In late 2015, model Gisele Bündchen starred in an advertising campaign for Stuart Weitzman, a luxury American footwear brand. In one shot for the campaign, Bündchen reclines in a white shirt, its buttons undone to the middle of her chest and her legs bare; in another she squats, topless, in black slacks. Her body becomes the salient point of each of the black and white images, with Weitzman’s shoes reduced to monochromatic props for Bündchen’s prone body in its various states of undress.
The connection between high heels and sex is nothing novel: in a 2000 profile on Manolo Blahnik for The New Yorker, Michael Specter describes Blahnik’s shoes as “about sex…erotic and feminine and extravagant.” Film and television have only strengthened this connection, appropriating the high heel as a signifier of lust, power, or the femme fatale. This phenomenon extends to advertising in both its print and online forms. Weitzman’s campaign is but one of many advertisements supposedly showcasing footwear but instead emphasising the half-dressed, sexualized female form.
It’s long been known that high heels are ultimately harmful to feet, but are their hypersexualized ads equally capable of inflicting damage? Studies suggest that this is a very real possibility. In a 2016 paper for The Journal of Sex Research, Monique Ward compiled twenty years’ worth of empirical evidence of the effects of media sexualisation on various demographics. Drawing from research published between 1995 and 2015, Ward identified certain trends regarding the effect of sexualized media on self-perception, body dissatisfaction, sexual health and relationships, and the overall societal perception of women.
Overall, Ward found, the evidence suggested that young women exposed to sexually charged campaigns—such as the 2015 Weitzman one— were vulnerable to “objectification theory”, viewing themselves as sexual objects and privileging their physical appearance above other characteristics. Ward writes:
After viewing photos of sexualized models or athletes, young women asked to describe themselves used more terms focusing on their beauty and appearance…
Her findings also uncovered reasonable grounds for linking hyper-sexual media with increased body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in both men and women. By continually reinforcing the “ideal” of the thin female form and muscular male counterpart, Ward writes, the media contributes to “greater body shame and greater appearance anxiety.” This is only compounded by evidence suggesting that the effects of sexualized images extend to sexual practice, in that objectification of young women was found to correlate with young men “[accepting] courtship strategies that center on appearance”. The prominence of sexual objectification in media specifically targeting men was also linked to increased objectification of their romantic partners, which in turn tended to accompany lower levels of satisfaction in the relationship and sexual activity.
Perhaps most worryingly, Ward found that all of the above negative effects combined to alter the overall societal perception of women. “Evidence across several studies indicates,” Ward writes, “that how we cognitively perceive and process sexualized images of women aligns more with how we process objects than how we process people.” Beyond this, sexualized female bodies are perceived as interchangeable, and more readily associated with animal terms (Ward gives the example of terms such as “snout” and “paw”) than their non-sexualised counterparts.
Critics of groups calling out sexualisation in the media often fall back on the excuse that said groups are prudish, or “just offended”. Yet as Ward’s research shows, sexualisation in the media is well beyond merely being offensive and in poor taste. Instead, it’s marching well into damaging territory, and quite possibly wearing a pair of Stuart Weitzman shoes as it does so.
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