How Advertisements Targeting Women Undermine Body Image

photoshopped-advertisement-of-woman-modelWomen face overwhelming pressure to meet an often unrealizable “beauty” ideal. The result is that 80% of women report being unhappy with their appearance, and three-quarters of all women engage in some form of disordered eating such as crash dieting or skipping meals. Many companies have capitalized on this trend, offering a veritable cornucopia of products designed to “fix” women’s perceived flaws.

The advertisements for these products, however, frequently leave women feeling bad about themselves, particularly when images in these ads contain unrealistically “perfect” women. The overwhelming majority of cosmetic and clothing advertisements are digitally enhanced. Even Beyoncé fell victim to this practice, often called photoshopping, getting into a public dispute with H&M in early 2013 when the clothing retailer altered images of her modeling swimwear. But women are increasingly aware of the effects of digitally manipulated advertisements, and some retailers are abandoning the practice of presenting women with unrealistic images.

Photoshopping and Other Tricks

Although women continue to be bombarded with unrealistic—and perhaps even fake—images of models, the tide is slowly turning against photoshopping. Debenhams, a major British department store, recently announced that it will no longer manipulate images, even releasing photos demonstrating the “before” and “after” effects its previous photoshopping efforts had on models’ appearance. The National Advertising Division, an organization that makes recommendations for advertisers, has advocated for an outright ban on photoshopping in cosmetic advertisements.

Advertising tricks aren’t limited to photoshopping, though. The right lighting, heavy makeup, and clever clothing placement can leave models looking very different from how they look in real life. Some tricks mislead women about the effects of products featured in advertisements. Mascara manufacturers, for example, may resort to the use of false lashes or lash extensions to make the product look much more effective than it actually is. Women who buy the product are then left feeling like there’s something wrong with them because they can’t look like the model in the advertisement.

The Effects of Advertisements

Numerous studies have documented the negative effects that advertisements have on women, even when women know the ads have been altered. Women feel worse about themselves, for example, after reading advertisement-laden fashion magazines. Some women even resort to cutting out photos of extremely thin models as “thinspiration” for crash diets. According to research by sociologist Jean Kilbourne, regular exposure to advertisements can contribute to internalized sexism. Women may begin to see their appearance as the primary source of their worth, neglecting other interests in favor of the perpetual pursuit of aesthetic perfection.

Keeping Self-Esteem Intact

Even if photoshopping is banned, women will be exposed to images of models who have been heavily made up, who benefit from excellent lighting, and whose appearance differs substantially from the average woman. Although this practice can feel unfair and even overwhelming, women can take steps to empower themselves and avoid the self-esteem-crushing effects of unrealistic ideals. These include:

  • Avoiding magazines that are focused primarily on beauty or that contain a lot of advertisements
  • Turning off the television during commercial breaks
  • Contacting retailers and cosmetic manufacturers to complain when advertisements are misleading or psychologically damaging
  • Focusing on health and physical fitness rather than weight loss
  • Critically evaluating claims made in product commercials and ads
  • Focusing on valuing the self for personality traits rather than appearance
  • Steering conversations with friends away from diets, makeup, and body shaming


  1. Edwards, J. (2011, December 16). US moves toward banning photoshop in cosmetics ads. Business Insider. Retrieved from
  2. ExtremeTech. (2011, December 16). US Watchdog Bans Photoshopping in Cosmetic Ads. Retrieved from
  3. Grey, J. (2013, May 30). Beyonce outraged that H&M intended to photoshop her bootyliciousness. Business Insider. Retrieved from
  4. Helping your daughter see through advertising. (n.d.). Discover Your Daughter. Retrieved from
  5. Kilbourne, J. (2000). Can’t buy my love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  6. Ross, C. C., MD. (n.d.). Why do women hate their bodies? Psych Retrieved from
  7. Three out of four American women have disordered eating, survey suggests. (2008, April 23). ScienceDaily. Retrieved from
  8. Women’s magazines and the cult of hypocrisy. (2012, July 5). Women’s Media Center. Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Gloria

    July 10th, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    I really try hard to keep an open mind when looking at these images but it’s so hard when it seems that all of the most stylish women are so fit and thin and I realize that I can never be like that. I guess it’s a little disheartening because I want to wear those same clothes and shoes and yet I always know that even if I have the outfit that in no way means that I am ngoing to look like that wearing that outfit. The standards seem so unattainable, and I really try to tell myself that this isn’t reality but then you see them in person or on TV and they still look just as fabulous and you get dnown again because there might be some photoshopping done but that’s not all it is. Oh to be that thin. . . that’s what I wish for, and yet somehow I have this feeling that I don’t want to be hungry enough all the time to really want to look like that.

  • Marianne

    July 11th, 2013 at 4:11 AM

    I try to take all of these ads in with a grain of salt. I am realistic- I don’t look like those girls and in all probability never will. But I also know that chances are they never will either. Yeah they are naturally gorgeous, but the last time I checked, women big and small all have cellulite and little flaws. We just don’t have someone going to every photo we have taken toughing it up and erasing those flaws.

  • bryn

    July 12th, 2013 at 5:13 AM

    Why are all of the ads that supposedly target females and try to get us to buy something or buy into something always the ones that are also tearing us down little by little? Feels kind of counter intuitive to what the sellers are trying to achieve but it must somehow still work because they wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t.

  • mabel

    July 13th, 2013 at 11:50 PM

    this is bad,it really is.but expecting companies and magazines to come clear with this is going to be in vain.what we can do is steer clear of such things.hard to do but not impossible.if we can keep our children away from these in their growing up years,chances are that they will never buy into these false claims later on.formative years are very important and I hope every parent takes note of this.

  • Raven

    August 24th, 2013 at 3:43 AM

    The issue is much more deep rooted than ads we see on TV, billboards, magazines. It’s the whole media business that conditions the minds both female AND male on how the “ideal” body of a woman should be like.

    For instance, this article on the Internet — “Researchers found the slimmer a woman’s waist, the better a man’s sexual function and satisfaction”.

  • Jah-Rue

    November 26th, 2019 at 11:28 AM


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