Re-representation: Addressing objectifying media portrayals of women in South Africa



Media & Communications Design


  • visual communication, ethics, stereotypes

Objectification imparts harm to women and sets a detrimental precedent for self-objectification. This is particularly true for young women who are seeking information to assist them in the process of identity construction. Experimental studies indicate that objectification in media causes negative body esteem, an unnecessary drive for thinness, eating disorders and related psychological problems. Globalised media trends emphasise and value women for their physical appearance. These trends de- personalise women, depict them as objects to be gazed at, and style them as decorative, rather than a person with a mind, aptitude, intellect, personality and a ‘voice’. This often results in a situation where value judgements of women’s physical appearance are made by women for women, and by others based on narrow definitions of beauty, including body type and shape, youthfulness and ‘sexiness’.

Objectification has become so pervasive that it is the de facto design for a range of products such as cosmetics, perfume, and slimming products. The inherent medical danger of objectification and self- objectification, and the negative social outcomes, compel us to ask whether one should actively, (especially when knowing the harm it causes), participate in objectification design. Designers, by nature of their profession, use puffery, exaggeration, idealisation and prettification to present a product in the best manner possible to potential consumers. Whilst advertising regulation allows puffery as a legitimate marketing practice, objectified images have a hedonic appeal with potential long-term harmful effect on young viewers.

This paper is a theoretical study that looks at objectification and its practice through a feminist-ethical lens and questions the value of this design trend given its associated harm and poor communication effect, particularly in light of several calls for a more ethical and responsible visual communications practice. Extensive research is available on the negative portrayal of women in media – this contribution aims to extend the topic by highlighting alternate constructive approaches for media designers to consider. We recommend a contextually sensitive design approach that include responsible and critical practice for society; that do not exploit vulnerable consumers; that avoid exaggerated claims (puffery); that work toward content and meaning rather than ‘prettying up’; and that  break  dichotomies  through  diversification  of  masculine/feminine,  beautiful/ugly.  Designers should critically re-evaluate objectification design, and consider alternative ethical design strategies to market products to young women. The aim of this paper is to create an awareness amongst design community about the destructive potential of objectification design, to re-instil the importance of designing with social responsibility in mind.

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