The Ugly Truth about Beauty
“I was really tired of words like ‘plus size’, ‘round’ and ‘large’. I thought, ‘come on we’re fat’.” – Kirstie Alley
It is a funny thing to watch TV nowadays. It has become so abhorrent that honestly it is not even worth paying your Brighthouse/Comcast/DirectTV bill. The reason I say this is that if media is supposed to be a reflection of society, and a means of cataloguing our evolution as a species, it behooves me to think what positive message could possibly be derived by an outsider looking at our culture from TV shows such as The Swan, Beauty and the Geek, and current staples such as The Biggest Loser and Dance Your Ass Off. The advent of “reality television” has become very popular because people got a chance to see regular folks on television, but now viewers have seen through the media’s attempt to control what is deemed normal with the use of only beautiful, skinny people. Now there is a craving by viewers to see regular people just like themselves.
Even shows that have succeeded in promoting what is considered a truer portrayal of the normal person in American society have still found a way to promote the ideal that it is not ok to be that way. There is the belief that if fat, you must be skinny, if ugly, you must be beautiful. So it is my contention that media in all forms is being used to portray and profit by the promotion of an ideal of what is beautiful which in itself develops an ethnocentric culture creating prejudice against those that does not meet the standard.
In American society a culture exists which holds the belief that to be successful you should have a certain body type, certain hair color, certain style of dress, and certain way of speaking. It has been shown that this belief is taught through the use of media and is in some ways fashion the values and attitudes which we hold dear. Now imagine for a second if the media is this powerful and has this much control why then would you use it in such a negative fashion. Well that is the case proven time and time again; because media is so powerful then what should be aired, and/or printed? What is the correct agenda to use media for? What is the correct image or images to be shown? I think this is where social stewardship has to play a role. There has to be a greater cross section shown, and a more positive image shown of those not seen as part of the dominant culture.
In a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 39 female university students were exposed to magazine advertisements portraying idealized images (Huon & Monro, 2005). The study was to see if these images had an effect on the young women’s body shame and appearance anxiety, and also to try and establish whether the effects depend on advertisement type and on participant self-objectification. It was found that “exposure to idealized images led to increased body shame, and appearance anxiety” (Huon & Monro, 2005). The study also shows that “idealized images are an influential source of pressure to meet the thin ideal” (Huon & Monro, 2005). This study clearly showed that the use of idealized images in print advertising has a direct effect on how young women’s perception of themselves can be distorted.
But let us take it a step further, what about your self esteem? What about how you feel about yourself as a human being and the importance placed on attractiveness. There was another study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, where seventy one female students at Washington University between eighteen and twenty two were tested to “understand the full scope of the effects of objectifying media and the complete consequences of body image on women’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior” (Gurari, Hetts, & Strube, 2006). A few examples of the results showed that participants exposed to idealized images of beauty did in fact eat less junk food and were more likely to change their eating habits. So it stands to reason that through images media controls your self perception and eating habits.
So this is what makes the sale of every fad diet and every new exercise machine on late night television that effective. Media portrays an ideal which ninety percent of the population cannot reach; and then provides the supposed solution to the problem through the use of media as well. It is no wonder that societies across the world are now suffering from eating disorders, issues with negative body image, appearance anxiety, body shame, depression. This sort of thing was typically a western society problem but as is evidenced by the study printed in Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media “Japanese and Chinese women are increasingly affected by eating disorders, and the incidence of these disorders is rising rapidly in other non-English speaking countries such as Spain, Argentina, and Fiji” (Holmstrom, 2004).
“The average model portrayed in the media is approximately 5’11” and 120 pounds. By contrast, the average American woman is 5’4″ and 140 pounds. Research has shown that a discrepancy between the “actual” self (attributes you and others believe you possess) and the “ideal” self (attributes you or others believe you should possess) can produce negative emotional states such as sadness, discouragement, and depression” (Holmstrom, 2004). I believe this firmly solidifies the argument that the media has complete control of how you view yourself as a person. It also begs the question if our culture is being defined by an ideal that is not realistic then what is the rationale for promoting that ideal.
This is the question that we must answer. As a culture the dominant ideal has created an ethnocentric attitude by the few that meet the ideals. But what is quite interesting about this culture is the ones that understand the ideal and are profiting from it may not necessarily meet them themselves. The macrosocial dynamic that is at work in this culture is interesting to say the least.
It has been shown that the media has played a hand in the promotion of ideals that are counterproductive to our society, and also the effects of those ideals on our culture. It is now time to provide the solutions through a socially conscious stewardship of our airwaves, and print media. In The Journal of Social Issues, the article focuses on how we as individuals view media and states, “Suggestions include helping individuals be more discriminating in their use of the mass media, developing strategies to reduce social comparison, and addressing undiscriminating acceptance of the media presentation of the ideal” (Thompson ; Heinberg, 1999).
While this may sound good I believe that there has to be a greater emphasis made on those who control the images to begin with. We cannot blame media totally but society, culture as a whole, for allowing this to continue. I mean why portray an ideal that is not attainable. “…the notion that beauty is a woman’s primary objective, that thinness is crucial for success and happiness, and that it is normal and acceptable for a woman to be ashamed and anxious about her body and appearance. Unfortunately, these messages do not emanate just from media sources. Peers, family, coaches, teachers, and others help reinforce this socialization of women. It is therefore not enough to teach girls and women to reject problematic media messages. Rather, positive redefinitions of femininity as multifaceted and self-accepting need to be promoted, along with the desire and skill to resist pressure for thinness and attractiveness” (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999).
So in closing it is my contention that not only does the media have some responsibility to bear, it is also the responsibility of society in general to advocate for better images being promoted via media outlets.
“Future research must focus on a variety of targets, from the individuals affected to the “masters of the universe” who control the increasingly megalomaniacal media empires” (Thompson & Heinberg, 1999).
Gurari, I., Hetts, J. J., & Strube, M. J. (2006). Beauty in the “I” of the Beholder: Effects of Idealized. Basic and Applied Social Psychology , 273–282.
Holmstrom, A. J. (2004). The Effects of the Media on Body Image: A Meta Analysis. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media , 196-217.
Huon, G., & Monro, F. (2005). Media-Portrayed Idealized Images, Body Shame, & Appearance Anxiety. International Journal for Eating Disorders , 85-90.
Thompson, J. K., & Heinberg, L. J. (1999). The Media’s Influence on Body Image Disturbance ; Eating Disorders: We’ve Reviled Them, Now Can We Rehabilitate Them? Journal of Social Issues , 55 (2), 339-353.