Last year, I was working on a graphic art submission to the National Organization for Women (NOW)’s Love Your Body Poster Contest. To execute my concept, I needed to find a lot of stock photos of women.
Since I wanted to celebrate multiculturalism and include women of several different races, I needed stock images of white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American women. I never expected how difficult it would be to find suitable stock photos. Searching for stock imagery of white women wasn’t a walk in the park, since a large percentage of the photos I found were sexualized (even on websites that were mostly clean and reliable). Stock images of women of color were so scarce that I almost gave up trying to find them. I am being completely literal when I say that those photos that I did manage to find of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American women were all extremely sexualized. I had to scour the Internet for months until I found usable, clean stock images of women of color.
As the graphic art piece was specifically about loving your body regardless of whether or not it adheres to societal beauty standards, I also wanted to celebrate size diversity. Whenever I searched a general keyword like “women,” only photos of thin women came up, so I had to specifically look for photos of bigger women. I felt bad having to search keywords with stigmatizing language like “fat women” or “overweight women.” Although I did find some stock photos of bigger women, they were all centered on weight, with the women holding food, exercising, or being weighed. Since I was unable to find any photos of bigger women just posing or involved in activities that were not weight-related, I ended up having to use these. I just Photoshopped the food out of the model’s hands and the scale out from underneath her feet.
I think that the availability of stock imagery of only certain types of women is a sadly accurate lens onto our culture. The media routinely erases women of color; it’s easy to see this from the ubiquity of television shows with all- or nearly-all-white casts to a dearth of movies with leading ladies of color. Non-white women have few political role models to emulate. After all, Congress is 82% male, the US Senate is 95% white, and US House of Representatives is 81% white. Women who don’t adhere to arbitrary beauty standards are also ignored by our culture, as few heavy women (or men) make appearances in the media. When they do, it’s usually in relation to encouraging the viewer to avoid looking like them.
I could encourage all of you readers to sign a petition or send emails to stock image websites complaining about their lack of racial and size diversity, urging them to feature more photos of minority women and bigger women. I won’t, though, since that won’t solve the problem. Our stock imagery just reflects our culture. If we want stock photo sites to host more inclusive images, we need a more inclusive society.
This sort of paradigm shift will not happen overnight. Frustrating as it may be, it’s something that will gradually happen over the years. It’s not easy to put on a smile and patiently open the minds of our friends and acquaintances, but it’s what we as feminist activists must do. The only inspiration I can give is that our children and grandchildren will benefit from our work. Hopefully, they’ll be able to easily find non-sexualized stock photos of women of every race and body type.