September 24, 2020
We’ve come a long way in recent years towards growing a collection that supplies media with more modern, diverse, and empowering images of women. We acknowledge this progress but we still need to make serious strides to address shortfalls in the collection — we still need to see more inspired images of women who are portrayed for what they are doing rather than just being.
The female content in our collection still predominantly features young, Caucasian models and focuses on fashion and portraiture. Among the most used keywords for women in our collection are descriptions that value youth and physical appearance: beautiful, pretty, fashion, beauty, attractive, and cute.
However, none of these keywords are in our topmost searched terms by clients last year. Our buyers want business (#2 most searched for term with “woman”), diversity (Black and Asian ranked #4 and #9, respectively), older models (older, mature, and senior are all in the top 20 searches for woman), confidence (confident woman), and activities (cooking, running, eating, walking are all in the top 25 searches).
Bit by bit contemporary culture is dialing back the significance that’s been given to female attractiveness in society. “Body-Neutrality” goes beyond body-positivity in that it’s not just about pushing back on non-inclusive beauty ideals, but on all aspects of society that continue to promote beauty as important and consequential.
Beauty in 2020 and beyond is about feeling beautiful. Yes, this can impact aesthetics addressed by conventional beauty and personal care products, but it also demands innovation in the areas of feel-good offerings for the mind, body, and spirit. This holistic mindset is driving a market in beauty, mental health, and wellness industries. Self-esteem, body-positivity, sexual health, mental well-being, nutrition, and hormonal treatments are part of a more inside-out attitude towards beauty.
The notion of “beauty” is a constantly changing cultural convention and contemporary standards demand the promotion of more healthy and diverse images of beauty. Overly-photoshopped images that perpetuate traditional stereotypes and/or unhealthy body images are no longer acceptable or appealing. Instead, audiences want everyday women whose personal stories and experiences challenge both gender norms and societal standards of beauty. Products, from make-up to hair and skincare, are more readily available to all ethnicities, body types, ages, skin tones, gender expressions, and identities.
Additionally, women are wearing less makeup overall, preferring to invest in skincare and wellness. Skincare Google searches grew 16% in 2019, according to Matthews’ Research Group, led by topics such as sun care and treatments while color cosmetic sales dropped in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom by 3%, 6%, and 8%, respectively, per market research from the NPD Group. U.S. makeup sales declined in every channel, except online, where results were flat.
Gender roles are constructed by the content we consume. For example, when we see girls playing with dolls and boys playing with trucks, women being portrayed as needy and commitment-focused, and men yearning for freedom and independence.
Some of the common stereotypes that often inform female roles in society:
- Domestic service – like cooking, cleaning, childcare
- Vanity and materialism – commonly shown shopping, taking selfies, displaying an obsession with clothes, makeup, and one’s own image
- Feminine and nurturing – aspire to industries that prize beauty, form, and aesthetics — such as dance and fashion — or roles that have a caretaking element, such as teaching or social work
- Needy, co-dependent, weak – shown to be searching for or completed by a committed relationship; or if in a relationship, shown to be the restrictive partner
But as society shifts away from patriarchal power structures and stereotypical gender roles are increasingly being challenged, expectations are changing too. In 2017, for example, Britain’s advertising regulator introduced a ban on advertising that promotes gender stereotypes, unhealthy body images, or sexually objectifies women; citing that stereotypes could “restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities” of ad viewers, especially young girls and teenagers who are figuring out their identities and goals.
In creative and media industries, we have a legacy of storytelling that often falls short when it comes to fully exploring and representing female experiences. Without getting too heavy, it’s important to know what the “male gaze” is and how it has influenced the way female subjects have been traditionally treated in popular culture. The male gaze describes the tendency of films, photographs, paintings, literature and such to assume a male viewpoint, and, in particular, the tendency to present female characters as subjects of a man’s interpretation. The results are often that female characters and experiences are under-developed or viewed through a lens that lends them attributes such as the following:
- Passive or vulnerable
- One-dimensional; lacking complexity, depth, or agency
- Happy and easily pleased
- Needlessly sexualized or eroticized
Pop Quiz: guess which image above was taken by a female photographer?
Typical examples of the male gaze include medium close-up shots of women from over a man’s shoulder, shots that pan and fixate on a woman’s body, women dressed in revealing clothing, and scenes that frequently occur which show a man actively observing a passive woman.
Consciously or unconsciously, artistic decisions and the structure of works — camera angles, lighting, editing, composition, styling — can promote and perpetuate a masculine, hetero-normative point of view on audiences, and therefore their ideals and expectations.
*Please note that the male gaze refers to the tendencies of a particular point of view, not the gender of the creator/author. It can be used and exercised by anyone creating content, for various reasons, and for various effects.
Bodies and the Female Nude
The female body and the nude portrait have inspired artists for millennia. Nudity can be a beautiful expression of body-positivity and an exploration of form, sensuality, and sexuality. We’re no prudes here but there is, however, a fine line between art and female objectification.
Nudity can come across as objectifying when it’s beside the point. For example, if a shoot is about homework, but the model is in her underwear. Or the subject of the image is a woman enjoying the sunset, yet we see it through the thigh-gap of the model. We’re completely used to advertising and movies where sexualized portrayals of the female body can be found even in situations where sex or representations of sex have nothing to do with the narrative or product. But sexual objectification is something audiences are more and more aware of and sensitive to.
Nudity can also seem to objectify when the pose, cropping, or angle feels like it takes away a sense of selfhood or dignity from the model. For example, when the heads are cut off, or when a model is in a position that looks uncomfortable or demeaning. It can also suggest notions such as vulnerability, exploitation, and powerlessness, in some applications and contexts.
We need more female representation in industries that have traditionally discriminated against women, such as in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM occupations are among the top globally sought-after skills, however, a gender gap in STEM persists across the world, and systems of bias that push women and people of color out of STEM careers — such as male-dominated workspaces, pay inequality, lack of access to peer role models, and mentors — can be perpetuated by the way these industries are illustrated in media.
This gap begins in education, fueled by gender stereotypes and expectations regarding “women’s work.” In our collection, women in business are often set in an office, studio, startup, and/or creative environment. We also need examples of female professionals in other fields such as manufacturing, military and defense, law enforcement, and politics. So, while overall we want to see more female leadership in business content across the board — from CEOs and entrepreneurs to business owners and community leaders — we need to expand how and where we picture women in the workforce and ensure that this content is inclusive of age, ethnicity, and ability.
We want to see women do sports — not just posing with skateboards, surfboards, tennis rackets, golf clubs, skis, basketballs, etc. Show real people, real athletes, and real action. Make sure clothing is appropriate for the sport and any equipment is the legitimate size, quality, and type for the sport and model.
Too often female fitness is shown with slender models/athletes in sexy outfits and sexy poses, with way too much makeup on and not enough dirt or sweat. The message that this can send is that femininity is incompatible with physical strength. This is compounded by media coverage that emphasizes heterosexual femininity and negatively represents lesbians, non-binary identities, and “masculine-looking” bodies.
Pregnancy is a hugely meaningful part of the female experience, and there is so much to explore in this subject area, yet pregnancy nudes and portraits of women holding their bellies dominate in the collection. We want to see different dimensions of pregnancy lifestyle from medical checkups, birth planning, and preparation, to simply going about day-to-day life doing things like working, planning, socializing, exercising, eating, cooking, and relaxing. Bringing new life into the world is a beautiful thing, but we want to see more of the realities of pregnancy than the romanticization of pregnant women and their bodies.
Spoiler alert: adult female friends rarely…
- Hang out in their underwear
- Have pillow fights
- Hang out in bed
- Apply skincare products to each other’s faces
- Piggyback each other
- Hold hands
- Lie on each other’s laps
- Touch, embrace, kiss, hug (except when greeting or comforting)
- Take their tops off, for the heck of it
- Run together and dance through a field
- Do much of anything in fields
We want to see work that looks at the depth, complexity, and richness of female friendships. Sure, there can be touch and physical affection at times, but what about all the other experiences and expressions of appreciation between friends? Travel, brunch, boredom, biking, picnics, games, sports, conversation, classes, gifts, jokes, drinking, cooking, consolation, camping, concerts, consuming culture, walking dogs, co-working, gardening, building, etc. We want it all!
Image Credits: Grace Rivera; Marta Syrko; Nikki Krecicki; Elizabeth Renstrom; Peyton Fulford; Kennedi Carter; Grace Rivera; Eight Seconds; Alyssa Fior; UAE Airforce; Helmut Newton; Rockie Noland; Rania Matar, Nikki Krecicki; CUUP; Noemie Marguerite; University of California, Irvine; women.doing.science; Susi Baxter-Seitz; Max Miechowski; Lululemon; Hannah Reyes Morales; Rebekah Nathan; Dean Mitchell/iStock by Getty Images; Noemie Marguerite; Peyton Fulford; Faith E. Briggs
Video Credits: Film advertisement created by Decoded, United States for Visa; Film advertisement created by Ogilvy, Australia for Priceline; Film advertisement created by VML, United States for Central Emergency Response Fund; Film advertisement created by Y&R, Brazil for ForceField; Film advertisement created by McCann, France for Safe Hands For Girls; Film advertisement created by M:United, United States for Microsoft; Film advertisement created by Futatsu Industries, Norway for Obos