advertising aims to convince us to buy things, ads seldom portray people that look like us. The billboards, the commercials, the polish, the panache, the beauty products that promise a drink from the fountain of youth all offer, in what ever form they choose a chance at a viable, workable self-esteem. But these offers are intangible and indeed elusive. One can usually only attain the skinny legs and the full voluptuous lips by plastic surgery or starvation. Most women who are featured on the cover of major magazines are altered. Either made lighter, darker, thinner or larger in breast size. These “false body images,” do not accurately portray the general population, and in the end does more to damage self-esteem than its claims to resurrect it.
The average female fashion model wears sizes 0-4, while the average American woman wears between a size 12 and a size 14. Over the years, many designers have asserted that they only choose thinner models because the clothes look best on them, as if their creativity and artistry are not adequate to look gorgeous or sheik on the majority of the population. But studies show that the majority of people tend to trust what they see. In such an environment, the average person can easily confuse a photo shopped image as being a truthful depiction. The constant barrage of unrealistically skinny images can stir up feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression. It can even lead to the development of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
The reality is that 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.” 86% report onset of eating disorder by age 20; 43% report onset between ages of 16 and 20. Studies show that Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. 25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique. The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. In a survey of 185 female students on a college campus, 58% felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83% that dieted for weight loss. This is a far cry from the 1950’s, when advertisement was less about body image and thinness, and more about an idea of beauty that reflected the majority of the population.
There are many factors that contribute eating disorders. Social factors, such as professional models and what the media portrays as beautiful to cultural pressures that glorify thinness and place value on obtaining the “perfect body. The psychological factors include a quest for perfection, Low self-esteem, and feelings of inadequacy or lack of self-control. All of which are exploited by the barrage of advertising that constantly litters the highways and magazine covers.
Susan Bordo wrote a moving piece called “The Empire of Images in Our World of Bodies.” Bordo writes “When television was introduced to Fiji in 1995, the islands had no reported cases of eating disorders. In 1998, three years after programs from the United States and Britain began broadcasting there, 62% of the girls surveyed reported dieting. The anthropologist Anne Becker was surprised by the change; she had thought that Fijian aesthetics, which favor voluptuous bodies, would “withstand” the influence of media images. Becker hadn’t yet understood that we live in an empire of images and that there are no protective borders.” Bordo’s findings suggest that our obsessions with dieting and being thin have more to do with a portrayal of beauty fabricated by the media, and less to do with being healthy.
It becomes clear that the media, with its insistence on thinness and symmetry, helps contribute to the widespread dysfunction that exists. There are more than one hundred scientific studies on the impact of “perfected,” advertising images on girls and women. These studies suggest that negative effects do occur in the majority of adolescent girls and women. For example, one experiment found that exposure to thin-ideal images taken directly from fashion magazines produced significant increases in self-reported depression, stress, guilt, shame, insecurity and body dissatisfaction relative to women exposed to images of average-weight women from magazines. They show that, on average, exposure to the thin media ideal is linked with greater body dissatisfaction and more unhealthy eating beliefs and behaviors in women. Although the overall effect is moderate in size, it is very significant in women who already have some body image issues, and among adolescents. A recent study conducted by the National Health Institute found that children as young as 5 years old had lower body-esteem and a higher desire to be more thin after exposure to images of a thin Barbie doll compared to girls who saw images of dolls with a healthy body size. A whopping 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures. While 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape. Another 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner. While 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
The body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal is possessed naturally by only 5% of American females. The power of the media, the ability to change perception and ultimately, alter the way in which people view the world is profound. I wonder if this power, this teeming influence will mar future generations understanding of the past. I wonder when they look back if they’ll see a world that built and constructed false narratives about themselves: stories and images that depict a society at odds with reality and seeking to create a vain world of fake boobs and Botox injections: attempts to fool Father Time. I’m not sure how future generations will view us, but I hope that they are better than us. I hope that history, with all its lessons and monopoly on hindsight, will serve as tutor and teacher. I hope that those who come to inhabit this place after us will learn from our mistakes and see beauty as transcending a thin waist or makeup covered face.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. San Jose: University of California Press, 2004.
Dittmar, Dr. Helga. Consumer culture, identity, and well-being: The search for the ‘good life’ and ‘body perfect’. United Kingdom: Psychology Press, 2008.
Killing Us Softly 4. Dir. Sut Jhally. Perf. Jean Kilbourne. 2011.
Levine, Dr. Michael. The Prevention of eating problems and eating disorders: Theory, research and practice. Gambier: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006.
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