Body Image and Digital Communication
American writer Allen Ginsberg once said “Whoever controls the media – the images – controls the culture.” More accurate words have never been spoken. The images shown on magazine covers, television, and advertisements have a direct impact on our society’s perception of beauty, body image, and self worth. Through marketing tactics and advertising, the media creates an opinion of what a person should look like and gives people ideals that they should strive to obtain. Consequently, people feel compelled to look like what they see and are plagued with stress and disappointment for not looking like the celebrities or models displayed in the images they are exposed to. However, while it is good to be informed by the media, people need to be careful in how they are being influenced by it because the portrayal of society in the media is not an accurate one. This false depiction of society includes gender, culture, body and self image.
But in order to understand how one thing affects the other, one must first understand how some important concepts are defined. First of all, self image is the psychological depiction that represents what has been learned by a person about himself or herself based on either personal experiences or by internalizing the opinions of others. It affects what a person does and how they interact with other people. Body image is a similar concept. It is also a psychological depiction of the self, but more specifically it pertains to a person’s perception of his or her own appearance. Like self image, one’s perception of body image is influenced by what one believes others think of them. Body image also affects people’s interactions with others and it affects what they wear and how they modify their bodies.
The biggest influence on body image and self image has always been the media and due to its global media dominance, the United States is culturally imperialistic, thus all cultures look to US culture for guidance. Furthermore, US culture is predominantly white, especially in the media, therefore it is not irrational to think all cultures look to white culture to establish their self image. This means that even though all cultures have their own role models and icons that they look up to, in the long run, people around the world look to white culture to find the definition of beauty.
It should be obvious that due to the genetics of each different ethnicity, it is difficult for them to live up to the ideals set by the predominantly white American culture. For example, Hispanic women tend to have dark hair and curvy bodies. It is easy to change their dark hair using hair dyes, but what about their naturally curvy bodies? Unfortunately, for African-American women it seems to be a bit more complicated than that. Like Hispanic women, African-American women tend to have curvier bodies. But not only are their bodies more rounded, they also have a darker skin complexion, something that the media has not fully embraced. Many times, photos of African-American women are altered to appear as though they have lighter skin than they actually do. One example of this is an advertisement for L’Oreal Paris (pictured below) which features African-American singer, Beyonce Knowles. Many were outraged because the singer’s skin looked several shades lighter in the ad. But despite complaints and an investigation, L’Oreal denied the allegations.
And though skin color is the most prominent of the physical features differing between white and black individuals, there is another issue African-American women face that is not as obvious as skin color. The media also puts pressure on black women to have socially acceptable hair. In other words, the media does not accept black women’s natural hair and they feel forced to modify it to look more like that of non-African Americans. This includes straightening their hair using irons or chemical relaxers, wearing wigs, or wearing expensive weaves. This high demand in African American hair products has created an industry worth $9 billion.
In addition to the cultural aspect incorrectly portrayed in the media, one must also look at social aspects erroneously represented. Even though the US is one of the most overweight and obese countries in the world, most of the women shown on TV have a slender figure. According to The Obesity Society, otherwise known as NAASO, more than 64% of adults in the United States are either overweight or obese. However, 69% of people on television are thin and only 5% are overweight. Moreover, the average North American woman is five-foot-four and weighs 140 pounds, while the average model is five-foot-eleven and weighs 117 pounds. Not only does this misrepresent our culture, it also creates an illusion that being thin is the norm. Women in the media are becoming thinner at a time when average women are becoming heavier, thus the difference between what is ideal and what is reality is increasing.
What many fail to note, however is that most images in magazines, on advertising, and on the internet are digitally enhanced. People in these images are altered to look thinner, their facial features are enhanced to larger lips, a smaller nose, and blemish-free skin. In other words, people are made to look like something different than what they really are. However, many people aren’t aware of the extent to which these images are enhanced and compare themselves to unrealistic and often unattainable standards. Below is a video that helps to illustrate this point.
Sometimes a person’s perception of his or her own body differs severely from what others think of it or from what it actually is and they develop an extremely distorted look of their bodies. This can develop into body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is a psychological anxiety disorder in which a person is obsessively worried about an imagined flaw in his or her physical features.
Not only is there worry about body shape and weight, people who suffer from body dysmorphic disorder mostly worry about their facial features. In the book The Broken Mirror by Dr. Katharine Philips, she conducted a study of over 500 patients in which she discovered the most common causes of worry among people who suffer BDD. According to her findings:
73% worry about their skin
56% worry about their hair
37% worry about their nose
22% worry about their weight
A real life example involves aspiring model/actress, Jenny Lee. She has had over 30 cosmetic procedures to date because she was highly discontent with the way she looked before. Now she looks like an entirely different person (pictured below).
The media’s obsession with looks has created a narcissistic society that will go to many lengths to achieve beauty. Because they have developed insecurities in their bodies, millions of people choose to have plastic surgery. But this is not the only route for those who are dissatisfied with their bodies. Many people develop eating disorders as a result of their frustration with their bodies. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, an estimated 8 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. This means that nearly half of the American population knows someone with an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Up to 20% of people affected seriously by anorexia can die prematurely and have a high level risk of committing suicide and about 10% of anorexics will die within 10 years of contracting the disease.
However, despite the risks of this disease even though this disease and its negative impacts on one’s body, there is support shown for anorexia, this is described as pro-ana. Supporters of anorexia often don’t view anorexia as a disease but rather as a lifestyle choice. Furthermore, finding people who agree with their beliefs is difficult in the real world. Therefore, they turn to the online world to find others like them. In this quest for approval, anorexia supporters created online communities, many of which are blogs. One pro-ana blogger writes:
“Today was hard. I sometimes forget about the pain that comes with the lifestyle I’ve chosen. I went to work this morning doubled over with abdominal pain from a laxative overdose…At times I just had to grit my teeth and grab the counter so I wouldn’t crumple onto the floor from it. Then the headache…and the stomach aches. It wasn’t pretty but I reminded myself that someday it will be worth it.”
Aside from sharing their personal experiences, people who contribute to pro-ana blogs share ideas on losing weight dramatically, they suggest ways to ignore hunger, they post measurements and pictures of themselves to “inspire” others and receive approval, they fast together to show support and console each other after breaking their fast or binging, and they give advice on how to hide their disorder from friends, family, and doctors. They also post images that inspire them to be thin, otherwisde known as “thinspiration.” (see example below)
These blogs have made pro-ana information readily available to whoever has access to the internet – including underage kids and teenagers. The followers of pro-ana blogs are young teenage girls that can be between the ages ranging from 6 to 17 years old. A highly vulnerable age in which girls can develop distorted body images for the rest of their lives.
What people need to do is realize is that the media paints a different picture of reality. There is a large amount of time and money spent on celebrities and models looking the way they do on TV. Not only to they hire a personal trainer and dietician to have a slim body, some also spend money on costly plastic surgeries and other cosmetic treatments. Furthermore, money is also spent in the use of professional cameras, photographers, lighting, makeup, makeup artists, and also professional editing software to fully retouch and perfect the images we see. People should know that the images portrayed in the media only serve to reinforce the ideas they present.
“Dove Evolution.” Oct. 6 2006. Online video clip. YouTube. 15 Nov. 2009 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U>
Giles, David. “Constructing Identities in Cyberspace: The case of eating disorders.” British Journal of Social Psychology. 2006: 45. 463-477. The British Psychological Society. 15 Nov. 2009.
Kat. “Another Day” [Weblog Entry] Quest for Perfection. 3 Nov. 2009. (http://proanaquest.blogspot.com/2009/11/another-day.html) 15 Nov. 2009
Ms.Magen. “Lost 3 lbs.” [Weblog Entry] Perfection is Pain. 30 Oct. 2009. (http://msmagen.blogspot.com/2009/10/lost-3-lbs.html) 15 Nov. 2009.
Philips, Katharine A. (2005)The Broken Mirror. Oxford University Press.
Regan Shade, Leslie. “Weborexics: The Ethical Issues Surrounding Pro-Ana Websites.” Philosophical Enquiry. 2003: 107-116. 15 Nov. 2009
The Obesity Society. (2009, Dec 12). Obesity Statistics. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20060206185213/www.naaso.org/statistics/obesity_trends.asp
“Thinspiration-Motivation.” Aug. 15 2007. Online video clip. YouTube. 15 Nov. 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnkLFCr88co&feature=related>
Underwood, Nora. (2000, Aug 14). Body Envy. Maclean’s, 113, 36-41.
x_thinisbeautiful. “If It Was Easy Everybody Would Be Thin” [Weblog Entry] Thin is Beautiful. 13 Nov. 2009. (http://xthinisbeautiful.blogspot.com/2009/11/if-it-was-easy-everybody-would-be-thin.html) 15 Nov. 2009.