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Crafting the Perfect Body

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How the Media Encourages Idealistic Female Forms

by Courtney Littler

In today's media, bodily perfection is not only the standard, it's the norm

One photograph at Lauren Greenfield's "Girl Culture" exhibition depicts a nineteen-year-old woman trying on a pair of stiletto heels at a high-end clothing store. The woman, Lillian, has long, shiny blonde hair and a face heavy with makeup. She gazes at the camera, her head tilted slightly and her mouth open, as if caught in the middle of this pronouncement: "Beauty is everywhere. You can't escape it."

The words are hers; she is quoted in a neat little box beside the picture. Her skin-baring little black dress shows off a naked shoulder, and it looks like one you might find on the catwalk, or at a star-packed movie premiere. Although Lillian is not an actress or a model, she still feels the pressure to emphasize her appearance in any way she can.

Greenfield's exhibition seeks to indict American society for allowing these pressures to exist. Photographs of girls and young women taking the act of body modification to the extreme are hard to ignore. Personal testimonies intrinsically point the finger at a culture that rewards women for "measuring up" to a certain physical ideal. Fifteen-year-old Sheena shaves her arms in order to appear more feminine, ascribing to the notion that a beautiful female body is completely smooth and hairless. Five-year-old Lily, too young even to read, wants to be famous one day so that others can "see [her] face and body." In nearly all of these photographs and corresponding testimonies, a female is resigned to the fact that her appearance is one of her top priorities, and it is society, Greenfield implies, that produces and encourages this attitude.

Greenfield is correct in her condemnation of a shallow American culture, and her photographs include an essential subtext about one of the most important aspects of that culture: the media. Society may be to blame for our culture's obsession with beauty, but nowhere is that society more eagerly represented than in film, television, and fashion magazines. The media, as a reflection of the society to which it caters, is a powerful instrument of social consciousness. Although it can be argued that the media simply reinforces the ideology of its collective audience, it also contributes to society's ills by creating illusions and masking them as authentic. Cultural ideals pertaining to beauty and femininity find security on the screen, and in the pages of fashion magazines, where they can transform into unattainable standards.

 

Airbrushing allows women to obtain impossible ideals
These ideals manifest themselves through images of beauty and through the implications that accompany them. Since an individual's culture and society are expected to be reflected in the media, it is not remarkable that she would attempt to identify with the image that is supposed to represent her. This identification becomes a problem when the media's representation of "beautiful woman" is consistently unvaried. When a medium exposes the same image again and again, it is likely to produce a sense of authenticity for the viewer, making it more difficult for her not to accept it, in a larger sense, as the truth. If a "beautiful woman" is always thin, with perfect skin and a flawless complexion, then the typical female viewer, who is most likely not all of these things, will find herself alienated by the very image with which she is supposed to identify. Her appearance must be wrong somehow and inadequate. It shouldn't be surprising that these distressing conclusions would lead to poor body image among many American women.

Several studies have been conducted pertaining to the direct relationship between media exposure and body consciousness. One study of a sample of Stanford graduates and undergraduates found that sixty-eight percent of students felt worse about their own appearances after reading women's magazines. Another found that individuals who were shown pictures of thin models had lower self-evaluations than those who had seen average-sized and plus-sized models (Media Scope 5). These statistics are disturbing because the images of these women, beautiful as they are, are incredibly unrealistic. The majority of photographs of models in magazines are airbrushed before they are published, erasing such "unattractive"—yet perfectly natural—physical traits such as freckles, blemishes and stretch marks. Airbrushing is also used to "trim down" a model so she will appear even more slender than she already is. Flaws are no longer an issue because they can be instantly eliminated. Claire, art director of a fashion magazine, notes that altering the appearance of a model is standard procedure: "Airbrushing means that we can do almost anything to a model's face…we can thin or thicken lips, whiten and straighten teeth, zap wrinkles, shadows and blemishes, change make-up and skin color, adjust hairstyles and even trim off any unwanted bulges" (Body Image 6). By altering the appearance of these women, magazines create imaginary ideals out of real individuals.

 

"Reality" programs feature only beautiful thin women
Magazines, however, are not the only place these images can be found. Film and television can play a substantial role in contributing to a woman's poor body image by depicting the ideal female figure as a specific prototype.
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Flaws are no longer an issue because they can be instantly eliminated. The most apparent characteristic of the media's ideal woman is thinness. In an article on television and women's bodies, Kristen Harrison observes, "Thinness is portrayed as the female ideal not only through depictions of thinness as attractive and virtuous but also through depictions of fatness as disgusting and worthy of ridicule" (4). Thinness, then, is associated not only with beauty but with moral worth. What woman wouldn't want to identify with that? Beauty and success are highly desirable to many women, and the media associates both of these things with a specific body type: the thin kind.

The problem is not that thin women are considered beautiful in the entertainment world; the problem is that beauty and sensuality are almost always attributed to thin women only. And not only are these women thin; in many cases they are dangerously underweight. Miss America contestants, for example, have become so skinny that the majority are now at least 15 percent below the healthy body weight in relation to their height (Schneider 7). Sixty-nine percent of female television characters are thin, while only five percent are overweight (Dittrich 11). Compared to a few generations ago, when the average top actress wore a size twelve, today's female celebrities average a size zero to two (Szwarc 4). Even so called "reality" programs feature only beautiful thin women, unless a larger woman's weight is somehow addressed in the storyline as a way of explaining such an unfamiliar image. While larger actresses are sometimes very successful in Hollywood, their roles are almost always limited to that of the tough or motherly figure. An overweight woman is almost never cast in the romantic lead role unless it involves a comic overtone, such as Queen Latifah's character in the comedy Bringing Down the House. More often they are depicted as tough and generally unfeminine, such as Rosie O'Donnell in A League of Their Own or Queen Latifah, again, in Chicago. The position of "sidekick" to the pretty girl is another popular role for the overweight actress; she is branded as funny and outrageous, a foil to the romantic lead female. She adds a fun element to the film or television show, but the romantic, sensual aspects of the story are attributed to her thinner, more beautiful counterpart.

 

Even Julia Roberts needs a body double
Even women who, by any standards, would be considered attractive are sometimes deemed not perfect enough to showcase their bodies in nude or semi-nude scenes. Body doubles often stand in for "imperfect" female movie stars, such as Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman and Gwenyth Paltrow in Shallow Hal. Not only is weight an issue in these circumstances, but other aspects of the female form come under scrutiny as well. Not only is a body double likely to be even thinner than the actress, but an astonishing eighty-five percent of these body doubles have breast implants (Girls, Women & Media 16). A natural, healthy female body is apparently not as beautiful or sensual as one that is surgically altered, according to the images on the screen. The most beautiful women, the media implicitly asserts, are those who possess bodies that are small in the waist and comparably large in the chest. Barbie, the most popular doll in the world and a timeless favorite among young girls, would have a grossly disproportionate body if she were enlarged to human-size with her current measurements. She would, in fact, be six feet tall and weigh a mere 101 pounds! Her measurements, at 39-19-33, would render her immobile (ANRED). Given that the makers of Barbie attempt to induce young girls to identify with the doll in order to increase sales, the underlying fact that Barbie's body could not exist without the help of plastic surgery seems vastly irresponsible. The average measurements of a contemporary fashion model are 33-23-33. Even given the benefit of the doubt by saying these models did not resort to plastic surgery to attain that figure, it is essential to acknowledge that these women comprise only one percent of the population. For the other ninety-nine percent, a figure like that is unattainable by any natural method.

The constant display of impossibly idealistic female forms—without the variation of bodies that naturally exists in our society—presents to women a message that beauty looks a certain way. Without a screen-image to identify with, many women are left with the conclusion that their bodies must be "fixed" in order to equate themselves with what is represented on screen. The very fact that the media is bombarded with virtually only two types of beautiful women—those who are thin and those who are thin with big breasts—promotes the message that these ideals are attainable. The majority of these characters are not meant to alienate the audience; female spectators are, for the most part, intended to identify with them.

 

Cosmetic procedures steadily increase in number
If female characters are presented as having attainable qualities, the more attractive their form becomes. The media wants, of course, to sell a product, even if that product is simply the film or television show in which the idyllic woman appears. If a woman identifies with the woman on the screen, who might be funny, smart, talented, or all of these things, then the product is more likely to be sold. Film and television is lush with female characters with a variety of personality traits with which to identify, and yet the body types of these very different types of women remain almost identical. The implication is that beauty comes in all types of personalities, but in only one shape and size.

The way women go about obtaining the ideal body, then, is increasingly through extreme measures. Surgery is more common today than ever before, largely due to the numerous celebrities that have openly (or not so openly) admitted to "improving" their bodies with a cosmetic procedure.
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Everybody Loves Raymond star Patricia Heaton is very open about her tummy tuck, candidly noting that she did it for sheer "vanity." Popular television personality Sharon Osbourne admits to having several procedures, including liposuction, a face-lift, a breast-lift, and a tummy tuck (People Weekly 1, 6). Cosmetic surgery is now a multi-billion dollar business, often capitalizing on the effects of media pressures through advertisements promising a better, more beautiful body. Liposuction and breast augmentation are the two most popular procedures among women, with an astonishing half million patients in 2001 alone. Rhinoplasty and blepharoplasty, surgery of the nose and eyelids, follow with just over 300,000 patients. Other body-modifying nonsurgical procedures include laser hair removal, chemical peels and microdermabrasion, all of which numbered in the millions in the year 2001 (Ophthalmology Times). None of these procedures are inexpensive, and all of them carry a particular level of risk, but the number of women opting to have them is nevertheless on the rise. Nearly 6.9 million people went under the knife in 2002, and eighty-eight percent were women. The number of cosmetic procedures in 1997 was a little over two million, showing an incredible increase of 228 percent (ASAPS). As celebrities' dress sizes get smaller, it seems, cosmetic procedures steadily increase in number.

 

Cosmetic surgery, eating disorders, weight loss camps
Many women who do not turn to plastic surgery to modify their bodies suffer from eating disorders as a result of media and societal pressures. It is estimated that five percent of American females, or seven million nationwide, suffer from either anorexia or bulimia, and without treatment, twenty percent of these women will die from the disorder (ANRED 1, 11). Research has found that girls and young women who were already dissatisfied with their bodies showed an increase in tendency toward "dieting, anxiety, and bulimic symptoms after prolonged exposure to fashion and advertising images in a teen girl magazine" (Media Scope 6). Excessive dieting, binging and purging, and uncontrollable exercising are frequently linked to the desire to obtain a thinner, better-looking body; many women are trading their health for the chance to live up to the media's standard of attractiveness. Forty percent of women admit that they would give up three to five years of their lives in order to achieve their ideal body weight. According to a recent study, "over half of the females surveyed between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat, and two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid" (Eating Disorder Statistics). These statistics demonstrate just how much physical attractiveness, especially thinness, is valued in the United States. A great many celebrities who are thought to have eating disorders are nevertheless idolized for their thin bodies, such as Lara Flynn Boyle, Calista Flockhart, and Brittany Murphy. Christina Ricci, who admits having suffered from anorexia, was praised by the media for having slimmed down her formerly size-ten body as a result of the disorder.

Cosmetic surgery and eating disorders can put a heavy toll on an individual's physical well-being, but there is another popular method young women turn to as a way of shedding pounds and achieving the thin ideal. Weight loss camps, or "fat camps," may not be physically dangerous, but the emotional impact these programs have on young women can be scarring. Lauren Greenfield's "Girl Culture" exhibit makes a powerful statement about the prevalent attitude that places thinness as the ultimate goal, no matter what the cost. Two photographs, side by side, illustrate the "before and after" of a group of girls at weight loss camp. In the first picture, the girls are smiling, their arms around each other, and they are dressed in brightly colored clothes that showcase their cheerful nature and good spirits. They are slightly overweight, but they are jovial and looking forward to a good time. The second picture shows the same girls, noticeably thinner. The program has clearly been successful, but there is something different about these girls, aside from the shapes of their bodies.

 

The burden of constant body-consciousness.
The girls are no longer smiling, their clothes are not brightly colored, and they look, in fact, relatively miserable. Two of the girls are not even looking at the camera; the one that does look has a blank, cheerless expression. They have lost the weight, but, Greenfield seems to ask, what else have they lost?

The subjects in Greenfield's weight loss camp photographs seem to be casualties of the ongoing war between thin and fat, beautiful and ugly. They have been taught to focus on their bodies as vehicles through which they will be judged. Their personalities, their senses of humor, their intelligence, and their senses of self-worth are encouraged to take a backseat to their physical appearances. The girls are no longer cheerful and bright, but what does it matter? They are now thin and beautiful, and society will embrace them because of that fact. They will no longer feel alienated from the media; they will no longer suffer the humiliation of being branded unworthy of idolization. They will, however, have to live with the burden of constant body-consciousness, and this constant awareness leaves little room for jovial spirits.

Media images and implications contribute to the body-crisis epidemic, and the media has a responsibility to alleviate the harm in some capacity. The first step toward improvement is to showcase a variety of women in roles that portray them as beautiful and sensual beings. A handful of television shows are doing this already: Peri Gilpin of Frasier and Sara Rue of Less Than Perfect prove that curvier women are successful in romantic roles. Some films have attempted to cast bigger women in romantic lead roles, such as Kate Winslet in Titanic, Minnie Driver in Circle of Friends, and Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary. The latter two actresses, however, took a lot of criticism for their weight in these roles and quickly slimmed down shortly after the films were released. In order to convey the message that a woman can be beautiful no matter what her size or shape, the media must do its part to illustrate that fact by portraying women of all shapes and sizes as beautiful. Perhaps then a young woman like Lillian will believe it's more worthwhile to spend her time improving her character, rather than her body.


Courtney Littler is a Junior at USC. A Creative Writing major, she hopes to be a freelance novelist in the near future. In 2003, she placed first in the Edward W. Moses Undergraduate Creative Writing competition.



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