Women, Body Image and Chocolate: A Case Study through Advertisements

If a very skinny woman buys chocolate, people might think that it is not unusual because how would she be able to maintain that body while eating chocolate? However, if people were to see a larger woman buying chocolate, they might think that her chocolate consumption explains why she has a bigger body. Both guesses can be wrong in reality; maybe the larger woman buys chocolate only once a year but this example demonstrates the connection we often make between women, body image and chocolate.

Since the 19th century, women have been confined to distorted beliefs about beauty, health, eating, and appetite. Having a lean, fat-free body became the new religion. Like any religion, failure to follow it, meaning becoming overweight, results in damnation. In following the religion, one is guaranteed a more beautiful, sexy, successful self. However, historically, the ideal body image was not skinny women. Plumpness was a sign of emotional well-being and good health (Seid, 1994). In time, the obsession with slenderness emerged, and certain food such as chocolate started to be vilified. Slim became attractive, sexy and healthy. As the ideal body image as well as the image of dieting and the understanding of health for women changed, chocolate advertisements have also changed to parallel these broader concepts. We can see this through early advertisements, a close analysis of Dove chocolate commercials since 2000 and the raw cacao movement.

As women and children became the primary consumers of sugar products in 19th century, chocolate advertisements quickly started to market to women not as individual consumers but as mothers and wives. Mintz discusses in his book “Sweetness and Power” that as sugar became cheaper and more popular in households, wives and children drastically increased their sugar consumption (Mintz, 1985). Around early 20th century, chocolate advertisements started to focus on this consumption trend. As Robertson mentions in her article, the consumption of chocolate became feminized (Robertson, 2009). Women, as the main person responsible for the family’s health, were assigned by advertising companies the role to provide wholesome cocoa for the family (Robertson, 2009). As an example, the Rowntree advertisement below highlights the relationship between a mother and her children. Her children desperately want chocolate but the mom, who also looks like a housewife, perfectly balances the chocolate in her hand that she is probably about to give to the children to calm them down. In this advertisement, chocolate is shown as an intermediary in a mother-child relationship.

Rowntree advertisement of a mother and her children
Rowntree cacao advertisement of a mother and her children

Appealing to women as mothers in advertisements varied by product: the image of women as mothers in cacao advertisements changed into wives who get their husband to buy chocolate for them in chocolate advertisements. The Rowntree chocolate advertisement below portrays a woman receiving boxed chocolate from her husband who is eager to see her reaction. Similar to the advertisement above, women are shown in the context of a family and not primarily as individual consumers.

Rowntree chocolate advertisement of a couple
Rowntree chocolate advertisement of a couple

Over time, however, the portrayal of women as wives or mothers changed into a focus on them as individual consumers. Dove chocolate is a chocolate company that builds on the image of women who buys chocolate to enjoy by themselves. Dove chocolate, sold as “Galaxy” in the UK and other countries, is a brand made and marketed by Mars Company since 1986 (“Mars Acquires the Dove Bar” article). It started in Chicago as “Dove Candies and Ice Cream” by Leo Stefanos in 1939. Dove produces a variety of chocolate products including milk chocolate, chocolate truffles, chocolate with nut varieties and ice creams. Since 2000s, the brand’s advertisements have been mostly focused on women, often hyper-sexualized, indulging in chocolate and losing control. Although women are typically portrayed as indulging in chocolate in their advertisements, the message given about indulging changes over time.

In Dove’s “Eat Up Your Moment” commercial, released around early 2000s, a woman is portrayed as simply indulging in chocolate without any concerns about her body image. She is literally “eating up her moment,” meaning the only thing she cares about is her ice cream. Her hair is messy, adding to her sexualized image because of the stereotype of women with messy hair after sexual intercourse. As chocolate is depicted as an innate desire for women, it goes together with other innate needs such as sex. Thus, she is portrayed as an “irrational narcissistic consumer” (Robertson, 2009), who demonstrates the wonderful feeling of indulging in chocolate. The camera is only focused on Dove chocolate ice cream and her face. The camera does not even show the rest of her body. Her body image, or any other concern about life, does not matter. As can be seen from this advertisement, the association of a slim body image and beauty and sexual appeal is not emphasized. This advertisement approximately corresponds to the time in the 19th century when dietetics and nutrition separated from medicine as a field, and when chocolate came to be as much associated with health problems as with health benefits (Watson et al., 2013). However, it does not acknowledge the concerns that a woman might have by gaining calories from chocolate and potentially getting fatter and less attractive. It does not acknowledge the concerns regarding ideal body image and how eating chocolate deviates from that ideal.

Dove’s “Senses” commercial resembles the previous advertisement and does not overtly refer to any body image or dieting concerns. The commercial is all about senses and being aroused. It demonstrates chocolate as a freedom from adulthood (Barthel, 1989). According to this notion, chocolate relieves people from the boredom of the real world and puts them in a euphoric state in which they give in to their innate need for chocolate. The woman in the commercial is very thin that even her collarbones are prominent. She looks very aroused and enjoys the stimulation in her body from eating chocolate. The background voice in the commercial is soft and sultry, and resembles a female bedroom voice that is indicative of her increased sensations. The message implied in the advertisement is clear: indulge in chocolate and you would still be able to have your ideal, thin body.

Around 2010, Dove released a series of “Only Human” and “Confessions” commercials that acknowledge women’s concerns of body image more directly and emphasize that it is okay to indulge and not have a “perfect” body. The advertisement starts with an average looking woman saying, “we are only human but we try to be perfect.” In these commercials, women pretend as if high heels are comfortable, or waxing does not hurt much in time. Although women are aware of the sensory gratifications of chocolate, they are also concerned about potentially unhealthy nutritional properties and weight gain associated with over-indulgence in chocolate (Benford and Gough, 2006). Thus, they reduce the use of chocolate or omit it completely to lose weight (Mooney et al., 2009). As portrayed in the advertisements, just like the pain of high heels or pain of waxing, gaining weight from chocolate can make women feel bad or guilty. However, instead, as the commercial communicates, they should “cut some slack” and let themselves indulge in chocolate.

Divine chocolate advertisement
Divine chocolate advertisement

In Divine chocolate advertisements, women farmers are depicted as producers and cosmopolitan consumers of chocolate (Leissle, 2012). As Robertson discusses in her book, women as consumers of chocolate have historically been depicted as obsessed by chocolate (Robertson, 2009). The woman in the advertisement is a Ghanian cacao farmer of the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative (Leissle, 2012) holding a piece of chocolate in her hand. She is wearing revealing clothes that highlight her breasts and has an alluring pose. She looks thin, sexy and sassy. The advertisement makes the viewer think that if even a female farmer who produces chocolate, and thus likely consumes a lot of it as well, is that thin, an individual female consumer would be able to stay thin too. She would be inspired by the standards of physical “excellence” that the model in the advertisement represents (Joshi et al., 2004).

As chocolate and advertisement companies cultivated the understanding of women’s concerns about their body images, they sparked a raw cacao movement. Raw cacao is the raw cacao nibs and beans that do not go through processing used in making chocolate such as roasting and steaming. In this way, raw chocolate companies intend to create “diet chocolate” that is especially endorsed by the popular Paleo diet. In his interview, David Wolfe, founder of various health and nutrition websites, discusses the potential benefits of raw cacao. He mentions that it is “10,15,20 times more antioxidants than green tea” and “30 times higher in antioxidants than wine.” He also suggests that raw cacao food is high in Vitamin C and antioxidants, different than processed chocolate that contains no vitamin C because “it is all destroyed through the process by heat.” He adds that raw cacao is one of highest natural sources of magnesium, copper and iron. As a result, he emphasizes that raw cacao can be used as a mineral supplement. However, he does not provide any evidence to back up his claims, not does he mention the potential health risks of raw cacao such as containing mycotoxins or salmonella (Copetti et al., 2011). As corporations realize women’s emphasis and concerns about their body image, they can be deceptive and make claims without backing up with any scientific evidence. The raw chocolate companies, and other chocolate companies such as Dove and Divine, market their products to women while deceiving them as if the companies take into account the concerns related to women’s body images. It is crucial to not fall into media traps about health and nutrition. You are beautiful and your body is perfect, no matter what you consume.

References

  • Barthel, Diane. “Modernism and Marketing: The Chocolate Box Revisited.” Theory, Culture & Society (1989): 429-38.
  • Benford, R., & Gough, B. (2006). Defining and defending ‘unhealthy’ practices. A discourse analysis of chocolate ‘addicts’ accounts. Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 427–440.
  • Copetti, M., Iamanaka, B., Frisvad, J., Pereira, J., & Taniwaki, M. (2011). Mycobiota of cocoa: From farm to chocolate. Food Microbiology, 1499-1504.
  • Joshi, R., Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (2004). Self-enhancing effects of exposure to thin body images. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 35, 333–341.
  • Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies2 (2012): 121-39.
  • “Mars Acquires The Dove Bar.” New York Times. 1986-08-12. Retrieved 2010-01-05.
  • Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Mooney, E., Farley, H., & Strugnell, C. (2009). A qualitative investigation into the opinions of adolescent females regarding their body image concerns and dieting practices in the Republic of Ireland (ROI). Appetite, 52, 485–491.
  • Seid, Roberta P. 1994. “Too Close to the Bone: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness.” In Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. Fallon P., Katzman M. A., and Wooley S. C. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Robertson, E. (2009). Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Watson, Ronald Ross, Victor R. Preedy, and Sherma Zibadi, eds. 2013. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. pp. 11-22, 265-276.

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