Beauty and Body Image in the Media
When you look at yourself in the mirror or you think about the way you look, you are producing a certain image of yourself. Many young women don’t have an accurate perception of their bodies. They feel uncomfortable and ashamed, and they have a distorted idea about the way they look. Sometimes this turns into a chronic mental illness known as “body dysmorphic disorder,” in which a woman becomes obsessed with perceived flaws about her body. Seeing “perfect” female bodies on television, in movies and in magazines may contribute to this distorted self-image for many women, which can lead to serious problems such as anorexia and bulimia. The nearly unattainable standards presented by the media can make some women feel dangerously inferior when it comes to their bodies.
Beauty, as defined by images in the media, usually looks like this: thin body, unblemished skin, radiant hair and general, overall perfection. Sometimes the images that flood women’s eyes aren’t even real but are the product of airbrushed photos and clever camera angles. Acne, skin blemishes and wrinkles have no place in the media’s depiction of beauty. The bodies of most women in the public spotlight also usually represent extreme skinniness and very little curves or body fat. In some areas of the world and periods of history curves and voluptuousness have been valued in the female form. Up until the twentieth century, Americans also saw heavier, curvier ladies in the public eye. However, movements like the “flapper” scene and the “Twiggy” look helped to usher in thinner ideals for the feminine form.
The Culture of Thinness
The idea of thinness and bodily perfection is pervasive. Most fashion models fall far below the normal weight guidelines for women. Women’s magazines are often saturated with advertisements centering on weight loss. This idea that being underweight is desirable begins to impact some girls even before adolescence. One study reported half of girls ages 6 to 8 stating that they wanted to be slimmer. Being dissatisfied with a perfectly healthy body due to this type of media saturation can lead to body dysmorphic disorder. Many girls and women, no matter what their diet or exercise regimen, simply aren’t built like the models they see in the media and cannot attain the “beauty” that they desire. Genetics issue some women naturally wide hips, thick legs or overall body curves that can’t be eliminated by diet and exercise.
Self-Improvement or Self-Destruction
With so much emphasis being placed on looking a certain way, many young women feel pressure to “improve” the way that they look. Plastic surgery is a booming industry due to the desire to have perfect features like a face without wrinkles, breasts that are the ideal size and bodies that feature very little fat. Dieting and exercise can turn into obsessions that lead to voluntary self-starvation, binging and purging, extreme amounts of exercise and the abuse of diet pills and laxatives. The idea of self-improvement may seem positive at first, but it sometimes leads young women down a destructive trail that can spiral out of control quickly. Eating disorders, such as anorexia, actually have a high mortality rate with up to 10 percent of those diagnosed eventually dying from related factors.
The ideas of physical perfection and the role of women in society begin to infiltrate women’s minds as young as childhood. In traditional fairy tales, the heroine is typically featured as a helpless “damsel in distress” who requires the help of a “Prince Charming” to complete her and rescue her from danger. Rather than encouraging young girls to acquire self-sufficiency and strength, these fairy tales send the message that women need a “perfect” man to take care of them and get them out of trouble. Even the images in movies and television shows that are based on fairy tales depict these young ladies as perfectly beautiful and fit. What these fairy tales usually lack is positive depictions of “normal” women who are competent, happy with or without a man in their lives, and able to take care of themselves. Besides distorting what a woman should be like, these stories also tend to depict a flawless man, which also can lead some young women on an impossible, futile search for someone who doesn’t exist.
There’s no doubt that media presents a very specific slant on what women should look and act like. Perhaps that representation will change in the future. In the meantime, young women must find their own definition of beauty and strength. Parents can have a huge impact on this process of developing healthy young women by stressing personal characteristics that have substance and by watching out for signs of unhealthy behaviors and attitudes in their daughters. Young women’s happiness, relationships and lives are at stake.
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