You are what you eye

Its not just what goes in our mouths each day that affects both our bodies and lives.

by Jason Ketola

On any given day, Iíd reckon itís impossible to not get a recommendation about what one should or should not be eating or drinking from at least one media source. Weíre bombarded with messages proclaiming the healthful effects of all sorts of diets, the potentially fatal effects of binge drinking and reasons why one should choose tap water over bottled water, just to name a few. The effects on our bodies of what we put in our mouths get near-constant airtime yet the effects on our bodies and lives of consumption through other senses receives tragically little attention.

While our society at large has been relatively dismissive of claims that viewing violent movies, for instance, leads to more violent attitudes and behaviors, claims such as this are no longer espoused merely by ìfanatics.” There is a growing body of scholarly literature suggesting that visual consumption of different images and video can dramatically affect oneís life. In what follows, I offer several examples of this, and in future columns I will address the effects of advertising and television, pornography specifically.

Weíve all heard about the effects of visual media on eating disorders in women and increasingly in men, and weíve heard about the aforementioned effects of violent movies and video games on kids, so I wonít belabor those points, but I wonder why they havenít generated more concern among us. We live in a society in which the average person is exposed to more than 3,000 advertisements every day (mostly visually), and yet we act as if we are personally immune to their effects. How many of us who say this are wearing brand-name clothing right now? How many of us disparage generic brands of food at the grocery store? Noticing the effects of advertising in oneís life requires a certain amount of humility, because if the advertisers have done their job, you wonít have thought twice about your purchase of their product.

Letís bring this discussion closer to home. Despite the hopes of many of us, Minnesota winter continues to be cold and was especially so during the past week with subzero temperatures. Yet, in walking around campus last week, I saw hundreds of women artificially tanned and wearing shirts exposing their midriffs; some even wore fashionable sandals. I think itís fair to assume that only a handful of these women were preparing for a trip to a sunny location, had shirts that didnít quite fit and/or have a personal vendetta against shoes. A vast majority of them and all the women wearing skirts with tall boots with no covering on their thighs were behaving in ways that are unnatural given the weather and could even be unsafe.

If there were more variety in the types of skin exposure displayed, we might concede that fashion as art canít be suppressed even by the cold. The homogeneity of the styles should suggest that the tanned, exposed midriff, sandal look is coming from somewhere. I think a half-hour perusal of primetime television and MTV would give us some indication, and a look through Cosmopolitan and Elle would solidify them.

The effects of imagery hardly are limited to clothing choices. Think of the way University Dining Services restricted the use of audio-visuals at its Student Advisory Committee meeting about cage-free eggs. Were they worried that showing people battery-cage egg production would jeopardize their defense of it? This tactic of keeping discussion of issues on a hypothetical level rather than showing atrocities is one that affects our responses to all sorts of crises.

Hurricane Katrina and 2004ís tsunami received tremendous amounts of media coverage, and the outpouring of financial and labor support has been overwhelming. Strangely, the continuing genocide in Darfur, Sudan, and the everyday fact that more than 800 million people worldwide donít get enough to eat occupy few, if any, of our thoughts. If we could see these realities, the outpouring of support for interventions would snowball. In not being able to see the lives of people facing such trauma, we find it hard to identify with the faceless group of people in Africa having some sort of problem we donít quite understand.

Recently, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the University screened the film ìKilling Us Softly 3,” in which scholar Jean Kilbourne points out how advertising shapes and reinforces gender roles in our society. This film by Kilbourne and other films on advertisingís effects on young adult drinking and smoking are must sees for anyone who disbelieves the effects of media on their life.

In the subsequent columns in this series, I will challenge our habits of thoughtlessly consuming different types of visual media and the justifications used to defend them. For now, letís take a step back and consider whether and how what weíre watching affects how we act, what we talk about, what we consider cool, etc. The source of many of our problems may be in what weíre consuming visually.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]