About-Face BlogAdvertisingBody ImageGender InequalityOn The Pulse

1940s ads: Fat-shaming is rooted in skinny-shaming

By January 3, 2012 One Comment

I sometimes wonder if the cultural obsession over weight, physical appearance, and body-shaming is something new — something that may have emerged in the past couple of decades as a trend that will crest, and then, hopefully, diminish. Unfortunately, this hope was dashed when I came across a string of old advertisements that were published during the 1940s. Take a look:

Good grief. I know it’s been trumpeted that the image of the ideal woman has shifted in the past 70 to 80 years from appreciating a more balanced, healthily curvy body type to the more emaciated look of the current culturally “ideal” body types, but I have to say – these ads made me feel just as crappy as the ones I see in today’s magazines. They do a pretty good job of telling women that no matter how they look, they don’t look good enough.

Let’s see here: If you want to be popular, you can’t risk being skinny; skinny girls can’t be glamorous; you will have zero sex appeal if you’re a “beanpole”; men won’t look at you if you’re skinny; and those who are “naturally skinny” (why is that in quotes? Did they not think being naturally skinny was a real thing? And is the use of the word “flesh” creeping out anyone else?) need to pack on some pounds pronto…hmm.

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

Interestingly, the advertisements that we’ve written about in the Gallery of Offenders seem to take a more subliminal approach to the messages that these ads are projecting. The ads from the 1940s use taglines that literally say “You’re the queen of the beach!” for making these changes to your body – in contrast to, say, the image of the woman dreaming about her bikini in a Baked Lays ad, which doesn’t specifically spell that out, despite us media literates knowing that’s what they mean.

I guess some people might consider that progress.

But seriously, just because these ads are more overt in their message – to be considered appealing, interesting and attractive, you have to change something about yourself since your natural state is repellant – doesn’t mean that they are all that different from today’s deplorable messages.

The primary difference, to me, is that the ads of the past seem to focus more on the women finding a mate (and the terror that accompanies the prospect of not finding a mate), while the ads of today focus more on women being intensely sexually appealing to every person who gazes upon them. It’s almost like this series of ads gave birth to today’s offensive images and ads.

While the trend of body-shaming for men and an increase in their insecurity about their appearance has recently increased (and has been well-covered by fellow About-Face bloggers), it is still a heavily gendered issue – there simply aren’t as many advertisements suggesting men would be more attractive if they made specific changes to their appearance and body weight as there are geared towards women.

And while men were certainly targeted in this mind-blowing series of ads (“a skinny man hasn’t a chance”? Seriously?), it seems this gender disparity existed even during the 1940s.

In the end, all we’ve done is switch one insult out for another – that isn’t the kind of progress in advertising I’m looking for.

— Larkin