How Media Brands Can Disrupt Gender Biases, And Why It Matters

Even as Women’s History Month comes to a close, advertisers have an important role to play in changing the narrow portrayals of women in the media. 

Visual media company Getty Images recently conducted global research and found that while body biases are slightly declining among consumers, two in three women worldwide still experience bias. Among the top issues are body shape or size (26%), age (21%), and income level (16%). 

MediaPost spoke with Dr. Rebecca Swift, vice president and global head of creative insights at Getty Images, to discuss these recent findings and gain tips on the tangible ways that media can continue to break biases. 

MediaPost: How would you define the bias women are experiencing here?



Rebecca Swift: Our most recent consumer survey from January 2022 uncovered that, on social media, women specifically see bias against them because of their body shape, size, height and weight.

On the other hand, men experience most bias against them based on their physical abilities.

Body shape is not a stand-alone bias point however, as it is implicated in other biases such as socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation.

MP: Which brands do you see actively attempting to break female body biases and stereotypes? How so? 

Swift: Over the past few years, Getty Images has worked with Dove to launch #ShowUs, the world’s largest stock photo library created by women, femmes, and non-binary people. The goal of our continued work is to bring forth visual assets that shatter stereotypes around these individuals, broaden beauty standards, and show authentic, diverse, and inclusive representation of women, femmes and non-binary people.

Other brands that I have seen taking active steps in this direction are Fenty, Universal Standard, Thinx, and Aerie. They are all aiming to uplift and normalize a range of body types, abilities, orientations, and ethnicities within campaigns.

There is not just one token diverse or plus-size model, but rather they authentically celebrate different bodies every day.

I am also impressed with Modibodi’s recent work on normalizing conversations around postpartum bodies. 

MP: What kind of content is being tagged "body positive"?

Swift: Searching for “body positive” images on iStock, Getty Images’ original stock content site, results in an array of photos and videos of diverse people and body types. Specifically, body-positive content often differs from the norm in media portrayals.

Examples include larger, heavier, darker, lighter, frecklier, disabled, body types, etc. Body positivity has become synonymous with any body that challenges traditional beauty stereotypes.

The key throughline is appreciation of all body types, the ways in which they serve us, and how we are able to find joy through them.

Whether it is through fitness, togetherness, meditation, work, motherhood, or self-care, body-positive photos are those that authentically include all body types, ages, abilities, and gender expressions, with an emphasis on intersectionality. 

Highlighting intersectionality in body-positive imagery is key to breaking stereotypes and showing that every body is both unique and powerful.

How we all exist in and move through the world greatly varies by body type, and it is imperative that we showcase genuine lived experiences within visual storytelling to drive deeper inclusion. 

MP: Does portraying one body type limit brands' client base? Or are customers swayed by this "normal" beauty representation?

Swift: Only now, as generations that grew up on social media reach adulthood, are we starting to truly understand the effect that images and videos have on one’s self perception and confidence.

Sticking to a sole, narrow visualization of beauty is insidious. The argument -- especially by luxury brands -- has always been that beauty is an aspiration, and without it, consumers would not want to spend their money. However, there needs to be room for other body types, other gender expressions, other skin tones and physical appearances. It is only through showing the diversity of women that we normalize all women’s bodies.

We have found that women all over the world -- no matter what ethnicity, age, culture, or religion -- relate to images and videos that feature women who look natural and/or have an average body shape; enjoying other women’s company, or are prioritizing fun over their appearance.

If brands are not prioritizing these preferences, they are actually limiting their client base by restricting visual representation.

MP: How much power do brands and advertisers have in breaking or perpetuating stereotypes?

Swift: Brands and advertisers, even without being fully aware of it, have immense power when it comes to breaking stereotypes.

Advertisements and marketing campaigns are a staple of consumer media consumption, and how they portray people will both consciously and unconsciously affect those seeing their ads.

If advertisers are not mindful about the images and video they choose, they may unintentionally perpetuate negative stereotypes. 

That said, I also understand how difficult it is to break out of decades-old cycles. It takes intentional effort to defy stereotypes.

The conversation about what has worked in the past is a common conversation in marketing departments, and there needs to be a devoted effort in translating past successes to fit the needs of a present-day audience.

MP: What stereotype-defying objectives should brands be focused on?

Swift: The most effective strides are made when brands take the time to understand their underrepresented audiences.

People want to feel seen, understood, and appreciated. Doing the research on the backend to truly understand audiences will equip brands with the knowledge of how to best break stereotypes and uplift diverse groups.

It is for this purpose that we spend so much time unlocking consumer needs with our Visual GPS data. We’re using data in a positive way by opening the lines of communication and understanding between consumers and brands that are looking to authentically serve them.

Intentional, diverse images and videos will make these groups feel more accepted, and thus engaged with their brands.

MP: Are there any other crucial takeaways from these findings?

Swift: At first look, the numbers around body-image bias are disheartening: approximately half of the women in popular visuals are young adults or under 30 (53%), with only 1% of visuals including women with disabilities and less than 1% of visuals including women with larger body types.

Given this data, there is a stark need for diverse representation across age, body type, and ability. However, we took a deeper look to see if there were signs of positive change or that could point us in the right direction.

Two interesting caveats to this data stood out. First, is that there is movement in the right direction towards widespread body positivity and representation. Our Visual GPS shows a 7% drop in people feeling body bias when comparing 2020 and 2021 figures, alongside a 16x growth in the quantity of content that is tagged as “body positive” in the last five years.

At the end of the day, brands have to continue to give women an alternative visual to the norm. We love seeing women who are interesting, curious, characterful, fun, relaxed and charming -- women who are beautiful beyond the standard definition of beauty.

Second, we found that despite the high reports of bias seen and experienced, with two out of three people believing others are biased against them, people do not admit to having biases themselves. This leads us to believe that unconscious bias is a driving force behind a range of non-inclusive behavior, rather than intentional malice. 

On the marketing and advertising side, this reaffirms that what we show people in visual assets matters, as it contributes to internalizing stereotypes or helping consumers cultivate a new understanding of diverse groups.

Both of these caveats reignited our efforts in helping businesses break stereotypes, because at the end of the day, they have a critical role to play in breaking biases.

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