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By Alyssa Gockley
Several weeks ago, Bucknell University published its weekly campus newspaper. While just about every edition of The Bucknellian has some article or opinion piece that makes you raise an eyebrow or shake your head, this particular week’s paper contained something that sparked outrage across campus.
There was an advertisement for a new and improved liposuction technique, sponsored by our campus health partner, Geisinger Medical Center. It was titled “Get ready for bathing suit season with VASER Liposuction!” and claims to “help shed those troublesome spots that diet and exercise don’t seem to touch” with “the newest, minimally invasive option in body contouring.” Its timing was intended to target those with body insecurities so they would have a chance to have this procedure before they went on Spring Break vacation, in order to ensure that they would have the perfect body they would feel confident showing off–implying that they would not be able to be confident in their body on their own, or that they should not be confident if they do not get this procedure.
As a result of this advertisement, a professor wrote a letter to the faculty voicing his outrage at this ad, with the assertion that Bucknell students already have an unhealthy idea about fitness and nutrition. This lead to the president of the university contacting Geisinger to express concern, as well as the promise to put a system into place that would double check advertisements before they go to print to ensure that potentially harmful ads do not get published in the paper.
In the following edition, the Editorial Board wrote a response to what they felt was “unfair censorship,” as action had been taken without contacting The Bucknellian itself. They claimed that the advertisement was perfectly acceptable because a) the information was coming from a known trustworthy source and b) college students above the age of 18 are legal adults and can be trusted to make healthy decisions for themselves, thus likening choosing to get liposuction to choosing to go tanning or to the bar. They also claimed that the advertisement was not sexist or prejudiced in any way, and that its placement near an ad for the bar and cheesesteaks proves that the ad is not “favoring the skinny.”
The Geisinger ad itself is not prejudiced. It is not racist, it is not sexist, it is not favoring the skinny. Quite the opposite, actually. If the faculty had looked a little closer at the page, they would see that the liposuction ad is placed next to two ads for bars and cheesesteaks. The Bucknellian does not have a bias here. We don’t mind if people want to go to a bar and consume their weight in sirloin steaks and beer.
While the advertisement itself caused anger, it was the Editorial Board’s justification of the advertisement that was the most harmful. In order to voice my concerns about the attitudes espoused in the piece and to offer critical thinking about why these types of advertisements are actually quite harmful, I wrote a letter to the editor. It was printed in the February 20th edition of The Bucknellian, and has been adapted for this essay, with minor notes and edits. The intention of this letter was to raise awareness for our already alarming perceptions of thinness on campus, and what behaviors are considered healthy or normal by many of the students.
Not only was our supposed “health partner” sponsoring the advertisement outrageous, the interpretation of the backlash as offered by the Opinions editorial entitled “The material included in The Bucknellian should not have to be censored” (February 13, 2013) was as well. It was also quite surprising that no one else had written a letter to the editor about this, given the reaction it caused on campus.
To give The Bucknellian the benefit of the doubt, we can assume that they did not knowingly intend to offend anyone or promote our culture’s obsession with thinness by accepting an advertisement offering women an invasive surgical procedure to get the best possible Spring Break body–that is, to say, a thin one. However, regardless of intent, allowing the advertisement to go to print did exactly that.
I say women because, while men are also explicitly and implicitly told that they should look a certain way, women are targeted by advertisements, magazines, and other media significantly more often than men. When men do not fit this ideal, the level of criticism received is nowhere near the level of ridicule faced by women. No woman is immune from critique, and women of color receive even more of this criticism because judgment of their bodies is still strongly rooted in racist stereotypes.
It is not necessarily our fault that we patrol women’s bodies. We have been socialized into the belief that the bigger you are the less you are worth as a scholar, teacher, parent, or person. This belief is one of the pillars of sexism in our patriarchal society. Women are disgusted by their own fat and others’ because we have internalized that message due to years of inundation. The only solution to falling out of favor with society is to obsessively exercise, surgically alter our bodies, and starve ourselves, and even when we have reached the “ultimate beach body” we are still not good enough to escape criticism. The conversation shifts from what we must to do to have that beach body to what we absolutely cannot do under any circumstances so we do not lose that beach body. The diet and cosmetic surgery industries rely upon those sexist, societally-enforced fears of being fat and ugly to thrive.
Pro tip: the best beach body is the body you have. I do not remember who said that, and I could not find the source because the first ten pages of internet search results are all for fitness regimens or crash diets or surgery. Another version of how to get a “beach body”: Step one, go to the beach. Repeat.
Critical thinking is an aspect of education which is necessary for all people, students or not. Unpacking unspoken ideals and messages from society is crucial in the process of addressing problematic content, and the use of a more critical lens challenges the assertion that the location of the advertisement proves its intent was harmless.
The placement of the liposuction advertisement next to those for the bar and cheesesteak is a result of layout and formatting guides. It exists in the same location because that is where the advertisements go on that page, and those three happened to fit there together. It is not “proof” that there is no sexism behind the liposuction advertisement; it is nothing more than a convenient excuse.
Media does not exist in a vacuum. Everything we see and hear informs our beliefs and ideals about the world in which we live. If there were no outside influences on our thinking, it might be logical to assume that a person–generally a woman–who is seeking liposuction is doing so because she would like to change something about her body. Since this is not true, a more critical lens must be employed. Body image is influenced by media telling women that they are ugly or unattractive without the use of thousands of beauty products. These messages can cause a woman who was not insecure about her body to grow to hate it, and consider liposuction. For relevant comedic relief, I would suggest watching a satire commercial from BBC’s 2006 show That Mitchell and Webb Look highlighting the sexism in advertising. The commentary is this: “Women: You’re leaking, aging, hairy, overweight, and everything hurts. And your children’s clothes are filthy. For God’s sake, sort yourself out.” “Men: Shave and get drunk, because you’re already brilliant.”
In all seriousness, I would wager that if there was not outside influence on the way we view our bodies, procedures designed at squishing women into an “ideal” body type–like liposuction–would not exist in the first place.
Jiddu Krishnamurti is quoted as saying “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
Justifying the ability or right to run an advertisement promoting invasive surgery as a technique to fit into our society’s narrow definitions of “healthy” or “attractive” by the favorite “you’ll see it in the real world” assertion misses the point that “the real world” (of which we are already a part) is wildly problematic and we should strive to resist it rather than perpetuate it. It is not censorship to ask an establishment to vet its advertisements, regardless of the origins of that request. Newspapers do not publish articles or advertisements with racist or homophobic content without expecting backlash; the apparent shock that an advertisement for liposuction would also receive backlash on account that it does, in fact, perpetuate sexist ideals of “acceptable” women’s bodies is surprising. While many papers are funded by money brought in from these advertisements, setting a moral standard to which to hold advertisers would bring more respect to every publication. Being asked to not promote or perpetuate sexist ideals isn’t being censored, it’s simply asking for accountability.
A wise man once said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” I ask that we all be proactive in that change and help counteract problematic media in the hopes that the nation as a whole can shift away from its current obsession with thinness and move toward a less destructive attitude of health at every size.
Alyssa Gockley is a soon-to-be graduate of Bucknell University in Central PA. She will be receiving dual degrees in Psychology and Women’s & Gender Studies, and has been active in social justice causes on her campus. She intends to pursue a degree in social work with a focus on women, LGBT+ folks, and survivors of sexual assault. She is an intersectional feminist, strong advocate for equality, and dedicated owner of fabulous shoes.