fitness · inclusiveness · stereotypes

Changing stereotypes of women, one photo at a time

Image description: Upper body back shot of Tracy, short blond hair in a striped halter bikini top, flexing her right bicep, facing towards a turquoise sea, light surf and partly cloudy sky.
Image description: Upper body back shot of Tracy, short blond hair in a striped halter bikini top, flexing her right bicep, facing towards a turquoise sea, light surf and partly cloudy sky.

A few weeks ago I posted about selfies and self-portraits as tools of empowerment. I argued that they are empowering because they allow us some control over our self-representation.  Of course we can’t always control the uptake, but at least they enable us to put ourselves out there in the way we choose to.

I’ve lately discovered an intense passion for photography, and my reflections on selfies and self-portraits are just one direction in which that has taken me. Photographic images of women have a great deal of power, offering possibility, and both perpetuating and busting stereotypes.

Yesterday Sam posted this incredibly gripping (to me) analysis from Dawn Airey, CEO of Getty Images, of the way Getty Images search data has demonstrated the transformational impact #metoo has had on the world (see my thoughts on #metoo while we were still in the early days of it: here). Getty Images is a stock photo site where you can go to buy visual images.

Her article documents a slightly wider timeframe than #metoo, showing a dramatic shift in the searches over the past five years:

The good news is that more dynamic and inclusive images of women have been in demand for years now. Five years ago, we predicted the visual trend of Female Rising in our annual forecasting report, highlighting a need for trailblazing images of women and stereotype-defying girls. Since then, we have seen this come to fruition in exponential ways. In 2016, we saw searches on our stock-photo platforms that indicated a deep desire to see women in fields where they were traditionally underrepresented. We saw searches for terms like “women in STEM” and “women in technology” shoot up 526% and 111%, respectively. That same year, searches for “female empowerment” went up an impressive 722%.

After giving these heartening stats, she goes on to say how important it is for her organization and anyone who uses images to think about the images we choose:

At Getty Images, we feel a responsibility to ensure accurate and authentic visual representation of diversity in the world, gendered and otherwise. People need to see themselves reflected in the images around them. We are working to make that a reality.

Stereotypes and socialized misogyny have played foundational roles in maintaining the structures that have empowered the abusers of the world. The entertainment, marketing, and advertising industries have helped to perpetuate them. In a positive sign, last summer, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority banned ads that reinforced harmful gender stereotypes. This should behoove us all (and especially those of us in the media and advertising industries) to take stock of the ways in which we may perpetuate tired narratives through the images we commission and share.

The onus is on all of us to ensure we’re more mindful of the images we choose—wherever we use them. In order to provoke change, we must choose more diverse and inclusive imagery. It cannot be the only way that we’re working toward equality, but it is a powerful place to begin.

In keeping with this positive trend towards diverse imagery that challenges stereotypes and promotes inclusivity and equality, I’d like to give an additional shout out to photographer Alex Rotas.  Her website, Alex Rotas, is engaged in an active project of “redefining later life.” As she says, “60 is the new 60.” We don’t need to subtract from our age to talk about how amazing people at that age are. 60 is fine just the way it is.

She has committed herself to photographing older athletes, and has published a book of photos called Growing Old Competitively. As a retired academic and competitive tennis player, she started to notice the absence of vibrant depictions of older adults while she was doing her PhD research in 2006. Since then, she has made it her goal to create a new ageing narrative through her images and speaking tours.

Since the very outset of the blog, Sam and I have embraced and promoted the idea of inclusive fitness. As did Alex Rotas, we noticed the lack of images of older people as athletes. It was also challenging to find images of women in sport that celebrated their athleticism without also tapping into their sexuality or at least their femininity. The Getty Images search term analysis and Alex Rotas efforts to promote a new narrative both bring welcome news to the project of shifting to an inclusive fitness culture.

Have you seen noticeable changes in the types of messages and images you’re exposed to over the past five years?

2 thoughts on “Changing stereotypes of women, one photo at a time

  1. More in past 10 years, a very slow appearance of much older folks on bikes and people in street clothing on bikes…photos everywhere. This is the image to normalize cycling as much as possible which is positive!

  2. I revel in and am inspired by the range of fit older men and women where I work out and get fit. (Not sure if I fall into that category at age 51, but who cares?). It’s also quite clear that my personal trainer and his colleagues believe that older can also mean you are fitter, tougher and stronger. 🙂

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