Why is femininity admirable, but feminism threatening? A quick glance through any issue of
will reveal hundreds of airbrushed models with flawless skin, flawless hair, and flawless bodies, enticing you to buy a product that will make you flawless as well. American ideals of femininity such as long, lustrous hair and smooth, shaved legs—to what extent are these ideals fabricated by our media, and how much do we buy into them?At the art installation “Beauty Kills,” many of these questions were raised, forcing the audience to confront their own interpretations of these images in media. The art installation was the midterm project of Michele Kaufman PI ’12, Beth Nitzan PO ’12, Elli Del Rey PI ’12, Claire Calderon SC ’12, Roshni Kakaiya SC ’13, and Melody Liu PO ’11 for Professor Chris Guizatis’ Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies course. The exhibit was located in the Hinshaw Gallery, on the second floor of the Grove House at Pitzer College.Walking up the creaky wooden stairs of the Grove House, I heard a steady beat thumping upstairs and lots of mixed voices, which sounded like a party. However, when I turned the corner, I was immediately confronted with caution tape and harsh orange lighting streaming across the doorway. This was no party. After ducking under the caution tape and entering the small gallery, I was overwhelmed by the images assaulting me—hundreds of photos cut from the pages of women’s magazines plaster the walls. A figure lay on the floor, a chalk outline filled with the very products those magazine pages sell. She was the victim.On the wall was a eulogy for her. “She was exactly one second old—or however short of time it takes for the medical staff to identify her sex—when the gendering began. Our familiar friend, the “victim,” would grow up in a society that suppresses her self-identification and creativity; objectifies and hyper-sexualizes her being; criticizes her body for being unique, nuanced, and beautiful in its idiosyncrasies. It was too much to bear. You’re witnessing the result: her death.”Loud beats and sexually explicit lyrics reverberated throughout the room. Video images of advertisements and music videos were projected on the ceiling above the victim. Mirrors placed throughout the gallery allowed the viewer to critically examine how these images and media affect him or herself. A closer look at the wallpaper of magazine pages revealed a delicate organization—each section had an argument. One section displayed advertisements and images that focused on the fragmentation of women’s bodies, another on vulnerability and submission to men.I was particularly struck by a single image. It was an image of a nude woman on a dock. The title was “Bodies We Want.” A short biography of the woman stated that she was an Olympic rower, the powerhouse of her team. Yet, she was admirable not for her athletic accomplishments, but for her athletic figure. The image suggested that rowing was merely a means to achieve this beautiful, lean musculature. The pinnacle of this woman’s achievement was not her gold medal, but her shapely rear end.The success of the exhibit lay in its power to force the audience to personally relate to the images they see in the media. By the end of the exhibition, the comment wall was full of poignant, thoughtful, and sometimes sad comments. One anonymous writer revealed that they had been anorexic for five years. I wrote about putting on my make-up that morning.Despite the jarring nature of the exhibit, Melody Liu PO ’11, a student collaborator on the project, explained, “We are not trying to critique the ownership of beauty. One doesn’t need to demonize products or what it means to be beautiful, but rather expand the definition of beauty as a form of empowerment.”The exhibit aimed to inspire introspection and dialogue about gendering in the media. Though the focus of the exhibit was primarily on women, the ideas presented are equally relevant in advertising geared towards men. The artists stated, “What [advertisements] sell is not just merchandise, but also ideas—ideas of who we are and who we should be.” The conception of what the media claims we should be is universally applicable to all genders.Interested in learning more about feminism and advertising? Jean Kilbourne’s documentary
Killing Us Softly 3
is a powerful film exploring the relationship between images in the media and real lives. The documentary is available at Honnold-Mudd Library and was an important resource consulted for this project. Of course, one of the best ways to learn more about gender and women’s issues is to take a course offered by the Gender and Women’s Studies department.