Dr. Jean Kilbourne: An Appreciation

Today’s blog post honors Dr. Jean Kilbourne and her work in publicizing the effects of advertising on women and girls.  Over the course of her long career as an author, public speaker, media critic, and documentary filmmaker, she has helped us all see what was hidden in plain sight – that Madison Avenue not only sells us consumer goods but, in her words, “changes the way we think and feel.” Much of her work has focused on ads for cigarettes, alcohol, and food using marketing ploys that objectify the female body and glorify a grotesque degree of thinness in ways that encourage self-hatred, eating disorders, and addiction. If her ideas do not sound all that surprising to you, it’s because her original perceptions have now become mainstream.

Many of her insights were rooted in her own early experiences.  Born in 1943, she began smoking and drinking in her early teens to cope with her grief at her mother’s death and as an expression of her rebellious nature.  Despite these distractions, she was able to maintain good grades in school and went on to graduate from Wellesley, later earning a doctorate in education from Boston University. She then spent three years working in Europe, first for the BBC and then for a French film company.  It was in 1968 that she began looking critically at advertisements aimed at women and connecting the dots.  Eventually, she concluded that the images of liberation and female beauty portrayed in the media were dangerously deceptive and decided that exposing these untruths would be her life’s work.

Even today, though many are aware of how the tobacco and advertising industries’ efforts to sell cigarettes to women may contribute to poor body image, the full extent of the link between smoking and eating disorders remains underappreciated. Smoking is over-represented among women with diagnosable and subclinical eating disorders.  (Indeed, I have often thought that smoking – thanks at least in part to clever advertising that has persuaded so many girls and women it’s an effective way to control weight – should be considered a “compensatory behavior,” along with purging, fasting, and excessive exercise, in diagnosing bulimia and binge-eating disorder.)  Credit to Dr. Kilbourne for recognizing the connection between these two serious health hazards and the insidious way in which they have been used to “feed” one another, to the detriment of physical and mental health.

Dr. Kilbourne could have pursued a standard academic career, churning out grant applications and scientific publications.  Instead, she has chosen to dedicate her speaking skills and wit to a one-woman crusade for media literacy, raising our consciousness so that we see our everyday environment in a new light. For more information about Dr. Kilbourne and her current projects, visit her website at www.jeankilbourne.com.

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