This image is a page from the UK edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, intended to be the front page of the “Live big and Go for It” section. It consists of a woman’s lower body, with the caption “Sexy, Confident and Smart: That’s You.” The bottom left corner text advertises the model’s garments and Christian Louboutin shoes.
In this page, women are called to identify with a faceless, sexualized body serving the function of a shop mannequin – as an empowering experience.
It is often said in advertising that “sex sells;” the ad is, however, targeting presumably heterosexual women. Examining this ad in the context of objectification of women in advertising- or even self-objectification – only tells half the story.
Before being an example of raunch culture, this image is an example of consumer culture.
Consumerism and Identity
Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services as a form of self-expression, individuation or acquiring self-worth. In his ‘For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign,’ French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that the goods that we choose to consume are social signs.
Apart from the functional value (for instance: shoes protect your feet), these products have economic value (a pair of Loubutins may be worth 50 times the price of a “no logo” pair of similar-looking shoes or two weeks of a Cosmopolitan reader’s wages); symbolic value assigned by a subject to the object (this particular pair of shoes may symbolise the accent that livens up an outfit or pampering after a challenging month) and, finally, sign value – the object’s value within a system of objects (these shoes are Loubutins- and therefore signify the brand’s prestige, values and mythology).
The idea is in harmony with Pierre Bourdieu’s thesis that consumption functions as a way of positioning oneself socially, “guiding the occupants of a given place in a social space towards the social position adjusted to their properties and the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position:” ownership of Louboutin shoes positions one in terms of class (wealthy), cultural identity (sophisticated, fashionista) and pop culture/celebrity culture associations (the iconic ‘sammy red-bottoms’ being conspicuously worn by Sarah Jessica Parker or featured in the lyrics of a Jennifer Lopez song).
Apparent resistance to the capitalist fetishisation of commodities as identity markers may well, in fact, replicate the same process: a Che Guevara T-shirt is a commodity bought and sold on the market, used by its buyer to define their identity in terms of class and subculture consciousness in the exact same way as a pair of Louboutin shoes.
The Body as the Finest Consumer Object
In his book, “The Consumer Society. Myths and Structures.” Baudrillard argues that contemporary culture treats the body as “the finest consumer object,” represented “as capital and as fetish.” The body as capital is, in Bourdieu’s terms, “a possessor of power, status and distinctive symbolic forms;” but at the same time subjected to power, in relation to societal standards of beauty and prestige, within a consumerist system of signification pre-existing the individual’s agency and choice.
At the same time, as the Cosmopolitan page illustrates, the body itself is fetishised as a commodity, which, in turn, substitutes itself for identity and individuation. Readers of the magazine are called to identify with the woman who finds herself and achieves success through consuming the right products- rather than through agency or action.
Baudrillard associates the enforced use of the body as capital with the concept of “functional beauty,” defined as “a sign, at the level of the body, that one is a member of the elect, just as success is such a sign in business.” The ‘use-values’ of the body are reduced to an exchange function “which itself alone, in its abstraction, encapsulates the idea of the glorious, fulfilled body, the idea of desire and pleasure.”
Wear the right brands in order to be “smart, sexy and confident”- or, more pervasively, to be yourself. It doesn’t matter whether the woman in the image is really happy or successful – hence the absence of her face. Simply by virtue of wearing her Louboutins, she embodies, as an abstraction, the idea of being smart, sexy and confident- thus being proclaimed as a model in relation to which Cosmo readers are supposed to define and construct their own selves.
After all, Baudrillard argues, consumption is magical thinking: happiness ought to appear when all external, socially recognisable markers of happiness are exhibited.
Sexuality and the Consumer Body
The ad presents this faceless woman in a conventionally sexualized pose: We can only see her lower body, in a bodysuit and high heels, her posture reminiscent of a pin-up. She appears to be offering herself to a male gaze- yet she is addressing women; inviting them to identify with her. The male gaze remains implicit- as something Cosmo readers should attract and desire.
The message is one of sexual subjectification rather than objectification; however, the emphasis does not fall on actual sexuality, but on consumption for the purpose of being “sexy.”
The model is not the subject of a personal erotic experience- nor a sex object. As Baudrilard argues, “we have to distinguish the erotic body- substrate of the exchanged signs of desire from the body as site of fantasy and abode of desire. In the drive/body, the fantasy/body the individual structure of desire predominates. In the ‘eroticised’ body, the social function of exchange predominates.”
“Her sexiness comes not “from intimacy and sensuality, but from calculated sexual signification;” in other words, she is not “sexy” because she is a sex object or a sexual subject, but because she wears Louboutin shoes.
Her body is “no longer an object of desire, but a functional object, a forum of signs in which fashion and the erotic are mingled.”
The Consumerist Body and the Myth of Femininity
Baudrillard argues that the locus of the empowerment/individuation through consumption sensibility is specifically the female body of fashion, advertising and pop culture. Just as women and bodies were historically “bound together in servitude,” in the logic of masculine-feminine, mind-body, spiritual-carnal, virtuous-sinful paralleling dichotomies, “the emancipation of women and the emancipation of the body are logically and historically linked[…]this simultaneous emancipation occurs without the basic ideological confusion between women and sexuality being removed.”
If woman is liberated, she is liberated as a body: The model does not need the abolition of sexism or equality of opportunity to feel “sexy, confident and smart,” she only needs her sexy Louboutins.
Empowerment through consumption is ultimately depoliticised and anti-egalitarian; in the absence of the conspicuous, comodified markers of success (designer undergarments, slender legs, sexy Louboutin shoes) a woman cannot be “sexy, confident and smart.” She will not be featured alongside inspirational celebrity quotes stating that “We can’t allow the rest of the world to tell us what beautiful is.”
While she apparently asserts her freedom and her identity through the choices she makes as a consumer, she does not have the choice to act as a confident, empowered women by opting-out of the system.
As Baudrillard remarks, the pressure of consumer culture “is exerted on women through the myth of the Woman as collective and cultural model of self-indulgence.[…] Women are only called to gratify themseves in order the better to be able to enter as objects into the masculine competition (enjoying themselves in order to be more enjoyable).”
Objectification vs. Subjectification
While a shift from sexual objectification to subjectification is present, nonetheless, under cover of gratification, women are compelled to consume in order to be chosen rather than to choose;
“If a woman is beautiful- that is to say, if the woman is a woman- she will be chosen. If the man is a man- he will choose his wife among other objects/signs (his car, his wife, his eau de toilette).”