The Media and Influence on Body Image

It is hardly controversial to say that society has an unhealthy obsession with images of beauty, good looks and the idea of perfection. If one were to judge our civilization solely by images found in magazines and on television and film, they would labor under the false impression that not only did we all bear a striking physical resemblance to each other, but that we are an inordinately attractive race, like one of those races that Captain Kirk seemed to be running into all the time. More controversial, perhaps, is the subtext beneath the plethora of attractive entertainers. Turn on any television show, flip through any magazine, go to any movie and if you do happen to come across someone who doesn’t fit into the narrow mold of what is considered good looking, chances are that person is presented as either the “bad guy” or, more probably, the “nerd.” There is evidence to suggest that the constant flow of images that stem from a certain ideology do have an effect on the masses, and there can be little doubt that modern society’s obsession with appearance can be traced to an onslaught of images holding out as the ideal a physicality that is not only unrealistic for the majority of people, but also unhealthy. Beyond that, and perhaps far more dangerous, is the possibility that those who do not attain this ephemeral and phony concept of the ideal are treated with disregard and discrimination.

Most people are aware that the average television show is peopled by actors considered good looking to a degree far out of kilter with reality. Women, especially, are objectified by an unrealistic expectation of beauty put forward by models and actresses who do not reflect the average appearance of women in society, but men are affected as well. The average man and woman are subjected by the media to a constant onslaught of imitations of reality which bear little or no resemblance to actual reality. From sitcoms to so-called “reality shows,” the society that is reflected on television and in movies is populated almost exclusively by actors who are, if not physically fit, then at least far from out of shape.

Print advertising is probably the most egregiously unrealistic of all media representations of how people should look. The majority of today’s female models and actresses are thin to the point of anorexic. In fact, the unhealthily thin look has gotten to the point where a new term was coined to describe it: heroin chic. This term can be traced back to Calvin Klein, the clothing designer who is probably most identified with presenting controversial female role models. From his days utilizing an underage Brooke Shields to sell scandalously tight jeans to a notorious mid-90s campaign that was so offensive it resulted in an investigation by the Dept. of Justice to determine if any kiddie porn laws had been violated, Klein has been at the forefront of the effort to manipulate body image desires. No fool, Klein cashed in on the popularity of the grunge music scene in the early 90s with its attendant heroin use and began presenting models, most famously Kate Moss, who were so thin they looked like heroin addicts. While grunge music essentially went the way of Kurt Cobain with his suicide, unfortunately the heroin chic can still be found in magazines.

With this unrealistic portrayal of how a woman should look combining with the obscene amounts of money they make, only the most oblivious would deny at least a tenuous connection between media representation of beauty and the obscene growth of eating disorders among the young. How obscene? A doubling in the number of cases since the 1960’s with a frightening number of cases among girls under the age of 10. As Homer Simpson says, statistics are meaningless; they can be used to prove anything: The average woman fits into a size 10 and above, whereas the average model fits into a size 2 or 3; 80% of ten year old girls have dieted; twenty years ago the weight difference between the average woman and the average model was just 8% while today it is a staggering 23%.

This unrealistic portrayal of physical attractiveness it not a difficult one to assess; it’s simply a case of capitalism doing what it does best, creating a need that isn’t naturally occurring. Who benefits the most from presenting images of unnaturally attractive and physically fit role models? The media benefits because people like to look at attractive things, but the real winners are those industries that sell the idea of beauty and fitness. Thirty years ago diet books and programs were virtually unknown. That isn’t to say that people weren’t overweight in the 70s, nor is it to say that people weren’t interested in becoming more attractive. It is more the case that people weren’t bombarded with 100 channels twenty-four hours a day with people either explicitly or subliminally telling them they aren’t attractive enough. Today, it seems as though there is a new trendy diet that everybody is trying every other day. Or else there’s a new pill we can take or even a belt we can wear! And losing weight doesn’t just result in looking better. Most of these commercials tell their audience that will gain self-confidence by losing weight. Not only that, but they will get a better looking mate and even land a better paying job and all because they got physically fit. The message that attractiveness means so much more than fitting into a smaller pair of jeans has gotten to the point where people whom not even Hollywood advertising execs would dare deem overweight are actually obsessing about weight loss.

Of course, women are not the only targets of the mass media; after all, men make considerably more money than women and so represent a massive amount of potential profit in the selling of unrealistic ideals. In fact, it is estimated that American men alone spend almost 10 billion dollars a year on products designed to improve their appearance. Of course, most men don’t aspire to the heroin chic look; rather they fantasize about having Brad Pitt’s abs. Therefore, the money spent by men tends to be spent on sporting goods and workout equipment designed to bulk them while slimming them down. In recent years, however, men have also been spending more money than ever before on such traditionally feminine beauty products as skin and hair goods, colognes, creams, wigs, and hair coloring chemicals. In 2004, worldwide revenue for men’s personal care products hit an all time high of 16 million dollars.

When it comes to the dating world, the worst kept secret is that looks matter more than personality and intelligence. A casual viewing of dating programs offers anecdotal evidence. It is universally agreed-upon that people on these shows usually pick the best-looking counterpart out of the group of contestants. Both women and men are far more concerned with appearance than personality on these types of programs. But does this phenomenon transfer into the job market? If people are more prone to pick the more attractive candidate to date, will they also be more prone to pick the more attractive candidate to hire? Much academic and non-academic research has been done on the subject of attractive applicants getting preferential treatment and the majority has shown at least a correlation between physical attractiveness and getting hired. Some research has found that more attractive workers even receive higher compensation than unattractive counterparts even where they perform the same work and have similar levels of work experiences. The media typically present better-looking people as making a better impression upon employers and customers, as well as doing a better job than unattractive people. It has been well-established that pretty waitresses make better tips than unattractive waitresses.

Television, film and the print media present a world that is not an accurate reflection of society. Casts of TV shows and movies are made up of an inordinate number of attractive people that in no way reflects reality. Print advertising in particular provides a not only unrealistic, but unhealthy ideal of what it means to be physically attractive. By continuously presenting these false images, the media has created an ideology of attractiveness; a belief that better looking people are better at everything than less attractive people. That unattractive people are discriminated against in the media is not even open to debate. To cite just one example, the young lady in the film The Princess Diaries is judged a nerd simply by virtue of bad hair and glasses. Almost as if by magic, once her glasses come off and she gets a nice hairdo not only is she deemed substantially more attractive, but also more poised, popular and worthy of admiration. Too bad that the movie is more of a reflection of society than the other way around.