Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Body Image Psychology and Romance Comic Ads: Wertham Revisited

This great L.B. Cole cover for Popular Teen-Agers Romances 9 shows a blissful couple in love, both man and woman sporting the body beautiful. Romance stories typically have ideally built female protagonists. The script itself, however, doesn't usually carry an overt message pressurizing the reader to take action to make her body shape conform to the norms the fashion, entertainment, and even pharmaceutical industries attempt to establish. Not so the ads within and on the back cover of romance comic books from the 40s and 50s. Using the movie industry to establish the impossibly perfect body template, reference back to Hollywood periodically reminds the consumer just what they need to be aiming for and ultimately where this oracle of image wisdom is enshrined. Take the inside front cover of True War Romances 1, for instance. Here the reader is granted access to the fashion secrets of Hollywood starlets - that's how they look so pretty. But part of the picture is the body shape required to show those clothes off to their best effect. The tiny waist, the curvy hips, the perky bosom that's not too big or too small:
So what's a girl to do? Once she's forked out for these clothes, tried them on, and realized that, like 99.9999% of the female population, she just doesn't have that ultra-glamorous body that makes her look like the women in the ad when she's wearing them, she may find help elsewhere in the comic. Here's an ad from Young Love 31 that's the same as or similar to one discussed by Frederic Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent:
Here's part of what Wertham wrote about body image ads in romance comics:

"... there are full-course lessons in hypochondriasis. In a comic book with stories of love's frustrations there is a full-page advertisement (found in many other comic books too) with sets of photographs: "Before" and "After". The "Before" look like average girls; the "After" have noticeably protruding breasts. Accompanying these pictures are three sets of diagrams, each purporting to show profiles of women's bust lines. Any girl, of course, especially after she has been alarmed by the text, can identify herself with at least one of these diagrams and brood about the corresponding information: "SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT YOUR FLAT-LOOKING BUSTLINE?" (Wertham, 1954, p.201).

Wertham had quite a bit to say on this topic in Chapter 8 of Seduction of the Innocent, "Bumps and Bulges".  And whereas his attempt to establish a causal relationship between comic book reading and juvenile delinquency failed to garner long term support, modern knowledge of the impact of this kind of advertising, and the associated body image presented by fashion magazines, on both females and males, leads to the conclusion that Wertham was indeed right on this topic. With its link to eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem, and backed up as it is by incomprehensible corporate power, the ideal body image we are fed from every direction possible from the moment we are born molds us into consumers hell-bent on looking like Gisele Bundchen or Brad Pitt. Going back to 1950s romance comics, was there anything else available then to help young women compete for that ideal man? On the subject of boobs, on the inside back cover of True War Romances 1 there may be the answer:
But of course, boobs are only part of every girl's problem: her inability to achieve somatic conformity with the screen goddess or super model of the day. What about her waistline!!!!??? Her worries were soon to be over in the 1950s, thanks to technological developments made possible by international cooperation and scientific know-how. There was special chewing gum of various kinds:
 [from the inside front cover of Lovelorn 42]
[from Young Love 31]
[from back cover of Romantic Hearts 3]
Then there was candy, in case you weren't a gum chewer:
[from True Life Secrets 23]
Or tablets:
[from inside back cover of Darling Romance 1]
Or there were drops you could pop into your afternoon cocktail (once you'd been convinced elsewhere that regular consumption of alcohol was a prerequisite for social acceptance, happiness, self-fulfillment, and success):
[from the back cover of Great Lover Romances 13]
Now just in case you already tried the gum and weren't happy with that, the inside front cover of Wedding Bells 19 presents the reader with a handy alternative, a spot massaging device:
Or you could simply sweat away that flab with what Hollywood's women were using:
[from Popular Teen-Agers Romances 9]
Those suits must have been really unpleasant! But if none of this does the trick and that midriff bulge still threatens to marginalize the reader in her local community, it's time to resort to mechanical means to readjust the body, so that externally it appears to meet the required shape and proportions. Yes, those instruments of 1950s female bondage - foundation garments or girdles in their various forms:
[from the back cover of Dream Book of Romance 6]
[from Lovelorn 18]
[from Lovers' Lane 11]
[from Nellie the Nurse 22]
[from the back cover of Romantic Hearts 10]
[from Teen Secret Diary 2]
[from the inside back cover of Young Love 31]
And finally the Abdo-Slim, from the inside back cover of Young Romance 65, and the back cover of Young Romance 78:
You could even just try a simple elastic belt:
[from the inside front cover of True Love Pictorial 4]
The regular reader availing herself of one or more of these sure-fire remedies for her unshapely excuse for a woman's body would, the ads assure, then attain the desired form over which to drape those fine clothes (remember those?)...
[from Young Love 32]
... and, most importantly, with which to stimulate the required response from the male of the species:
A close look at the text of these ads shows up the persuasive psychological manipulation that was being used to keep that commercial wheel turning - spending makes the financial world go round! And what better way to get women to spend than convince them they are inadequate and unlikely to get a good man, or any man, unless they acquire an impossible to achieve body type? At least from our 21st Century vantage point we can look back at those ads and see them the way Wertham saw them. Nowadays they're gone, right? Of course not! They're just infinitely more subtle, covert, sinister, multi-layered, and omnipresent than ever.

But back in the 1950s, what if you were too skinny!!??? Well, that's the subject of a future post right here on Out Of This World!

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