Sexist advertising is part of a culture that teaches girls they exist to serve men and not themselves, writes Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson is a freelance writer and a recent graduate in English Literature currently trying to work out what she wants to do with her life. She’s interested in writing about feminism, education and social mobility, and in her spare time you’ll find her vowing to spend less time on social media while fervently scrolling twitter for the third time that day

When I was about thirteen years old I marched into the Tammy section of BHS, pocket money in hand, and bought my first bra. Not because I needed one – far from it – but because I was so exasperated with my flat chest that I actually thought it better to wear an empty bra and pretend I had tits than wait for puberty to eventually hit.

When I write it down here, it sounds a little absurd. One might think that a child only one year into her teens worrying because she didn’t have the breasts of a fully grown woman was suffering from some kind of delusion. But for anyone else who grew up female, it’s not difficult to call to mind how frighteningly early the sexualisation of your body sets in, fed by images in magazines, films and adverts that punctuate your everyday life. It’s no surprise then that I breathed a sigh of relief for girls everywhere when I heard the recent news that the Advertising Standards Agency will be cracking down on sexist advertisements.

I say ‘girls’ specifically here. While women in the world are fighting for education, equal pay and protection against male violence, the absence of perfume ads using half-naked women to make sales might seem a small victory. But it’s crucial to remember that advertisements are likely among the first place that young children – boys and girls – pick up gendered messages. Whether it’s blue toys for boys and pink for girls or lingerie ads featuring impossibly airbrushed women, it’s through these images that we first learn what being a boy or a girl means; and it makes for grim watching.

One study conducted earlier this year found that women in the adverts surveyed were statistically more likely to be shown in the kitchen than men, more likely to be wearing revealing clothing and less likely to be portrayed as funny than their male counterparts. While the age of men featured in the ads ranged between twenties, thirties and forties, women were mostly in their twenties. Men were also 62% more likely than women to be portrayed as intelligent.

It’s this last one that really gets me when I recall my teenage years, in which I and countless other young women learned with an astonishing rapidity that the very worst thing one could be was not unintelligent but unattractive; undesirable to the men around you. As the late John Berger once so aptly put it: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”.

When I was fifteen years old, I ditched my glasses for contact lenses and learned how to perfect the messy comb-over fringe that was for some reason so popular at the time. In tandem, I discovered that putting on a ditzy persona allowed me to (finally – though not very effectively) flirt with boys in my school. Though I was still doing well in lessons, I suddenly stopped reading books and frequently performed a ‘watered-down’ version of myself. I remember distinctly, it being one of the few occasions he’s ever snapped at me, my father scolding me for feigning unintelligence – knowing perfectly well that I was bright and academically able. I was lucky – I snapped out of it.

Of course, to claim that this performative act was solely the product of sexist advertising would be hyperbole. But it was certainly part of a culture that teaches girls that they exist to serve men and not themselves; as sexual objects, wives and domestic partners. When this culture is reinforced in early years – as advertisements make possible – it sticks. From the very first day that Sweden permitted any commercial advertising in their country back in 1991, they banned advertisements directed at children for this very reason, citing research showing that kids are unable to fully distinguish between programming and advertisements until around the age of 10.

I can testify myself that it takes time and a great deal of effort to unlearn the stereotypes and body ideals that girls grow up clinging to and boys end up enforcing. It might only be a small step, but by monitoring sexism in advertising, young girls and boys in the coming generation might be spared ever having to learn them.

Image courtesy Classic Film on Flickr

Image depicts an advert from 1962 featuring a woman cleaning an oven