When will the word 'sexist' become redundant in advertising?

When will brands stop over-sexualising young women and stop reducing women to nothing but their looks in an attempt to sell a product?

CoppaFeel!: '#whatnormalfeelslike' by Karmarama
CoppaFeel!: '#whatnormalfeelslike' by Karmarama

When will brands stop portraying the "perfect" woman as a certain shape or size or look that has been determined by... who, exactly?

Ad execs and brand directors sat in lofty offices deciding that a skinny, young, round-breasted woman is the right look? Who does this even benefit? Certainly not women, even if they are the targets of this male-shaped image.

We are only a few weeks into 2015 and already Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in Australia has been forced to apologise for an ad.

The image appeared on its Instagram feed for Sunday Style, showing a woman in lingerie and heels posing on all fours on top of a messed-up bed, with the words "Interns wanted" brandished across it.

The ad was taken down, and Sunday Style claimed it always took its interns programme "seriously".

As we all know, this is not a lone example, it's just one of a disappointingly long list of awfully sexist images swirling around the industry.

At the end of last year it was Victoria's Secret, making the poor decision to show young, extremely skinny girls with thigh gaps modelling the brand's new line of bras named Body that caused outrage, especially as its messaging used the ineffectual pun, "The perfect 'body'".

Before that it was the Lynx ads showing women with identical slim body shapes clad in bikinis and flocking in their hundreds to a flabby and unattractive bloke simply because he had sprayed a scent on him – which is just as insulting to men as it is to women – and before that it was another brand, and another, and another, ad nauseam.

Last year, nearly 10 million women in the UK admitted to feeling depressed due to the way they look. According to research by the 'Be Real' campaign, 83 per cent of women do not feel confident about their body and a quarter of women skip meals just to lose weight.

Perhaps most shockingly, 33 per cent of children say they often worry about the way they look, while appearance is the largest cause of bullying in schools. A total of 10.2 million women do not exercise because they feel anxiety about their body.

More than half of the women in the survey said they felt powerless about society's obsession with looks. And whose fault is that? Which industry perpetuates these negative ideas of what a woman's body should look like, and what shape or size is considered perfect or beautiful or the best?

Yes it's advertising, and just because the beauty industry or the media or Hollywood is also to blame for this atrocity, it's no excuse for the men and women running ad agencies and brand campaigns to absolve themselves of their responsibility in this issue. 

Though it is important, in my opinion, to have breasts on show if it is done for the right reason and is promoting a healthy image of women to both sexes.

Making sure women know what looks and feels normal for themselves is extremely important, and breast cancer charity CoppaFeel!'s latest campaign "#whatnormalfeelslike" is centred around pictures of women's very real breasts – and the words used to describe them.

The women in the ads call their boobs everything from "sensitive" to "doughy", "pillowy" to "squidgy", and while the ads are designed to promote women checking their breasts regularly for any changes, they show the sheer diversity of women's bodies in the process – something that is not shown in advertising. And something that should be promoted far more.

What has also truly felt like a big step forward this year in the way women are portrayed in advertising is Sport England's 'This Girl Can' campaign, which, in celebrating the way women "jiggle" when they exercise, how sweaty they get when they're working out and how fun women playing sports can look, proves that women don't have to be slim and young to enjoy themselves and feel good when they're exercising.

And in a final nod to progressive brands, Virgin Atlantic has shown that taking out stereotypical and unrealistic images of women from ads can be another powerful way to stop the perpetuation of negative images of women.

By turning the focus away from Virgin's slim, be-lipsticked and heeled stewardesses and including them in a completely new narrative, the airline has managed to update people's expectations of its brand image without losing the emphasis of its tone.

Hopefully at the end of this year we'll all be able to look back on12 months of hard work and say that 2015 was the year the word "sexist" became redundant in advertising.

Caitlin Ryan is the executive creative director at Karmarama


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