Young women in advertising

Some of my co-workers are very concerned at the moment about the use of images of very young women in advertising. They work in local government and are in a position to make changes to how these images are deployed around the borough. And in many respects I support their stance.

Where I part company with the argument, is that there is a tang of misplaced “paedophiles in the bushes” about all of this. These women look young but most models are very young. The women have scanty breasts, skinny legs and are photographed looking sulky or pouting. These are all taken as markers of young girls and therefore the adverts are hastily labelled as dangerous to children and appealing to paedophiles.

But let’s unpack all of this before having a knee jerk response: young girls may well be damaged by these images but I would argue that girls are constantly bombarded by images of sexualised women wherever they look, and it is this that is the problem, not the youth or otherwise.

Kids ‘know’ from an early age that “looking sexy” is what women do (being sexy, having enjoyable sex, not so much) – and parents who dress their kids in adult-style, gendered clothing buy into this, literally and metaphorically. Paedophiles are certainly a cause for concern, but we should be telling our daughters and sons about good, appropriate, safe sex and proper consent, rather than keeping sex from them. Sex is not bad, nudity is not always sexualised, we need to keep a sense of proportion.

This is an argument that largely mis-reads the really big problem and that is that women are objectified and used to sell more or less everything, and in our culture very young, very slim women are the ideal.  This is something we need to tackle and we are being distracted by confusing this with clearly transgressive sexual practices: paedophiles have sex with children, sometimes very small children and consent is not given because it’s legally impossible. That is not to be confused with images of very young women who may or may not be 16 being used to sell knicker sets.

We need to have a discussion about the role of women in our society and the continuing difficulty in ensuring that women are valued and treated as equal to men: if you use a semi-naked female body to sell cars or Christmas, but not a young man’s, you are not doing that. If you put semi-naked women in a video and the men are fully clothed you are not doing that. If you comment on a woman’s clothing or age when she appears in court, but you do not do the same with a male witness, you are not valuing women as much as men. It’s really that simple. You don’t need to be a ‘Feminist’ to get it, and it’s possible to be concerned about women, and economic inequality and racism and …well, you get the picture. Just because you worry about women being the second sex doesn’t mean that you don’t worry about poverty and xenophobia. 

I suggest that if you want to have a go at Tesco’s for its knicker adverts, have a go at them because they think that female semi-nudity is appropriate for street side advertising, and that they didn’t balance that with a similar ad with a young man on it. If you think that French Connection’s use of very young, childlike women sucks, get real, because they’re hardly the only ones to do it, but still get mad because even if they used an older nude female model that would still be more of the damn same, and quite frankly women are getting fed up of it.


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