Truth in Advertising


Cindy Crawford has famously said that she wishes she looked like Cindy Crawford. Recently, we got to see what she meant, as a photo of Cindy in which her abdomen bears witness to the fact that she has borne children was leaked on the Internet. Author Leslie Goldman sums up the leak and its consequences nicely: “Women everywhere are feeling empowered, relieved and grateful to her,” Goldman said. “I just wish it had come about under her control.” Indeed, here we see the cultural “iron maiden” (as Naomi Wolf describes it in The Beauty Myth) of beauty at work: women—even supermodels—can’t assume privacy or control when it comes to our own bodies. And the images we are expected to live up to are so unrealistic that every time we get a peek at reality, we heave a collective sigh of relief. This, my friends, is a public health issue.

As author and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne explains in her latest film about the advertising industry, Killing Us Softly 4: “The obsession with thinness is a public health problem, the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty, violence against women. These are all public health problems that affect us all. And public health problems can only be solved by changing the environment.”

There is plenty of evidence to back up her claim:

Fortunately, we can do something about this problem—ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to recognize the evidence and regulate the way the advertising industry portrays the human body. The Truth in Advertising Act—introduced in 2014 and soon to be reintroduced in 2015—does just that.  Many people are coming together to get this act passed, and to address the public harm that our alteration of the human body in the name of profit is doing.  The Brave Girls Alliance has set up a wonderful page describing the act and answering questions.  Among the things they emphasize are:

  • Asking the FTC to address this issue is not an infringement on free speech (as advertising is commercial speech, and subject to regulation about the claims it makes)—in fact, the FTC was created to regulate messages in ads that could be harmful to people.
  • Currently, the FTC addresses ads one at a time—a long, involved process that can’t address the systemic nature of this problem.  The TIAA asks the FTC to deal with all ads at once.
  • The bill doesn’t ask for specific solutions—it simply asks the FTC to consider the evidence and begin to address the problem.

As you can see, right now the issue is getting the FTC to pay attention to the preponderance of evidence showing that the way we allow companies to alter the human body is doing very real harm to very real bodies.  Prior to reintroducing the TIAA, a group of Congresspeople have just written the chairwoman of the FTC to request a workshop about the harm to public health that photoshopping represents. To join their effort, you can:

Taking action against what the advertising industry is doing requires us to see the ads and media surrounding us as part of an environment that we have the power to change.  It is easy to see the images all around us and feel isolated, to turn the relentless gaze of the world’s camera on ourselves, magnifying our flaws in our own eyes and convincing ourselves that if we have a problem with our own imperfections, well—that’s just another imperfection.  When we flip this gaze, turning our eyes onto the people who are holding the camera and its software and holding them accountable, we reclaim ourselves—and that is the biggest relief of all.


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