There is an unimaginative and overused motif in the media today- the heavily sexualised and idyllic female body- simultaneously painting an unrealistic picture of perfection for young girls and women and alienating these girls and women from their own bodies, because they cannot match up to the impossible ideals of such images of computerised faultlessness. Despite the banal overuse of women’s bodies to sell things (often completely unrelated to the product being advertised), I think there is an overarching fear of real women’s bodies within media advertising.
There are a great many sources I could use to support this statement, and here I would like to explore the use of bodies, particularly women’s bodies, in PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) animal advocacy campaigns. PETA have carefully cultivated a reputation, with attention-seeking tactics for spreading the word about nonhuman animal exploitation, and the regular employment of the female form to promote their cause. The effectiveness of this method, or lack of, I argue is taking the focus away from the fight for nonhuman animal rights, side lining these crucial issues and feeding into nonhuman animal marginalisation, and encouraging women’s exploitation and objectification through the continued sexualisation and fragmentation of women’s bodies. These homogenous images of typically beautiful women detract from the important message that nonhuman animals are continually being exploited and mistreated, often leaving these issues as an afterthought, side lined by the unrelated image of female nudity. Nonhuman animal exploitation is important, and it shouldn’t be tattooed onto a woman’s size zero buttocks for its importance to be acknowledged.
PETA was co-founded by Ingrid Newkirk, who defends the use of female bodies in PETA campaigns through the careful employment of key post-feminist rhetoric, which aims to resonate with the ‘modern’ woman– promises of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’, and playing on fears of being labelled ‘outmoded’ and ‘oppressive’. (I recommend reading Angela McRobbie’s work for more on post-feminism, if you are interested). Newkirk identifies as feminist, and claims there is nothing wrong with the use of female nakedness in the PETA campaigns because ‘I’m not a prude’ (Jezebel, 2008). Presumably, disliking PETA’s advertising style, as I do, makes me prudish, a little too ‘prim and proper’ and hopelessly old-fashioned.
It isn’t that the sight of a woman’s body is something I am disgusted by; I’m not squeamish at the sight of a pair of breasts. My issue with PETA lies in the nonsensical use of ‘sexy’ bums-and-boobs (as defined by restrictive, patriarchal understandings of conventional beauty ideals) to promote nonhuman animal rights; it’s the way PETA hypocritically claim to be trying to liberate one oppressed group (nonhuman animals), whilst encouraging the marginalisation of another (women). PETA promote only one very narrow-minded depiction of beauty; and the way they justify this through shaming those in contention with their tactics is another reason for my discomfort and dislike of their campaigning methods.
Figure One: ‘Eat Your Veggies – Dressing Optional’
Patricia de Léon, an actor, model and television host, pictured in figure one, is straddling a giant broccoli. She is preened to perfection, her hair voluminous, her mouth set into a seductive pout as she looks confidently into the lens of the camera. The most prominent part of the ad is her nudity. Her body is slender and sleek; she is immaculately hair-free, tanned, and free from the flaws of mere mortal women, such as cellulite, stretch marks and wrinkles. She is the archetypal contemporary beauty. The caption: ‘Eat Your Veggies – Dressing Optional’ is somewhat unclear; there is no discernible vegetarian message, it’s more nutritional advice, – vegetables are an important feature in healthy eating. The focus here is Patricia’s stereotypically good looks, which is thematic of PETA ads. The ‘Dressing Optional’ remark seems to send a message to women about their bodies, as the ad implicitly intimates that eating your veggies will give you a Léon-esque physique to be proud of, and that you will want to show off. Further, through the constant use of similarly slender frames in PETA ads, a painfully clear message is sent to women and girls. This body, Léon’s body, is the only type of body worth having.
Figure Two: ‘Be Proud of Your Body Scan: Go Vegan’
Figure two shows a woman’s body in negative, wearing a bra and knickers, one hand placed confidently on the hip, and her underwear is adorned with the slogan: ‘Be Proud of Your Body Scan: Go Vegan’. The clear message here is that vegan bodies are slender bodies, sexy bodies, bodies to be proud of because they coincide with strict beauty ideals. Here, PETA claim not only that all vegans must have a sleek and streamlined figure (what does this mean for vegans who wear anything larger than a UK size 8?) but also that the only body to be proud of is a slim one. This ad sends a hateful message to women about their bodies; it encourages women to be smaller, sleeker, slimmer; urging women to marginalise themselves.
Journalist Sophie Heawood wrote an article for The Guardian: ‘I dread the day my daughter’s poos get smaller’ (2013), a brilliant piece of journalism about the need for women to contain, restrict and minimise themselves. Heawood talks about her toddler daughter’s pride upon producing sizeable stools, and ‘dread[s] the day those whopper turds have got to go’ (ibid). Heawood ponders over the many things girls and women do to make themselves smaller: ‘To be like Hello Kitty – all smile, no mouth’ (ibid). With this in mind, I refer back to the PETA ad above. There is a noticeable absence in the image. Where is the woman’s head? She is doubly cut off at the neck and the knees, demonstrating a societal fixation with particular parts of a woman’s body – her breasts, her waist and her crotch. The woman is fragmented and made generic through the lack of a head, and with no head she is denied thought, speech and individuality. Her anonymity doubly works to provide women with an aspirational figure of slender ideals, as the imagination enables the audience to superimpose their own face onto this body; while simultaneously maintaining women’s object status through explicit fragmentation and an encouragement of a sexualised gaze. She is purely body, a spectacle, constructed solely for her ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey, 1989:25).
Figure three is slightly different to the previous two ads I have discussed. The model is clothed, for one. Samia Finnerty, pictured in the above ad, is a singer. She stands with an acoustic guitar slung over her shoulder, one leg angled away from her body, one arm held up to her head. She’s pouting, and looking down at the camera, the caption states: ‘Vegans Go All The Way’ – an explicit sexual innuendo. The ad follows a familiar line of sexualising women, through the implication that Samia is a willing sexual object, but also that vegans generally are sexually promiscuous. At the time of making this campaign, Samia was just sixteen years old, so once again PETA aim at shock tactics, toying with the sexual appeal of a young girl, and terming it ‘playful’ (PETA, 2013). Their employment of such a young model also reflects a societal desire for women to remain girl-like. Infantilised images of women are pervasive throughout the media, and PETA are complicit in the propagation of this ideal through their careful selection of models, and the subsequent editing and airbrushing that goes into making them look a particular way.
Figure Four: ‘Fur Trim: Unattractive’
The final ad I want to look at before drawing together my analyses is figure four, an ad that caused much controversy when it was unveiled. Joanna Krupa, model, stands almost naked, except for a lacy pair of pink knickers, Godiva-like hair covering her breasts, a seductive half-smile on her lips, her slim and tanned body coinciding with aforementioned beauty ideals… except… there is something which doesn’t quite tie in, something different about Krupa’s appearance which stands out. There is a mass of fake hair protruding from her knickers, an exaggerated depiction of female pubic hair. The caption: ‘Fur Trim: Unattractive’ says less about the fur trade, and more about women’s bodies – left as they are, unaltered, unplucked and unpreened, women’s bodies are unattractive. This ad demonises female body hair, labelling it unattractive, and in the by-line, claiming it will ‘ruin your look’ (PETA, 2013). Here, again, we see an attempt to infantilise the female body, make it girlishly naked with a lack of pubic hair.
I began this article claiming that PETA ads reflect a fear of women’s bodies more widely in society. Perhaps they show not simply fear, but also hatred. Looking back at the PETA campaigns I have used here and others in their archives online, there are clear similarities between them. The women they employ are uniformally slim, toned, tanned, styled, plucked, waxed and made-up to perfection, and that’s before the re-touching even begins. These women are frequently subjected to intense scrutiny in gossip magazines, red circles of shame, which many of us delight in, highlight their flaws and imperfections for all to see, be repulsed by, and disassociate vehemently from the femininity we are taught to aspire to.
Women’s bodies as they are are not accepted, or acceptable, within societal norms. It has become normalised and naturalised for women’s bodies to require constant and pain-staking attention to achieve a level of femininity which seems unattainable without the help of retouching and airbrushing courtesy of a computer program. PETA partake in spreading the word to women and girls that our bodies are not enough.
We must eradicate all hair from our bodies using painful hair removal procedures, our stomachs must be flat, our waists cinched in, breasts pert and round, buttocks compact, legs slender, blemish free, cellulite free, scar free, able-bodied, even skin tone, hair glossy and styled, make up flawless, tanned and willing to strip down and share our bodies with the world because we’re told it’s empowering. But why is it empowering? I can’t see how coinciding with a male-defined rulebook for what is attractive in women is empowering. How is willingly becoming the object of a sexualised male gaze of power liberating? Posing as sexually submissive and passive shouldn’t be seen as powerful or inspiring.
Women are measured up against one another all the time based on their physicality, and whether they are understood as beautiful or not is not decided by women, it is decided by men. Daring to defy, or simply not being able to live up to the expectations of, what ‘beautiful’ means today has women sneering at one another, highlighting one another’s flaws in a disturbingly panopticonic manner. We self-regulate, and regulate those around us, with the ubiquitous threat of exposure as unfeminine, disgusting and/or deviant beings. Post-feminism, as I understand it, is not what we do after equality has been achieved, it’s how patriarchy has chosen to fight back against feminism. Post-feminist rhetoric of sexual liberation is a convenient tale to spin to get women proudly displaying their bodies. If women are telling men to look at their bodies, why would they complain?
PETA are afraid of women’s bodies. They may saturate their ads and campaigns in sex, but ultimately, these are not women’s bodies. Not really. They are bodies which have been altered to make them recognisable as female, but completely unattainable aspirational images, for regular everyday women, leading us inevitably to failure. They promote a very specific type of woman, and really, she’s not a woman at all, with all the altering and airbrushing that goes on. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir: ‘For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less…she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential’ (in Bronner, 2005:361).
The bodies so pervasive in PETA ads are about sex, and solely patriarchal definitions of sex at that, not the real-life experiences of real women with real women’s bodies. Women’s bodies are contained, made small, restricted, silenced. The female bodies in the PETA campaigns are women’s bodies how men wish them to be, how men view the female form. Women cannot be liberated by using their body in a sexualised manner, the ‘sexy’ connotations of a woman’s body is not for women, but for men.
PETA promote patriarchal control, not feminism, they partake in limiting women’s bodies, valuing them solely upon their sex appeal, and deliberately shying away from a more well-rounded, honest or woman-friendly take on the female form. And wasn’t it meant to be about nonhuman animal exploitation anyway?
Heawood, Sophie (2013) ‘I Dread The Day My Daughter’s Poos Get Smaller’, 8th August, <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/08/dread-daughter-poos-smaller-girl-conform> [accessed 17th August 2013]
Moaveni, Azadeh (2011) ‘Is the Veil Now A Symbol of Islamic Feminism?’, Time World, June 13th, <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2076653,00.html> [accessed 16th August 2013]
Mulvey, Laura (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
PETA ‘Be Proud of Your Body Scan: Go Vegan’, <http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/images/main/sections/mediacenter/outdoor/BodyScanAd72.jpg> [accessed 17th August 2013]
PETA, ‘Eat Your Veggies – Dressing Optional’, Patricia de Léon, <http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/igc/patricia-de-leon-ad-72.jpg> [accessed 16th August 2013]
PETA, ‘Fur Trim: Unattractive’, Joanna Krupa, <http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/images/main/sections/mediacenter/printads/petajoannafurtrim.jpg> [accessed 17th August 2013]
PETA, ‘PETA’s Youngest Pinup Encourages Teens To ‘Go All The Way’ for Animals’, <http://www.peta.org/b/thepetafiles/archive/2013/07/09/petas-youngest-pinup-encourages-teens-to-go-all-the-way-for-animals.aspx> [Accessed 17th August 2013]
PETA, ‘Vegans Go All The Way’, Samia, <http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/Images/Main/Sections/MediaCenter/PrintAds/samia72.jpg> [accessed 17th August 2013]
Stewart, Dodai (2008) < http://jezebel.com/5063912/> [accessed 16th August 2013]
Amy is a recent graduate of Lancaster University, where she completed her BA English Literature with Media and Cultural Studies. She is due to start her MA at Lancaster in October of this year, studying Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology. Her research interests surround nonhuman animals, activism, food anthropology, meat, femininities, masculinities and sexualities.