Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Talia on 08/23/2013

How Stock Photos Reflect The Way We View Women

Just one white, thin, sexualized photo stock woman.

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 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 of offensive. 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 reflection of 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 or to make fun of 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, because I think that will only go so far and won’t solve the root 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 must do as feminist activists. 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.

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  • Noa @ at 5:10 pm, September 16th, 2013

    Pretty interesting- wouldn’t have thought of it, but obvious in retrospect that the photos labeled as the most “generic” would include the people society deems “the norm”.

  • Candice @ at 7:26 pm, November 9th, 2013

    My customer base is the faith based African American community. So I understand the challenge all too well. I can find an endless amount of the so-called video vixen photos. Finding appropriate pics of people of color any everyday situations is different story. I’ve been told that finding Asian people is even harder. Here’s niche begging a fix. Be Peace!

  • Deni @ at 8:29 am, February 10th, 2015

    It is not easy, but it is possible to find a good quality of diverse visual content.
    There are few smaller professional stock producers who specializing in creating high quality images of ethnic and cultural diversity. You will not be able to find those images on microstock sites, where content generated by users who in majority are amateur photographers.
    You have more chances to find diverse images in traditional picture libraries; especially one who has rights managed images and who’s content coming from professional photographers and studios.

  • Deni @ at 8:43 am, February 13th, 2015

    diomedia.com is of the libraries, which represents several producers of culturally diverse stock images such as: Blend, Glow, Blue Jeans…you could see selection of stunning diverse stock images in the “Beauty is Diverse” gallery: http://www.diomedia.com/stock-images-beauty-is-diverse-gallery-1372.html

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