Looks don’t matter; beauty is only skin-deep. We hear these sayings every day, and yet we live in a society that seems to contradict this very idea. If looks don’t matter, why does the media use airbrushing to hide any flaws a person has? If looks don’t matter, why are so many young women harming themselves because they’re unhappy with the way they look? It’s because our society promotes a certain body image as being beautiful, and it’s a far cry from the average woman’s size 12. The unrealistic standard of beauty that women are bombarded with everyday gives them a goal that is impossible to reach, and the effects are devastating. These impossible standards need to be stopped, and society instead needs to promote a healthy body image along with the idea that women of all shapes and sizes are beautiful—not just women who are a size 2.
The media’s use of airbrushing is one of the major causes of these impossible standards of beauty. Leah Hardy, a former Cosmopolitan editor, admitted that this is true—many of the stick-thin models in Cosmo were actually struggling with eating disorders, but were airbrushed to look less unwell (Crisell). In an interview with the Daily Mail, Hardy stated, [the models had 22-inch waists, but they also had breasts and great skin. They had teeny tiny ankles and thin thighs, but they still had luscious hair and full cheeks. Thanks to retouching, our readers never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny. The models’ skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology… A vision of perfection that simply didn’t exist. (qtd. by Crisell) By airbrushing these models, the media gives young girls the idea that this body image is attainable—and by trying to look like these models, these girls become just as unhealthy.
Cosmopolitan also asked their readers if they were confident with their bodies. Of the 1000 women surveyed, over 60% revealed that they weren’t (Cosens). Psychologists and doctors are beginning to push for a ban on airbrushed images, stating that these images are causing eating disorders and depression in girls as young as five; a survey by Girlguiding UK found that over half of girls ages eleven to sixteen are dieting in order to be thinner (Couzens). And these airbrushed images don’t only have a negative effect on the women who see them—can you imagine being one of the women in these advertisements? Myleene Klass spoke out about what it’s like, stating that in some photographs she’s seen, she looks absolutely nothing like herself. “It’s always weird to see what an art director creates as a flawless version of yourself,” she admits (Crisell).
Studies have also been done concerning the influence of magazines on women, and the results make things perfectly clear: the media needs to stop promoting unrealistic body images. Turner, Hamilton, Jacobs, Angood, and Dwyer conducted a study in 1997 in which thirty-nine college-age women were randomly assigned to two different tasks: one group of women viewed a fashion magazine prior to taking a body image survey, while the other group viewed a news magazine. The women who were assigned the group that viewed the fashion magazine stated that they wanted to lose more weight and viewed themselves more negatively than the women who read the news magazine. A study performed by Marian Morry and Sandra Staska in 2001 found that “media exposure to the ‘ideal’ form is being internalized” (Chojnacki). However, this ideal form, quite simply, doesn’t exist—“print and electronic media images blur the boundaries between a fictionalized ideal and reality. Therefore, these ‘ideal’ images that are represented in the mass media are not only unreal, but also very misleading” (Thompson and Heinberg, qtd. in “Dissatisfaction”).
Some companies have already begun to take the necessary steps to put an end to these impossible standards. In 2004, Dove started their Campaign for Real Beauty, in which they feature women of all shapes and sizes in their advertisements and don’t retouch the images (Cosens). Dove also includes self-esteem toolkits and resources on their website as part of their mission: “to help develop girls’ self-esteem from a young age, so they have the confidence to feel happy in themselves and reach their full potential” (“Our Mission”). H&M has also recently joined in the effort to promote a healthier (and more realistic) body image by using bigger mannequins. While most mannequins are sizes 4 to 6, these mannequins are a size 12—the size of the average American woman (“Photo of plus size mannequins”). This seems like another step in the right direction; however, H&M has met worldwide debate as many feel that these mannequins encourage obesity and unhealthy lifestyles. One man commented on the article about the new mannequins saying, “Cover those fat women up. This is sick.” Another stated that this is just an attempt to lower men’s expectations of an ideal mate and is encouraging “mediocrity, laziness, and self-indulgence.” These comments are exactly what’s wrong with today’s society, and are why things need to change.
While many young girls are aware that the photographs they see of celebrities have been retouched, they don’t realize the women they see in movies, music videos, and TV shows have also been airbrushed (Crisell). Not only that, but as former actress and singer Demi Lovato pointed out, the stars of many TV shows have also been getting considerably thinner: “Is it just me, or are the actresses getting THINNER and THINNER… I miss the days of That’s So Raven and Lizzie McGuire,” Lovato tweeted, referencing actresses Raven Symone and Hilary Duff (Piazza). Lovato isn’t the only one to hold this view, either. Psychotherapist Dr. Jenn Berman stated that “networks and shows that cater to children need to be more mindful in both casting and writing to ensure that children of all shapes and sizes are represented”; similarly, Dr. Jeffrey Gardere stated that “constantly portraying these so-called perfect bodies in the media… can promote unhealthy eating, diet, and food disorder practices that can cause injury and sometimes death, not to mention the psychological damage that can severely impact self image and self-esteem” (Piazza).
Things haven’t always been this way; in the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe epitomized the standard of beauty at size 14. However, the ideal body size for women keeps going down, and with it, women’s self-esteem: the average model today is 5’11” and weighs in at 117 pounds, whereas the average woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 (“Dissatisfaction”). Actresses are getting thinner; models are getting thinner; and as if these models and actresses aren’t thin enough already, the media proceeds to airbrush them. What was wrong with Marilyn Monroe’s size 14? Absolutely nothing, and since this was the image that the media promoted, this look was accepted. Why can’t we go back to promoting curves instead of skin and bones—or better yet, why can’t we promote the idea that women of all shapes and sizes are equally beautiful? We can, and the place to start is with the media.
The sad thing is that these unrealistic body images don’t just exist in the media; they surround us, although they’ve become so entrenched in our society that we don’t even notice. Take the Barbie doll—many young girls grow up playing with Barbies, but have you ever stopped to think about the body image that Barbie promotes? If Barbie was real, “her body fat percentage would be so low that she would not be able to menstruate. Her measurements would be 38-18-34.” Comparatively, the average woman’s measurements are approximately 41-34-43—only about one in 100,000 women even come close to matching Barbie’s body image. These unrealistic body images are introduced at such a young age that it’s no surprise young girls struggle with their weight; about 90% of all cases of eating disorders are diagnosed before the age of 20, and the majority of those diagnosed are young women (“Barbie”).
College women also face these ideas of the ideal body image every day, and from their own peers. Many fraternities judge women solely on appearance when it comes to deciding whom to let into parties, as they only want “attractive” women; we also see examples of this in movies such as Knocked Up, where there’s a long line of women waiting to get into a club… but if you look a certain way, you can skip the line. In this way, women feel a lot more pressure to look a certain way than men, as much of this pressure comes from the men—and this peer pressure actually “influence[s] women to compare themselves to the models in fashion magazines and on television,” leading to further body dissatisfaction. Faced by all this pressure to look a certain way, is it any wonder that 88% of women want to lose weight (Sheldon)?
We see these unrealistic body images in the media; we grow up surrounded by them without even noticing it, because they’ve “seeped into American culture” (Kantor). As a result, this idea of the ideal body image has become internalized, along with negativity toward fat. Dr. Michael Levine, co-author of The Prevention of Eating Problems and Eating Disorders: Theory, Research, and Practice, proved this point by proposing a hypothetical scenario: suppose someone comes up to you and tells you that you’re looking really good because you’ve put on some fat. While this statement is intended to be a compliment—telling someone that they’re looking really good—because the word “fat” is included, it’s perceived negatively (Kantor). But if so much negativity toward fat exists, and so many young women are struggling with eating disorders, why are obesity rates skyrocketing?
Our nation’s obesity epidemic is actually related to these unrealistic body images—the same unrealistic body images that are causing eating disorders. “American society is not suffering from two distinct health problems,” Kantor of the Harvard Political Review writes, “It is experiencing two symptoms of one serious disorder.” Dr. Allison Field, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, noted that, “as obesity has become more and prevalent, the ideal standard of beauty has not changed, resulting in a growing gap between the average person and his or her ideal body image,” a contrast which fuels the obesity-eating disorder paradox. As our society emphasizes this negativity toward fat and obesity, while holding up these stick-thin, airbrushed models as the ideal body image, it’s actually causing depression, dieting behaviors, excessive weight concerns, and loss of control eating—many of the things that lead to both obesity and eating disorders, according to Dr. Marian Tanofsky-Kraff of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Tanofsky-Kraff also makes sure to point out that “dieting frequently backfires and can lead to more weight gain,” although that’s what many young women feel they have to do in order to meet these unrealistic standards (Kantor).
These unrealistic body images are a huge problem in today’s society, as their effects are detrimental—but there is a solution. The media can stop airbrushing; more companies can follow in Dove’s footsteps and feature women of all shapes and sizes in their advertisements. Quite simply, “the environment in which [we] live needs to change in order to foster healthy behaviors and prevent a situation that further stigmatizes overweight persons” (Sheldon). Instead of focusing on weight and dieting in order to meet an unrealistic standard of beauty, we can promote healthy lifestyles for the sake of being healthy—thus putting a stop the obesity-eating disorder paradox and allowing women to feel good about themselves again. And once the media starts promoting the idea that all women are beautiful, women can stop feeling pressured to look a certain way. It’s time to prove that these sayings aren’t just sayings: looks really don’t matter, and beauty really is only skin-deep.