Bodies in Bikinis: Are You Buying It?


I rarely watch TV, preferring instead to use my free time in the evenings to read. Recently, however, my twelve-year-old daughter asked me to join her for a much-hyped episode of one of her favorite shows, American Idol. I broke with routine and joined her and a bowl of sweet-salty popcorn on our lumpy leather couch. During commercials, the network repeated a Victoria’s Secret advertisement that had aired just minutes earlier, showcasing the underwear company’s latest—and it seems endless—line of colorful pushup bras. As we watched the stick, scantily clad models parade onscreen for public consumption, my daughter turned to me, her face tight with disgust, and asked, “Why would women do that?”

I did my best to explain how the majority of women are conditioned now to want to be skinny, booby, and sexual, so as to cater to male desire—women as the subject of the male gaze and the object of male gratification. “Like we’re things, for men?” my daughter said, her face twisted into deeper lines and furrows. “Well …” I said. Ever since, I can’t get her horror out of my head. I feel shaken out of my own numbness to the persistent sexism in advertising, and beyond. As the mother of two young daughters, the portrayal of women in popular culture has since weighed heavily and taken on greater urgency. I worry at the terrible messages our culture tells my two daughters, and girls and women everywhere.

The other night, during dinner, my daughter returned to our discussion of women in advertising. She had since noticed that women rarely spoke in TV ads and when they sometimes did it was usually to say something silly. “As if we have nothing worth saying,” she said. “Women in ads seem like they have no insides,” she continued. My daughter also noted that while the women in the Victoria Secret’s ads were at least modeling the merchandise for sale, there are countless other ads where women in bikinis are used to sell everything from yogurt to burgers to cars. Manufacturers don’t even pretend at any correlation between their product and the sexualized female(s) populating commercials. In cultivating consumerism, advertisers overwhelmingly appeal to male desire and businesses pour billions of currency every year into sexist advertising to titillate viewers and make us spend. A glance at these especially grievous 1960s ads below speaks to the history of guyism in advertising.

Most would argue we’ve come a long way toward gender equality in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced we’ve come all that far. Look how right now in our country women have to fight anew for access to contraception, the right to choose, and control over our own bodies and health.

The following image and a related article were published in Maxim magazine in just 2003.

Even a cursory exploration of contemporary culture testifies to the ongoing and widespread debasement of women and the glorification of male dominance. Where once the misogyny in popular culture reinforced male dominance through representations of men commandeering the pubic sphere and women relegated to the home, contemporary representations have merely recapitulated male dominance and now, perhaps more than ever, men are portrayed as predator and aggressor and women as sexualized, objectified victim. Once upon a time, myth and story held up a mirror to the culture and told it about itself. More and more now, the media is the mirror and our reflections there, the stories of ourselves, are terrible and treacherous.

Along with millions of other companies, the fast food chain, Carl’s Jr., knows full well the value of women as sexual objects to sell their product. The wild popularity of the fast food chain’s now-famous swimsuit ads speaks volumes.

Carl’s Jr. isn’t worried viewers will object to the eroticism and guyism of their advertisements, but trust male viewers will go right on conflating their desire for the woman with their desire for the burger. Similarly, women will conflate our desire to look like the bikini-clad model with our desire for the food. Yes, it seems, we consumers really are that stupid. These ads glorify contemporary culture’s notions of youth, beauty, and desirability, and they not only fuel our desires, but also further fuel our insecurities. The majority of us don’t see true representations of ourselves in ads and the popular culture and we flip-flop between feasting on the burger to indulge and console ourselves, a ‘what the hell I’m never going to have a bikini body, might as well enjoy myself’ mentality, or we temporarily shun the burger and rush out to buy aids and enhancements that will supposedly get us closer to the ‘perfect’ body. When such efforts fail, we return to the burger and all its imagined comfort and promise. Often, too, we eat the burger to punish ourselves for failing. Meanwhile, Carl’s Jr. and capitalists everywhere are cackling like Macbeth’s witches.

During the same dinner conversation with my daughter, she also talked about how in ads showing both men and women, the man is always in charge. “Like the [Kia] car ad,” she said, “the one with the one man and the, like, thousands of women in bikinis.” Kia is just one of countless companies that use portrayals of male dominance and women’s ‘perfect’ bodies in bikinis to sell their product. In fact, we might infer Kia doesn’t quite believe in the desirability of the Optima 2012, they feel they need so many bodies in bikinis to sell the car.

Similarly, companies like Belvedere Vodka feed on the vanities, insecurities and power plays of contemporary culture. It seems the vodka empire felt so convinced of our complacency toward gender inequalities and offensive misogyny in advertising, they recently launched this ad on Twitter and Facebook, confident that it would boost sales.

The overt ad backfired, however, and sparked immediate controversy. Belvedere Vodka quickly removed the ad, issued apologies, and donated to the anti-sexual violence organization Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). It’s hard to articulate a measured response to Belvedere Vodka’s contemptuous advertisement and their subsequent petty posturing, and harder still to accept that not everyone is going to be disturbed.

To gloss over the Belvedere Vodka ad in particular, and misogyny in advertising in general, as no big deal is a gross mistake. To dismiss as ‘harmless’ less overt, but no less harmful, misogynistic ads is also misguided and deeply damaging. Manufacturers and marketers bet billions every year on the power of media and the sway their messages have over us. The Belvedere Vodka ad sends a chilling message of tired stereotypes and flagrant prescriptions: predatory male and powerless female victim. Where did Belvedere Vodka imagine the promise of pleasure integral to marketing exists in this ad? Men: you’re going to get the girl, however how. Women: the guy is going to get you, however how. With mixed emotions, I showed the Belvedere Vodka ad to my twelve-year-old daughter and asked her to imagine she was the man in the image and to tell me her thoughts. She said, “He seems excited and dangerous, and a little crazy. He’s stronger than the girl and he’s going to make her do whatever he wants her to do.” I then asked her to imagine she was the girl in the image and to tell me her thoughts. Interestingly, frightening, my daughter spoke in the first person. “I’m scared and I want to get away from this man, but I can’t, he’s stronger,” she said. “I know he’s going to hurt me. He’s going to make me do something bad.” Even now, as I type, my teeth are locked and my body stiff with anger. I’m furious popular culture sends girls and women everywhere these damning messages about how men supposedly look and act and how women supposedly look and act. It seems the majority of businesses are soulless peddlers pushing us to spend, at whatever costs.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t seem to think too much about the ads we’re fed over and over everyday and coming at us from radio, phones, magazines, billboards, TV, and the Internet—an oversaturation of sexist ads that disregard women’s minds and spirits, and glorify only the ‘perfect’ female body. Damning ads that send a disturbing message to girls and women that our value lies in our ‘beautiful’ bodies and our desirability to men. Overall, we are a society complacent about these ads that objectify the female body and glorify male desire and dominance. We shrug at these (mis)constructions and (mis)representations of femininity and masculinity, saying, sex sells. Our language and attitudes here are negligible. The media’s debasement of women and glorification of male desire fuel our consumerism and corrupt our society. To pull from my tween daughter’s popular vocabulary, “That just sucks.” Our views of ourselves, of men, women, and our bodies, are so horribly limiting. We need more real representations of both men and women in our media. We need a more encompassing, realistic, and forgiving reimagining of masculinity, femininity, and human beauty and value. The healthy human body is beautiful. My dilemma now is how to empower my daughters and myself to enjoy and celebrate our bodies and our sexuality without giving in to contemporary culture’s limiting and damning definitions of what it is to be a woman of worth.

Ethel Rohan is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and short story writer. In the Event of Contact, winner of the Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, is available for preorder (May 18, 2021). More from this author →