New advertisement lacks cultural awareness


One of the basic tenets of my classroom is the importance of and need for impassioned and respectful debate. These ideas are not only personal to my pedagogy, but I think also fit perfectly within Marywood’s mission to “live responsibly in an interdependent world.”

With a similar motivation to learn from each other and grow through constructive criticism, I wanted to share a few thoughts on a recent Marywood-related happening that left me with a distinctly unpleasant taste. On a recent Tuesday morning, I logged onto Facebook and happened to stumble upon the newest, short, stylized, “Where To?” advertising video from the university. The new video was specifically promoting our wonderful nutrition and dietetics program at Marywood. What I saw, however, was greatly disappointing.

The video at first left me bewildered, and that bewilderment quickly moved toward displeasure. The advertisement projects two main images: One promoting nutrition, a female student in a chef’s coat holding a green apple, and the second emphasizing exercise, focusing on a male student running on a treadmill in the gym.

As these clips flashed by, text was interspersed announcing that, “diet is queen,” and “exercise is king,” and that the viewer should, “become royalty,” presumably by joining our wonderful nutrition program.

There are a few problematic and ultimately offensive aspects to this video. First is the fact that activities like diet and exercise became gendered in the video based on the words used to promote the program of “king” and “queen.” On one hand, such linguistics only reinforce the idea that women are naturally inclined to the kitchen and men for strength and physicality.

Further, the idea that a good diet is distinctly connected to women, remember, the word “queen” was specifically deployed, is particularly problematic given the high rates of diagnosed eating disorders among women in the United States.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women currently in the United States will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life and an estimated 12 percent of all individuals with one of the three most common eating disorders will die from complications tied to that diagnosis.

To ensure that I was not overreacting or being oversensitive to these matters, since I study food history and the body, I decided to re-post the video and look for reactions from friends and colleagues. The comments they made only reinforced my reaction and also added fresh, needed perspective.

One former student and recent Marywood alum pointed out the offensive class dynamics by wondering aloud if he was a “peasant” because of his different body type than the kingly image projected.

At the time of the writing of this piece, the video has been viewed 903 times on Facebook, undoubtedly including prospective students, their family members, current students and alumni. Does the Marywood community really want to project these problematic ideas and images into an already toxic culture of body shaming, food shaming and gender roles?

I began by thinking about the classroom and will close in a similar manner. One message that historians are hyper-aware of and keen to impress upon students is the idea that words and images have cultural meaning, impact and power. Words build climates of shame, anger and even sometimes self-loathing.

As Marywood continues its path forward, growing and evolving, those in charge of sharing to the public our school’s important work and incredibly supportive environment would be well served to be aware of the cultural, social and historical baggage tied to the ideas that we all project.

For example, in the United States, the rise of anorexia was innately tied to a proscribed, thin body image associated with middle and upper-middle class success in the late 19th century, according to a New York Times article.

Words and images have power. Another relevant example relates to something that my students discuss in class, as we analyze gendered images of advertising from the 1950s that celebrated the nuclear family, the role of men as breadwinners and women as the submissive head of domestic affairs.

These roles, a dual response to Cold War tensions of nuclear annihilation and a booming American suburban economy of consumption, ensured that anyone on the margins, including single mothers, working women, gays and lesbians, would feel the wrath of society’s scorn and rejection.

Students frequently respond in amazement that these advertisements ever existed and understand the full implications of these projected roles. I can only wonder about the types of reactions this “Where to?” advertisement will elicit from Marywood students in the future.