduct that places the burden of change on the industry, rather than the government, and outlines multiple rules for fashion agencies to follow when considering their ad content. Industry giants, like Dove and American Eagle, have started campaigns to end body shaming and promote greater body positivity. Aerie, American Eagle’s intimate apparel line, has used only non-photoshopped models that do not fit into the typical model profile. They have used natural looking advertisements and women to promote body positivity and lessen objectification of women’s sexuality. Dove has taken similar steps to promote the use of non standardized models in their skin care advertisements. Both campaigns have seen massive success in their increase in sales and market effectiveness. Yet they are still the exception and not the rule when it comes to this type of marketing.

Marketing and fashion have existed since the beginning of modern consumerism, but, this relationship has grown toxic and the effects on women and models are unethical and need to be addressed with government action. It has become increasingly apparent that the sensationalization of the fashion industry and the objectification of women have cause serious physical and mental health problems that have been left unchecked. The long term psychological effects and the normalization of predatory marketing tactics allows society to gloss over severe damages to women in the United States. These multiple studies make it clear: marketing towards women is harmful and nothing is being done in the United States to stop it. Clear regulation must be enacted to prevent another generation of girls from focusing only on their outward beauty. Legislation must be written to protect models from depression and drug addiction and stop agents from demanding them to lose weight. Women across the country are being preyed upon by an industry that cares about constantly increasing profits and has little regard for personal well being. There is no more waiting and acting passive in this battle for women’s rights. If action is not taken soon thousands of more women will live with the realities of negative body image and the pain that comes with it.

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