By Anthony Barich
Australian society is in the process of normalising violence against women through unregulated advertising, says Womens Forum Australia founding director Melinda Tankard Reist.
Ms Tankard Reist told the Get Real forum at Government House last Friday, attended by over 300 people, “we’re normalising violence against women as sexy”.
To illustrate her point, Ms Tankard Reist referred to America’s Top Model using a “crime scene victims special” where models had to pretend they’d been violently murdered – the show screens at 6.30pm on a Sunday.
“We’re fuelling violence against women by allowing the images to be wallpapered all over society,” she said.
Ms Tankard Reist noted that the American Psychological Association says the sexualisation and objectification of women functions to keep women in their place as objects of sexual attraction and beauty.
“It significantly limits their free-thinking and movement in the world, so girls aren’t given the opportunity to explore other facets of their lives,” Ms Tankard Reist said. “They’re reduced to the sum of their body parts.”
Advertisements are also turning women against each other, when women should be supporting and affirming each other. She revealed examples of advertisements in prominent websites and magazines aimed at women and which claim to empower women and young girls that promote the idea of attaining the body “other women will be jealous of” and even “kill for”.
Ms Tankard Reist said that research links sexualisation in popular culture with three of the most common mental health problems with girls – eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. “As women continue to be treated as commodities in pop culture, girls are starving, purging, binging and self-harming as they don’t think they’re good enough,” she said.
Ms Tankard Reist added that airbrushed photos and computer-enhanced pornographic images have become “the new reference point” for how girls and women should look in western society.
She said that things targeted at young girls and young women like “Porn Star” brand t-shirts, pole dancing classes and “seductive” underwear, padded bras and g-strings for young girls, negative messages on shirts for youths like “It’s not rape it’s surprise sex” and “My name sounds better screamed” all contribute to the commodification of women. “So many young girls and women regard their bodies and sexual allure as their main currency,” Ms Tankard Reist told the Get Real forum.
WA Liberal leader Troy Buswell, who was in hot water last October over allegations he snapped a female Labor staffer’s bra strap, said the advertisement examples shown at the forum “shocked and surprised” him.
Mr Buswell, who has two sons and was urged to attend by WA Shadow Women’s Interests Minister Helen Morton, said the messages in advertising are “no longer by stealth, they’re in your face”.
“I suspect that in most family homes around Australia, people would be unaware of the influences brought to bear against their children through the sorts of media that were exposed tonight. If people were more aware you’d see a lot more proactive action taken.”
State Labor MP Kate Doust, also present, said: “More than just present the issues and the impact they have on girls, they also outlined strategies people can take to remedy the situation, which was brilliant.”
Ms Tankard-Reist’s friend’s 13-year-old daughter was receiving shaved women’s genitals on her mobile phone from boys at school who were then saying “when are you going to get yours done”; and she didn’t recognise it was harassment. “Girls are often subjected to this kind of behaviour but don’t understand it because they’ve actually become used to it; we want to help them not get used to it and know this is not normal, you don’t have to put up with this.” Quoting Courtney Martin’s “Perfect girls, starving daughters”, Ms Tankard Reist said: “Hating yourself has become a new rite of passage for teenage girls.”
A study of 4000 girls aged 11-19 found most are unhappy about their bodies in general and their weight in particular. Sixty-eight per cent of 15-year-olds are on a diet; of those eight per cent are severely dieting.
One in 100 Australian girls suffers anorexia, one in five are bulimic, one in five 12-year-old girls use fasting and vomiting to lose weight according to a study last year. One in four teenage girls want plastic surgery, two per cent already have had it.