Why are practically unachievable standards of beauty being presented in the media?
The standard of beauty being portrayed within the media is one of the most widely discussed topics across the world, with the majority having their own personal view. In this essay I will look to address this topic, looking at what exactly these standards are and why they are being presented. I will also focus on how these standards are being portrayed by media consumers with close attention being played on how the opinions of individuals can differ.
I will draw on my own knowledge of the subject as well as using the views of others which I hope will give a balanced argument. As well as this, I will look to draw all the views together and reach my own personal conclusion on the subject, backing up my views using what I have learnt. I will begin by looking at what exactly these standards of beauties are.
‘Unachievable standards of beauty’
As it is put so well by Susie Orbach in her appropriately named book Bodies, “bodies are and always have been shaped according to the specific cultural moment. There has never been a ‘natural’ body” (2003). This claim by Orbach suggests that the discussions surrounding these so called ‘unachievable standards of beauty’ have forever been around. A ‘natural’ body does not exist as such, what does exist however is our presumption of what we perceive as being a natural body, and therefore what we perceive as being an achievable standard of beauty.
These unachievable standards in which have been allegedly set by various icons or role models, are said to perhaps often be replicated by those who see it, which will often be aimed at a certain target audience, this is nothing new as told by Amor Coetzee (2006): "For as long as women have been confronted by their own image, they have continued to measure themselves against an inhuman ideal. Through the centuries, society’s ideals change and more and more pressure is placed on the appearance of women. The concept of beauty is dated as far back as the Ancient Egyptian times."
As suggested here by Coetzee, women have always been “confronted by their own images”, they look at themselves in the mirror and they immediately compare themselves to an “inhuman ideal”, such as the latest model to be pictured on the front of Elle magazine for example. From this initial example, it is clear to see that the media and society have the potential to suggest change, it seems as though if a high-range magazine has a size zero model parading on the cover, readers will re-consider their own appearance as a result.
But is it fair to suggest that the media are necessarily shaping viewers emotions? It can be said that representation is shaped by two things, reality and new ideas; this is backed up by Cash and Szymanski in which they claim, “The ‘body image’ construct tends to comprise a mixture of self-perceptions, ideas and feelings about one’s physical attributes” (1995). In the same journal it follows on from this point to suggest that the perceptions we take from what we see in the media can be “linked to self-esteem and the individual’s emotional stability.” An individual’s perception of what they see can change depending on varying factors, a point in which we must take into consideration. But if these unachievable standards of beauty are being set by the media, surely it is down to us, the viewer, to take what we feel necessary from that piece.
One thing that is for certain is the influence that the media can have, and as a result, the individual self-determination to resist the temptation to change. This can be linked in with research conducted by Synder and Tanke who in their findings suggest that “a perceiver's actions are based upon stereotype-generated attributions about a specific target individual” (1977). These findings from Synder and Tanke claims that the stereotypes the perceiver (someone who can directly take in what they see) take from what they have seen, may cause them to alter their appearance to reflect a specific individual, i.e. the model on the front of the magazine they have just finished reading may have an incredibly thin body, which the reader may feel is a natural body, but it is often argued that this instead is an unachievable standard of beauty being set.
Creating individual opinions
Following on from this point of individuals building up their own opinion of what they see, we can split up the audience into two groups, active and passive. An active audience are those in which actively participate in building opinions and therefore make their own change; they are arguably responsible for their own thoughts and actions. A passive audience on the other hand are those who uncritically accept content and as a result they do not reflect upon it, a different type of audience completely you could say.
Whether the audience is passive or active, the result in the end is the same; consumers will often aim to achieve an ideal which is often unreachable, something which will provide the cosmetic and diet product industries with continuous growth and profit. But let’s take a step back and see why exactly the media use these standards and why it is consumers instantly build up their own opinions.
“An important way of getting into our heads is by selecting those things that are new or unusual or presenting the familiar in novel ways” (Adrian Monck 2008). This statement has to be put into context and taken with a pinch of salt; after all, it is from a book entitled Can you trust the media? None-the-less the point the author makes has can be seen as entirely correct. The media need consumers, whether it is TV, newspapers, radio, online, etc, viewers are the most important aspect to the media, after all, they accumulate the profits.
Following on from this point made by Monck, the media, for example a fashion magazine, will take something that is “familiar” such as a female and present them in “novel ways”, this is achieved through enhancing them, giving them larger breasts, altering the jaw line, adding some shadow to the face and removing the curves. This, according to many, has forever been the case and is simply setting an unachievable standard of beauty; they are essentially lying to their consumers.
This claim is perhaps rather a little harsh and unfair on the media, however as cited in Wykes and Gunter’s journal, Media and Body Image “Blaming the media for reproducing and extolling representations of unrealistic female bodies that influence young women to starve themselves has almost become a popular truism” (2005). This suggests to me that the media are often used as a scapegoat, the media may be smart about the way they portray certain things, but to take full blame for a society in which is increasingly altering appearance as a result of what they can see in the media, can be seen as a “truism”, or in other words, a remark that seems so obvious to make, that it seems almost silly to make it, it is far overused.
Ways of interoperating
The final point to be made is the way in which consumers of the media interoperate what they see. Branston and Stafford in The Media Students Book believe that the images created in magazines and on TV are “a trace of the real” (2006) and that they are constructed and then carefully chosen in planning meetings”, this suggestion of the media providing us with a “trace of the real” is not far wrong as the decision to chose locations, models and alterations to be made are not made overnight, it is a long, drawn out process.
This suggestion is counter-argued in another book, Media Studies, where Ken Hall suggests that “we analyse representation by looking first at visual signs, because we absorb a great deal of visual information”. If consumers want to look specifically at how skinny the latest models are or how attractive they look (after further enhancement) then surely that is down to the way in which it is interoperated by the consumer, rather than the media outlet itself?
It is clear to see after researching the topic of beauty in the media that the problems facing it and its consumers have forever been around. It also seems that almost everyone will have an opinion on the subject and many make valid points, I do however favour the points against rather than the points for these unachievable standards of beauty being set by the media.
I focused a big part of this essay on how individuals portray what they see and how that could be seen as being out of the hands of the media as such, after all, there are differing factors in which alter the way we see things, be it through the media or in everyday life. The media do however insist on continuously using these methods to present beauty on such a high scale that it cannot be matched, the media are essentially lying.
To draw a final conclusion to the essay it is important to look at the overall affect that beauty representation is having across the world, “Body image is a psychological construct... women consistently perceive themselves as being overweight” (Cohn and Adler 2006), this is beginning to move away from being a media problem, it looks increasingly likely that this is now becoming a health problem, something which looks set to only become worse. One thing is certain, for as long as the media continue to present these unachievable standards of beauty, the longer this debate will march on.