Poor body image is a problem infecting the world as Western ideals and media are spreading. SAMANTHA STEELE examines the problem, and a possible solution.
It’s hardly a new dilemma for our time, but it’s a remarkably persistent one. And it’s spreading. Across cultures, socio-economic lines, and across the gender divide. Low self-esteem, unhappiness, and even eating disorders are becoming more and more common – all because of poor body image.
It’s the media’s fault – say psychologists, counsellors, dieticians and retouch artists. Natalie Maloney, a part-time counsellor at Crescent Clinic, says: “I think when it comes to body image the media probably plays the biggest role. It’s the most visible, it’s the most in your face. Teenagers live in a media saturated world, where they get their media input from magazines, and some from TV, whereas boys get theirs from internet and video games and that kind of stuff. So teenage boys are less exposed. It’s a two way street – the media reflects certain things, that people want, it also creates the world that we live in.”
Television is channelling hundreds of shows and movies, as well as millions of adverts, to the public, all featuring remarkably attractive people. Abnormal Psychology, by David Barlow and Mark Durand, mention a study: “[The study] refers to the ‘glorification of slenderness’ in magazines and on television, where the vast majority of females are thinner than the average American woman”. Magazines in particular are under fire. The fact that many women are unhappy with their bodies, and increasingly many men too, is a problem that is not lessening. In fact, it seems to be getting more severe.
But can the media be blamed? Are they doing anything wrong?
“If you go sit on a street corner and watch people walk past, your average person is not going to look anything like the people in magazines. However, these average people are invisible in the media,” says Maloney. Body image, and the particular and significant role the media portrays in creating body image, is something she has dealt with extensively. Crescent Clinic is a center that, amongst other things, treats eating disorders. Eating disorders are simply the extreme – the worst that can happen from poor body image. Most people just feel dissatisfied and unhappy, striving for an unrealistic ideal.
“The average young woman sees more images of incredibly beautiful women in a day than their grandmother’s saw in an entire lifetime. They are bombarded by these perfect, idealised images. And there’s no doubt that these images absolutely are not a reflection of reality,” continues Maloney. A study by Anna Cussins, published in the journal Feminist Review in 2001, agrees, saying that the British Medical Association reported that: “…waif-like models are fuelling an epidemic of illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia and criticised the widening gap between the shapes of real women and models.”
The problem is not simply that beautiful women, and increasingly attractive men too, are portrayed in magazines, TV and adverts. It’s that these people represent what is for most an unattainable ideal. The journal Current directions in psychological science explains: “Thin-ideal internalisation is thought to directly foster body dissatisfaction because this ideal is virtually unattainable for most females,” write J Kenvin Thompson and Kevin Stice. Abnormal Psychology says “… 69% of the Playboy centrefolds and 60% of the Miss America contestants weighed 15% or more below normal for their age and height, actually meeting one of the criteria for anorexia.” As Larissa West, a dietician working at My Diet Clinic in Pretoria says: “Models are the icons that we actually strive to be, as normal people, but they are the unhealthiest people you’ll ever get!” Maloney agrees, saying: “By being so very thin, which requires an unnatural amount of attention and dedications, and in fact, if you are that size, you are almost certainly not eating healthily, because it very unusual to be genetically that way inclined.”
However, Carine Visage, the Editor of Diet, Food and Natural Health on Health24.com says that the people displayed in the media are not necessarily unrealistic. “An ‘achievable body image’ is a very relative concept. For a small-framed woman, it may well be achievable; for a bigger-boned woman, it may not. In general though, the slim, trim image portrayed by the media probably isn’t achievable by most.”
Despite the plethora of accusations against magazines, the Assistant Editor and Features Editor of Cosmopolitan, Cathy Lund, says that Cosmo does not show an unhealthy or unachievable body image. “I think it’s a realistic and an inspirational body type. I mean, not everyone has their ideal weight. Not everyone is in their happiest in their bodies. But the girl’s that we reflect in the magazine are an inspirational body type. It’s healthy – it’s not thin, it’s not tiny, it’s not bony, it’s not underweight, it’s a nice ideal, realistic body weight. And I think that while not all our readers might have those bodies, they certainly aim to have these bodies.”
It’s not just the actual bodies of the people displayed in the media that are a problem. The pictures are also airbrushed and perfected by retouch artists, adding a new level of unfeasibility to the ‘ideal’. As Dillon Marsh, a retouch artist describes: “I think it is impossible to look like [the models], if you want it bluntly.” A retouch artist works with Photoshop in perfecting and altering photographs, according to what art directors or fashion editors of magazines request. “Really it’s just beautifying and smoothing out and taking out any imperfections. That’s the most simple explanation,” Marsh explains. He has worked with GQ, Elle, and has done a small amount of work for Cosmopolitan. Most of the time, Marsh fixes the skin of the models. “Taking away pimples or moles, reducing bags under the eyes and such. Then in other cases we’ve been asked to slim down the models,” says Marsh. Though this does not happen often, it does happen – particularly in adverts. “If it’s an advertising shoot and it’s a bikini shoot we’ll be asked to accentuate the boobs and so on. And maybe reduce the bum a little,” Marsh says. The women displayed in magazines are perfected in a way that is unachievable for even the models to look in real life. Maloney says: “Ask anyone you know, any woman your age, if they’d like to be thinner, and most of them, even the thin ones, will say yes, which is bizarre.”
Cathy Lund says that Cosmo restricts their retouching to the essential. Since they work five months ahead, they often do their December fashion shoots in the Western Cape’s cold, wet Spring months. “We’re shooting models in bikinis, and it’s freezing, freezing cold outside. So you’re going to have a model outside who’s got chicken flesh, her blue veins are showing, because it’s so cold. So what we’ll do to the pictures is we’ll touch that up so that it looks like it’s in summer that we shot it. But I mean we’re not giving her bigger boobs, or smaller bum, you know, we’re not taking away her freckles or any small imperfections that she has. We really are just doing things like getting rid of chicken flesh.” While that may be Cosmo’s policy, most publications and advertisers are not so tasteful in their retouching.
The bodies and faces of the models are an obvious point to discuss. But there is more to the poor body image equation than the fact that the people in the media are abnormally beautiful, and that ‘normal’ people are rarely seen. Dietician Larissa West explains: “Thin women are always depicted as being more successful, having the better husband, the better marriage, the better job. Which if you go and look at it, is not true at all. But people have this idea the thinner I am, the happier my life is going to be.” An article by Beth Younger, entitled Pleasure, pain, and the power of being thin in Young Adult Literature says: “Unless the weight of a character is specifically mentioned, the reader will most likely assume the character is thin… the fat person is marked as Other.” The beautiful, trim, sexy people represented in the media are always successful and happy.
Maloney suggests media literacy as a solution – one which she has tried and found successful in the past in various Body Image and the Media groups she held with Crescent Clinic. After all, it is not just seeing all of these images that is the problem, but rather believing them. “Thin-ideal internalisation refers to the extent to which an individual ‘buys into’ socially defined ideals of attractiveness and engages in behaviours designed to produce an approximation of these ideals,” write co-authors J Kevin Thompson and Kevin Stice. Maloney teaches young females – those the most vulnerable to poor body image (often a slippery slope to obsession and eating disorders) – to understand and not just absorb the images that are thrown at them through magazines and television. People that have gone through these programmes are less affected by the images in the media. In fact, Maloney says, “People need to be re-programmed. They need to be bombarded with images of normal people to counter-act the toxic acts of the one’s they are seeing.” Let’s hope that this too is not an impossible ideal.