The Bared Female Midriff in Advertising

by Leanne Westrick, Intern at MissRepresentation.org

If womanhood looked the way advertising portrayed it, it would go a little something like this:

  • Being 20 through 35
  • Being anywhere from a size 00 to a size 6 (keep in mind the definition of a plus-size model starts at size 6)
  • Being defaultly white and if not white, than qualifying as an exotic sort of pretty
  • Being attached to, or looking for, a man (sorry lesbians)

In this definition of womanhood, a good deal of the female population does not meet the requirements.

It is almost impossible to escape the fact that we, as women, are consumers in a culture dominated by our media. Advertisers are locked in a struggle to appeal to women as an economically independent powerhouse. However, the ways in which go about it leaves many wondering how well equipped advertisers are at appealing to a diversity of women, when they are holding an impossible number of requirements as the standard. In particular, there has been a lot of debate as to what significance the bared female midriff holds. Academic journal Feminism & Psychology has featured two articles, one from 2008 and another from 2011 specifically discussing just what the image of the midriff is supposed to mean to women.

Apparently, advertisers have intended for the bare midriff to be synonymous with empowerment. A woman with a bare midriff knows her sexual appeal and owns it. She is portrayed as a dominant master (mistress?) of her fate. Perhaps most importantly in this interpretation, this woman reads as desiring as much as she is desirable. She is not intended to just be an object of the male gaze. She is active in her own desire. This vein of logic is similar to viewing Lara Croft of Tomb Raider as a feminist icon. Ideally, if she desires something or someone, it is hers for the taking.

This is the image that women are being sold. Why? Because a woman accessing power through her own sexual agency is somehow less threatening than if she pursued power through other means. The part of the “midriff model” that tips its hand as exploitation rather than empowerment is the complete lack of other options in our media. While there is a lot to be said for the power that comes with understanding and owning sexuality, it cannot be our only understanding of female power. And yes, male bodies are often hyper-masculinized and therefore idealized, but a man can still rise to a position of respect without regard to his body.

Our media is far more receptive to a man’s access to power through his intelligence or his financial success. Three of the four provided requirements that legitimize womanhood regard the female body. Can the same be said for men? The media’s definition of a man, while nowhere near the spectrum that exists in real life, is still far broader than the media’s definition of a woman.

Women are aware of the disconnect. They aren’t just passively consuming the images that are being provided. In a 2011 study, women were asked to look at a “midriff model” ad and respond. While they agreed that she seemed powerful, her power had less to do with her and more to do with how she appealed to a male-dominated power structure. The model wasn’t dressed for herself as much as she was dressed for validation. In the end it’s men – who have been conditioned by an impossible image of beauty – holding the power of validation.

So the sexually dominant, independent, midriff-bearing model isn’t necessarily the beacon that women can follow into equality. In fact, rather than feeling as though they were empowered by such images, women reported feeling distanced from the woman used in the ad.

As much as advertisers claim that they are only using what works – what women “want” to see – what they are really using is what men have been told to want. Advertisers aren’t selling what women want to be, they’re selling what they think women should want to be. Arguably the goal of advertising is to sell, and the current model is indeed pretty successful, but it leaves women – especially young girls – striving and failing to reach an impossible goal. And the price of this continues to take its toll on our culture.

Sources:
Gill, Rosalind. “Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising.” Feminism & Psychology 18 (2008):35-50.

Malson, Helen and Halliwell, Tichner, Rúdólfsdottir. “Post-feminist Advertising Laid Bare: Young Women’s Talk About the Sexually Agentic Women Woman of ‘Midriff.’ Advertising.” Feminism & Psychology 21 (2011): 74-99.

Leanne is an intern with MissRepresentation.org and a student at the University of San Francisco.

19 Comments

  1. Sajit Greene says:

    Something you don’t mention about these midriff-baring images is that the midriff that’s being shown is always the “thin, flat belly” that the media and the diet
    industry have always promoted as the ideal of female beauty. But most real women have rounded bellies. The flat belly is the look of a girl, a boy, or a man….not a mature woman. So, I don’t find these images empowering. To me, they bear the same old oppressive message that to be beautiful, sexy, and desirable,and hence have “power” in this culture, you have to be thin and young and have a flat belly. I’m tired of all those ads that speak of the “#1 rule for a flat stomach”…bring back Venus of Willendorf!

    • Wendy says:

      “The flat belly is the look of a girl, a boy, or a man….not a mature woman.”

      Sorry, but I find your comments offensive. I’m a mature woman who happens to have a flat belly, and there is nothing wrong with it. (And I for sure don’t look like a girl, boy, or man, and plenty of girls, boys and men don’t have flat bellies.)

      I think all kinds of non-flat bellies on women (and men, like my husband) are great but you’re being really judgemental. We women should unite, as sexism is offensive and detrimental to us all. Comments like yours only succeed in dividing us.

    • KarenK says:

      I am a REAL 36 (almost 37) MATURE woman with a flat belly. It offends me that you put me in the class of NOT REAL (as if any woman should be considered fake) or I should be thrown in the class of young girl, boy or man because I look the way I do. Making comments like that are JUST AS disgusting as what the media does!

    • Angela Aujla says:

      This “real women” discourse is becoming so tiresome. Women of all body types are “real”, size 00 or size 22. Popular culture’s privileging of such a thin, narrow beauty ideal can have severe negative effects on women and girls to be sure, but our counterarguments should not devolve into cutting each other down, denigrating women who happen to be of a smaller size or flatter stomach as not mature or real women. This doesn’t do anyone any good

  2. Stella says:

    I’m 54 years old. There was never a time in my life when I looked remotely close to the models pictured in this blog. Like most young women i did try to do things to make myself attractive, but i think that is natural. As a little girl I had a Barbie doll, though I never thought that doll was who I should aspire to be. And I agree that the media does present a skewed image of women. But when advertising a product like clothing or cosmetics, advertisers want to use people who look good to sell the product. These models are showing clothing geared to a young set. Realistically, would this demographic be lured to buy these clothes if modeled by a middle aged woman, no matter how attractive? The same unattainable, airbrushed male bodies are used to sell high fashion. I do agree we need to see more diversity and ethnicities in advertising & advertisers are finally starting to understand that. I haven’t seen the film yet, and I do applaud your efforts to eliminate sexism. I just don’t fault advertisers as much for wanting to make their products look good to the consumer, even if it’s all smoke and mirrors, I.e. PhotoShop. I think we need to make our kids understand that a lot of what they see is fake

    • Victoria says:

      The same ‘idealized’ male bodies are being dehumanized. I don’t care if it helps sell clothes. That is not the point.

      Women are people, not things. Portraying them as decorations sends the message that they are objects. Dehumanization is a serious issue, and if advertisers lose the ‘freedom’ to treat women as props to sell things, so be it.

    • Samantha says:

      Stella – as a 54 year old, I do not think you are aware of the power of the media on today’s woman. You playing with a Barbie doll as a child and women making themselves attractive are old news. What is different now is the WAY it is all portrayed. The point is not whether advertisers have good business sense – the point is that children and women are NOT seeing these images as fake, and perhaps more importantly men are being targeted, which in turn targets women (by as you say women wanting to be attractive). I believe that as a person who has not grown up in this digital and advertising and women being demeaned age – perhaps you cannot understand that it is not as simple as telling your children to ignore the images. When it is in your life as normal everyday, when it has been like this you entire life – you lose the ability to differentiate because it becomes normal. Your normal is not this – hence why you see it as just a ploy. To those who know no different, they may not question this. Children need to be shielded in order that they retain the ability to think critically about such issues – but how can any child be shielded unless in complete isolation? You were shielded – because it didn’t exist for you. But the same cannot be said for many women today.

    • Monica Garza says:

      That’s the problem though, you even said it yourself: “…advertisers want to use people who look good to sell the product.” But who came up with the definition of “looking good”? There is no definition of what “looks good” simply because it’s an ever-evolving, abstract idea formulated (or, at least, it should be formulated) by individuals. It’s relative to the person doing the looking. Yet advertisers and cosmetic and clothing companies time and time again use the formula mentioned in the article to “attract” people to their products. Don’t you think that if you’ve seen something over and over and been told the same thing (“this is beautiful”, “this is beauty”, “only this is beautiful”, “this is what matters”, etc.) that you would begin to believe it? And, in believing it, wouldn’t it be detrimental if you started trying to change yourself, your image, your body to fit what they’re telling you is the only way to “look good”? Not everyone has the ability to look that way simply because that’s just how they were made. So I do fault the advertisers and I do fault the cosmetic companies. Not because what they’re showing us ISN’T beautiful, but because what they’re not showing us IS. They seem to have forgotten the other 99.99% of women in the world who don’t look like that and yet still are seen as beautiful.

  3. When dogs show their bellies, they are offering submission. That is their most vulnerable position. What is it women say to men when they want to see more of their sensitivity/vulnerability? “Show me your soft underbelly”. When a women is able to cover her body with disregard to how she will be interpreted, this is true confidence.

  4. Sticks and Stones says:

    Ms. 54, the issue is not rstricted to age group.

    Go buy a magazine for your demographic. You will find the same skinny female values. Try MORE or look at this month’s Oprah and its advertising. If O magazine followed its true views most of its advertising would be rejected. But even Oprah won’t go on cover with photoshop.

    It is about time we used our economic power and stopped buying products promoted in this way.

    But we won’t. Women are too scared to stand up and say this offends us. Because someone (often another woman) will say we just are jealous.

  5. Louse says:

    I have understood that the idealized pictures of women are successful as advertisement because men (unconsciously) feel anxious around these pictures and feel they have to impress the woman, so they buy stuff. While women feel insecure (unconsciously, although consciously in the long run), so they buy stuff. I have read this as part of some research, but I forgot where. Anyway, advertisers are exactly after reaching a state in women (and men) that we are fighting. So, fight on!

    On the subject of midrif: Madonna started this thing, I think. I rember growing up with images of her surrounding me (I was a fan as a child)and I know that it was considerd revolutionary and daring that she showed her belly. It was one of her trademarks.

  6. Louse says:

    (I think I mean subconsciously, when I say unconsciously…I’m not sure…English is not my first language, sorry)

  7. Sandy says:

    The exposed midriff in advertising has plagued my self conscious as far back as I can remember. I have always hated my stomach because it didn’t look like it was ‘suppose to’ or to what I thought the norm was (now with a 7″ scar down the middle from a biking mishap, I have no choice but to love it as is). This visual in advertising is damaging and perpetuates body image issues. I don’t think this says ‘empowering’ at all. Combine the midriff shot with the sultry poses and pouty facial expressions and it says ‘weak and helpless’ over ‘confident and powerful’.

  8. You know what? I think that this whole midriff/dehumanized body stuff is really very sad. I think it’s sad that our society tells us (women) to get power through our bodies. I truly believe that power comes from inner strength; not a showing midriff!

  9. [...] The Bared Female Midriff in Advertising. Leanne Westrick. How does advertising portray women? As small, white or exotic, young, empowered, and hetero. Is that reality??? Of course not. [...]

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