Self-improvement is something that everyone should strive for, as no one can ever be perfect. Improving patience, temperament, among other things, are positive steps to being a better person. However, the society we live in today has decided that self-improvement needed to be emphasized and amplified to higher heights. We now encourage impossible levels of perfection in almost all areas of the self, including physical appearance—specifically, a person’s weight. We have all heard the horror stories of models being photo-shopped to be stick-thin wisps with a thigh gap that you’d need a bridge to cross. Unfortunately, those are the images that the average woman (and even younger women) aspire to look like. Enter the desire to lose weight. Enter weight loss supplements and meal plans and, finally, advertisements.
Of course, there are a myriad of different weight loss techniques out there for all walks of life. Appetite suppressants, frozen dinners promising you can “still eat chocolate!” and the renowned Weight Watchers ‘Point System.’ All of the above promising that within 30 days you will look and feel like a new you—and even be able to squeeze through those two chairs that the people never bothered to pull in when they sat down in the cafeteria. All of the advertisements I’ve picked have this same theme, except a little more specific. These weight loss commercials from three popular weight loss programs, the South Beach Diet, Jenny Craig, and Weight Watchers all target women, and all make the promise that by dropping those unwanted pounds*, they’ll make people, especially men, want to look at them again. “With this diet,” they promise women, “you will lose weight and become the focus of people stares and affection.” In essence, they use a feminist lens to create a sense of women empowerment, but in the same breath subtly claim that self-improvement is done for the benefit of men and other onlookers.
*(I won’t say shedding that unwanted poundage because, honestly, isn’t that just all a trick, too? That we have to want to lose weight?)
In these advertisements, it is clear who the target audience is. While men, too, can be overweight, it is obvious that women are being targeted by these commercials. This is most likely because society places much more pressure on women to look a certain way than they do on men. In addition, various signifiers in each commercial tell the audience who the intended market is. Barthes discusses the “Rhetoric of the Image” and about how something is presented can tell us just as much about the content and the intention of the advertisement than the actual words or explicit calls to actions of a spot. In the first Jenny Craig “Ex Boyfriend” ad, we see a woman who has just lost 45 pounds run into her ex boyfriend. Sometimes, women talk about “winning a break-up,” and just wanting the chance to show the other person what they’re missing. This is very concept here. By using a female narrator, it is allowing female audience members to interpellate themselves into the spot, and remember that one ex boyfriend they’d like to see after drastic physical improvements. The second spot, the South Beach Diet’s “Don’t Hide It,” shows women on a beach in bikinis, and explicitly call out the audience as “you.” This use of you does not aim to pull in men, as the visuals would not match up with the direct address here. The third advertisement, Weight Watchers “Vacation Photos,” again, the female speaker is used to pull in a female audience, and is meant to resonate with a female consumer base. She also plays on the insecurity most women feel about their appearance. Men don’t necessarily feel uncomfortable about physical appearance as women do because society doesn’t put as much pressure on them to be a certain brand of “beautiful.”
In all of the above commercials, Goldman and Papson’s ideologies hold true, and in very similar ways. Each commercial in their own way, socially constructs a society and a world where women are always meant to be thin—and always want to be thinner. Even if they’re a healthy weight, society tells women that paying a few dollars to lose those extra pounds before beach season is a must. That leads into the next ideological construct seen in these three ads, and the concept exploited by the weight loss industry overall: the encouragement of spending money. This idea that we must spend money to lose weight instead of losing it the old-fashioned way such as running or eating healthy on our own reinforces capitalist ideas that spending money is great, and everyone should want to spend money. It also exemplifies the concept that throwing money at a problem can make the problem go away, and that consumerism is the answer to any problems someone is having. Along with Goldman and Papson’s ideological analysis, these ads are very culturally specific. These advertisements disguise the idea that more than one body type may be attractive. In fact, some countries other than the United States prefer curvier women as opposed to the extremely thin ones we see in advertisements. Women may also have illnesses that cause weight gain or the inability to lose weight, which these ads also ignore.
While these ideologies clearly show through, one concept that is also very visible. This concept is commodity feminism, as Goldman, Heath, and Smith discuss. In each of these ads, the lead woman acts as if she has taken control of her problem, and persevered to achieve results. From there, they all supposedly turn the male gaze on its head. Instead of the women in each of these spots being passively looked at by men, they are ‘taking charge’ of the gaze. In the first ad, the “Ex Boyfriend” spot, the woman walks by her ex boyfriend, and he looks astonished and vaguely sad that he ‘ever let her go.’ She has taken the steps to make the men who never notices her sit up and take notice, while at the same time using this power to strut away like he did the months before. The second advertisement, “Don’t Hide It,” shows women dancing around in bikinis, showing off ‘what they got.’ They have taken charge, and shown men and women what they want to show. They want to put forth the best versions of themselves, and that’s what they’re doing. At the end, they objectify the man by looking at him and saying “Yum!” effectively subverting the classical male/female power hierarchy of the watched and the watcher, the objectified and the objectifier.
The third spot is a little different because there is no physical representations of this voyeurism turned on its head. At the beginning, Katie discusses how in her vacation photos, “there were none of her.” Although she holds up a picture of herself, it’s her as a different perceived self than the one in the commercial. She has separated her overweight self with the thinner one that sits before the camera. She takes charge of her image by quite literally banishing this version of herself by deeming it not even worthy of her acknowledgment. In doing so, she is curating a specific image of herself for others to look at—photographs are a perfect example of voyeur culture. We take them just so others can look at what we were doing, who we were with, etc. By wanting to take new pictures of her ‘actual’ self, Katie is deciding what she wants people to see.
All of these ideologies and concepts lend themselves to create a specific social commentary about women, and especially about women in regards to their weight. In my parody video, I hope to turn these on their heads. Since the general theme of all of these ads is that while they are strong empowered women, I want to employ a powerful woman to front the spot. She will be in scant amounts of clothing, leaping about the stage with the biggest smile on her face. However, it’ll be a ridiculous scene, unlike many beaches and lakeside greens I have seen. I’ll put her in an empty warehouse with peeling paint and creaking floorboards. Next, I want to emphasize that these strong powerful women feel the need to change themselves for others, and even other total strangers they pass daily. Her lines will go something along the lines of, “I just wanted everyone on the street to know I took charge of my life with Jenny Craig…somehow the bullhorn and free stickers weren’t enough!” and show her soap-boxing on the corner of a busy street, yelling about her Jenny Craig success. After that, she’ll exclaim, “Who knew I could be this happy…have 2 restraining orders and a sexual assault claim…and still be this happy!” with continued jumping. It will then flashback to her yelling at people to look at how thin she looks, as they walk briskly away, and her sexually harassing a man who walks by.
These types of advertisements need to be discussed and exposed because weight loss isn’t the problem. The problem is how women view themselves, and more importantly, how society tells women they should themselves. Society should promote a healthy lifestyle, not just eating less or specific processed foods to be thin. Furthermore, it’s not even about how society tells women they should feel about themselves. Past that, we need to dive further into the power structures of men versus women, and look closely at how this gender hierarchy affects how roles and perception of beauty and standards are projected and felt. Culture jamming, as Carducci discusses, is an effective method in exposing ideological inequalities in advertisements. In these ads, culture jamming would serve to expose the front of a feminist voice, and also the patriarchal themes in these ads that are meant to sell piece of mind to women. They would emphasize that we are selling to women so they can essentially sell themselves to men, so in the end, the men are really the ones benefitting from all of this. As long as we keep critiquing these texts, and keep exposing these through culture jamming, perhaps people will begin to take notice, and things will change. However, the subvertising needs to focus on much more than the surface unfairness shown in ads. It needs to really focus on the deep-rooted inequalities that prevail and allow us to recognize these biased tropes.