Advertising’s toxic effect on eating and body image

2 min read

People often claim to ignore advertisements, but the messages are getting through on a subconscious level, pioneering author and ad critic Jean Kilbourne told an audience at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health on March 3, 2015. Kilbourne, best known for her groundbreaking documentary on images of women in the media, Killing Us Softly, went on to deconstruct the subconscious messages in food and body image-related advertisements and to describe how they create a “toxic cultural environment” that harms our relationship with what we eat.

The event was sponsored by the STRIPED program (Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders), which is based at Harvard Chan and Boston Children’s Hospital, and co-sponsored by the School’s Health Communication Concentration and Department of Nutrition. Kilbourne praised the work of STRIPED in her talk, calling it “a terrific program that is making a difference.”

The average American encounters 3,000 advertisements every day, and spends a total of two years watching TV commercials in their lifetime, Kilbourne said. At the center of many of these ads is an image of idealized female beauty. Models are tall, slim, and light skinned, and digitally altered to ever-more unrealistic proportions.

“Women and girls compare themselves to these images every day,” Kilbourne said.