Beauty, body image and the media – guest blog by Bidisha

Posted on 1 June 2012


Posted on 31 May 2012.

writer, critic and broadcaster

Yesterday a cross party group of MPs produced yet another report on the subject of what is fast becoming a national body image crisis (see WVoN story).

Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by unrealistic, unattainable and often fabricated images of the human body – usually the young female body, usually being used to sell something.

If it’s not flogging insurance or toothpaste or washing up liquid or plane tickets to exotic places or bio-active yoghurt then it’s clothes, underwear, shampoo, soap…all things which men surely also use in equal amounts, and yet the products are marketed wholly on the image of a young woman.

Every day we see thousands of these images, not only in advertising but in the print, magazine, TV features and online media which now surrounds us.

Almost all of the images we see through these media have been altered in some way: made thinner, brighter, sharper, had so-called ‘defects (which are nothing more than natural lines, curves and shadows) erased or ‘corrected’.

They form the wallpaper, the backdrop, the muzak, the white noise to our everyday lives, leaking invisibly like a toxic gas into our pores.

We often believe that these images do not affect us and perhaps, consciously, they don’t. We tell ourselves that we are intelligent and educated adults with some degree of nuanced understanding about the beauty myth, the objectification of women and the profit-driven wiles of public image-making and are perfectly able to separate real life from glossy fantasy.

But the images have an overwhelming subconscious effect which is very complex, deep and damaging in its consequences.

It affects the way we understand ourselves as people; the way we meet, assess, make assumptions about and sometimes negatively judge other people.

It affects the kind of value we place on ourselves and others within the working world, in culture and in our own relationships; the roles we feel comfortable with adopting in society and work.

And it governs what we deem acceptable when it comes to what we do (and what is done) to our bodies in our lives and our most intimate relationships.

Appearances are not important – and yet the message we receive, particularly regarding girls and women, is that appearance is the only thing which is important.

This tragically distorts the way we value ourselves. It makes us hate ourselves, rate ourselves (and always find ourselves wanting) and think of ourselves, and others, as objects, not people.

The damaging message that appearance is all is bolstered by the fallacy that being a beautiful woman by profession – that is, being a model, a presenter or an actress – is lucrative, easy money for little work, a way of exploiting natural assets, a quick route to success and visibility.

None of these things are true.

These jobs require incredibly hard work, long hours, intense concentration and total commitment. They come with great career insecurity and a very long road to become a top earner.

The careers are, typically, of only four or five years’ duration and the proportion of women who ultimately succeed in these industries, compared to the numbers who enter and try, is infinitesimal.

The vast and overwhelming majority are thrown by the wayside, taken for a ride, underpaid, exploited and overworked.

They suffer great pressure to look ‘perfect’ and are spoken about, and to, as if they are disposable pieces of meat. In fact, this is how they are treated.

The film industry, modelling and presenting are notorious for both their depiction and their brutal treatment of women. Meanwhile, the really fulfilling, influential and challenging jobs in the same industries – directing, designing, producing, writing – are very gender-unequal and discriminatory.

And yet…. to love beauty and elegance, style and aesthetics is natural. People of both sexes have decorated themselves and their surroundings for thousands of years, in every part of the world.

What’s dangerous, however, is repeat compulsive behaviour driven by anxiety: obsessive worries about tiny details which nobody else can see, fuelled by overblown and unrealistic expectations; an extreme focusing on oneself as a collection of body parts instead of as a whole person with a soul and mind as well as a body; and a skewed and unbalanced perception of the importance of appearance.

There is a prevalence of wholly false images of what the body looks like: hairless, fatless, smooth, silent, young, pleasurable for the beholder but blank within, toned enough to be pleasing but not so toned that it looks powerful.

Image culture affects everything and everyone, whether we want them to or not. The starkest and most shocking effect can be witnessed on the young, who are growing up in a culture of ubiquitous objectification, falsification and mass media.

The media, for them, is so close and ever-present that it is in their school bag, their hand, their pocket, on their desk or beside their bed 24 hours a day.

The young watch, film, follow and photograph themselves and others – and this affects how they see themselves and others.

The entire culture, from adverts to music videos and films to the pervasiveness of beauty and fashion marketing and the ready availability of porn to ever younger viewers, sexualises girls from an ever younger age and surely also affect the way boys see girls, sex, relationships – and themselves.

The female bodily sexuality depicted in all the media from pop to porn is of a pleasing, silent, ever-ready yet emotionally numb type devoid of humour, friendship, warmth, conversation or free, fair and equal exchange between partners.

Meanwhile, the wider culture gives girls in particular very strong messages that they are only acceptable if they are unnaturally slim, unnaturally beautiful, excessively groomed, pretty, smiling, passive, pleasing and accessible.

Yet the grooming and self-consciousness this requires eats up a girl’s time, her confidence, her sexual autonomy, her attention, her resources and her sense of value in herself.

It plays directly into the steep increase in anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia among girls (and increasingly amongst boys too) and great pressure being placed on girls to enter into sexual relations and to behave sexually before they are ready, before they feel any desire and before they have any understanding of the subtlety of sensuality.

They may feel pressure to behave sexually before they are even interested in matters of sexuality. And they are in danger of losing any sense of the sacredness of their own body: that it is perfect as it is and doesn’t need constant changing, checking, correcting, tweaking or vigilance.

Once you have begun to see yourself as an object to which anything can be done, it is a short road to seeing yourself as an object to whom anyone else can do anything they like.

Once a girl or woman has internalised the message that she is nothing more than an imperfect sexual object, it is but a short, fatal step towards numbly accepting sexual harassment, sexual bullying, staring, remarks, even sexual violence, control and abusiveness from others.

If a woman does not value herself as a person, she cannot stand up for herself as a person, because she truly doesn’t believe she deserves any better. The entire beauty, fashion, cosmetic surgery and body-policing industries are run on female self-hatred.

The prevalence of false and passive images is not counterbalanced by other more positive and realistic images of girls or women anywhere else in cultural and public life.

There is a massive under-representation and under-celebration of women in all areas of the media when it comes to women as politicians, academics, experts, speakers, authority figures, commentators and leaders.

Women are also under-represented, except as sexist clichés, in mainstream films and other fictional narratives like TV programmes.

Even when they are presenting, it has become the norm to pair a very young, beautiful woman with a much older man – and to replace the woman when she passes a certain (shockingly young) age.

The only time females achieve equal or increased representation in the media is in beauty and fashion features, where the golden rule of advertising always applies: if you want people to buy a product, make them feel bad about themselves.

*BIDISHA is a writer, critic and journalist who focuses on culture, the arts and issues of gender as well as international human rights reporting.