America’s Pursuit of Unattainable Beauty

By Lee Williams (@Lee_Wms)

This week, 45-year-old actress Renee Zellweger revealed her natural, make-up free face at Elle’s Women in Hollywood awards on Monday night. Renee, known for her youthful face and cheeky demeanor, has become the topic of discussion in pop culture, where she has been criticized heavily for, well…looking like a 45-year-old without makeup. With rumors of plastic surgery abound, reactions to Renee’s appearance says more about us than it does about her.

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Renee Zellweger before and after.

American society is consumed by the fantasy and perfection of the idealized body. Unattainable beauty permeates our pop culture, controls our emotions, and dictates our looks. As a society, our constant fixation of fantasy has created unreasonable standards of perfection in body image, ones we cannot possibly attain on our own. This standard of perfection is reinforced in all of our media, from advertising, magazines, television (namely reality shows), and social networks. The cultural messages sent by the media feed on our insecurities and encourage us to create faith in something completely different from who we are. Over time, we have learned to hold ourselves to the impossible standard of perfection.

Same model, differing degrees of Photoshopping on REAL printed ads, Oct. 2009. Ralph Lauren responded: “After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”

Same model with differing degrees of Photoshopping on REAL printed ads, Oct. 2009. Ralph Lauren responded: “After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”  

How Did We Get Here? 

American society places high expectancy on the pursuit of “happiness” which has many broad definitions however, if we are to go by what is promoted within the media, this pursuit is centered on perfection: How to have the perfect career, the perfect husband/wife, and, of course, the perfect body. In order to find the root causes of unattainable beauty in our society, we must first look at shifting cultural norms that have set the foundation of this delusional pursuit. The cultural norms that define us have been transformed over time due to changing lifestyles, an increase in media adulation and idealization, and normalization of a sexually objectified culture.

“As a culture, women are brought up to be fundamentally insecure.” – from the award-winning documentary MissRepresentation.

Women are at more risk than men from the harmful, long term effects of societal pressure of unattainable beauty. The documentary MissRepresentation takes a critical look at the media influence of how woman are portrayed in our media channels, and the analysis is complex and shocking. The collective message of our media-controlled society is that a woman’s value and her power reside in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, but not in her qualifications or capability to be a leader. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of supervising positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors. This means that women have no control over how they are portrayed in these male-dominated fields (usually as a shrewd, catty sex object in entertainment media), they are then more prone to self-objectification in order to achieve “happiness”, and men grow up conditioned to judge real women by the images they see in the media.

Reality TV and Social Media: The Great Manipulators

Our social networks rewards self-objectification, vanity, and unrealistic images deemed "beautiful" by the media. This Kim Kardashian selfie was  exposed as photoshopped heavily by the reality TV star.

Our social networks reward self-objectification, vanity, and unrealistic images deemed “beautiful” by the media. This Kim Kardashian selfie was exposed as photoshopped heavily by the reality TV star.

Our media, namely entertainment media and social networks, are the biggest socialization tools of our time, and where the latest trends in body image are routinely seen in endless supply. The idealization of stereotypes and entertainment fantasy has blurred reality from fantasy, as men and women both now buy-in to the images they are supposed to have in order to be considered “happy”. The pressure to be independent in American society contrasts with the collective promotion of sexual objectification and the idealized beauty. We live in a society that preaches uniqueness and independence, and yet promotes and reinforces typecasts regarding beauty instead of promoting acceptance of self. Media conglomerates and corporations have understood and mastered this concept, and they regularly use the media as a prime socialization agent in order to increase their capitalistic gains.

Our social conventions are no better. Instagram is a narcissistic paradise where peer observations of beauty are infinite, and users are rewarded for sexually objectifying themselves. We are building “Gods and Goddesses” to worship and adore via social media. It is a constant source of narcissism and provides constant encouragement to do so, with it becoming common for companies/business/news media to highlight outlandish personalities and individuals solely based on their looks.

Jen Selter recently has gained media attention due to her wildly popular Instagram account, where she has gained 1.3 million followers. Jen Selter, from New York City, has become an internet hit after posting photos of her workout and yoga sessions to Instagram. She counts Rihanna and sports stars among her followers. Selter, who is single, admits that some of the pictures can be a little 'showy' but that she wants to inspire and motivate people to stay fit. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2533271/Meet-Instagrammer-20-amazing-rear-end-1-3-million-followers-it.html#ixzz2qSwrglQo

Jen Selter recently gained media attention due to her wildly popular Instagram account of 1.3 million followers. Selter become an internet hit after posting photos of her workout and yoga sessions to Instagram. Most of the photos are butt shots.  She counts Rihanna and sports stars among her followers. Selter admits that some of the pictures can be a little ‘showy’ but that she wants to inspire and motivate people to stay fit. Selter has gained professional offers for her media presence and audience. Read the entire article here.

From the Daily Mail article: "Once Selter achieved 300,000 followers, sponsorship offers piled up from companies including Nike, Lululemon and New Balance, among others. Selter has since quit her gym job and secured deals with water company NY20 and a nutrition supplement company, Game Plan Nutrition, for which she is a spokeswoman."

From the Daily Mail article: “Once Selter achieved 300,000 followers, sponsorship offers piled up from companies including Nike, Lululemon and New Balance, among others. Selter has since quit her gym job and secured deals with water company NY20 and a nutrition supplement company, Game Plan Nutrition, for which she is a spokeswoman.”

Society has rewarded the vanity of self via Instagram with the world’s riches, setting a trend that encourages this kind of propagation of narcissism among the population (in more detail in my post on The Growing Narcissism of Selfies). In terms of body image and beauty, we have a culture that has brutally distorted American life by the destruction of genuine self-worth at the cost of being unique and desired. In the case of Jen Selter, fitness “guru” Instagrammer with 1.3 million followers (above), we see that the culture praises objectification so much that it reaps professional awards. The truth is that there are thousands of Jen Selters with aspirations of fame and fortune and, since the corporate patriarchy supports this kind of narcissism and sexual-objectification, and has set the bar so low for success, you can bet that there will be resources and an audience for these hapless, replaceable individuals.

“Beauty is subjective yet American society creates an objective facade of what beauty is and how it looks and that if one does not fit in to it then they are not “attractive”, superficiality over substance, Americans simply are uncomfortable being themselves.” – (Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012)

Outcomes: Where Do We Go From Here?

Our society is morphing into a fantasy world of ego building narcissism that has become the norm, in which you are not considered important or attractive if you do not meet the unattainable standard of beauty/perfection/success. From this, you’ll find growing body shame and self-objectification, growing rates of depression and bulimia/anorexia among women, and increasing pressure to be perfect. Media literacy and regulation is desperately needed, as well as encouragement in entertainment media at lowering the standard of beauty and/or eliminating the fantasy standards completely. Objectification is big business, and it is in the public and their buying power to deny the images that the patriarchal-controlled media sells us.

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”  – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Further reading:

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10 comments

  1. Nicole E · January 18, 2014

    Lee, this is a great post. But as I read through it, your argument just didn’t sit right with me. Here’s my question: when do we start holding people accountable for the thoughts and feelings they choose to entertain? No one can make another person feel or think a certain way unless that person allows them to do so. We are not robots. We have a choice about what we choose to think of ourselves and how we choose to allow these unattainable beauty standards in the media to affect us. What’s more important to note is that there are really, naturally beautiful people in this world. People that were blessed to attain this unattainable beauty. Should we not allow our kids to play with these people in fear that our children will feel insecure or will try to be as beautiful as them. NO! Hopefully, we would raise confident children who are secure in themselves no matter what images may try to combat their sense of self. I think it’s time we take the power away from media and empower ourselves and specifically women to take responsibility for the positive/negative ways we “choose” to see ourselves. There really are women who are a size 0 without even trying. There are women who have amazing butts. There are people who actually do have it all. Great for them. But their shine does not dim my shine, and it most definitely does not stop it. Accountability is key.

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  2. Kris Van Vonderen · January 19, 2014

    Nicole, I agree with you that we aren’t robots, and we can choose how we feel. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t lie. Over 65% of women have eating disordered behaviors or thoughts. Body dissatisfaction is rampant, and the “thin ideal” is widely accepted in our culture – if you’re not thin and beautiful, your self-worth is somehow diminished. When women are constantly being force-fed this message, of course insecurities result – especially when media is constantly bombarding women with unattainable images of perfection that have been airbrushed and photoshopped into oblivion. Yes, there are naturally beautiful and thin people. No, we shouldn’t “forbid our kids to play with these people in fear that they’ll feel insecure”. That’s not what Lee was getting at – he’s talking about unrealistic projections of beauty in the media, and further, the message that if you don’t attain these standards you’re not as worthy as someone who does. Additionally, as someone who struggled with an eating disorder and still has bouts of body dissatisfaction to deal with, I think you’re being a little bit disrespectful. Not everyone is as self-confident as you, especially young women who are still finding their footing in the world. Just in case you wanted to learn a bit more about eating disorders and body dissatisfaction (because it’s not something you can just “get over” or “choose to ignore”): http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/

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    • nejackson · January 19, 2014

      Kris, it was not my intent to be disrespectful. Please accept my apology if the way I stated my argument was harsh. I definitely understand and know that the media’s images can be harmful. The point that I hope you understand I am making is that we can not control the images from the media. What we can control is how we choose to allow those images to influence our beliefs and how and what we think of ourselves. We play a role in media’s influence on us. Lastly, you stated that “if you’re not thin and beautiful, your self-worth is somehow diminished.” Each person is the owner of his or her self-worth. It is the owner, and only the owner, that can place true value on his or herself. If that value is diminished by anyone other than the owner, it is because the owner has allowed it to be so. If I should have a daughter, I would tell her the same thing: no one can control the thoughts that you have unless you give them the authority to do so. Please know that I am not brushing your struggle or anyone else’s struggle off as something that you can just get over. I struggled with finding my own beauty in a sea of unattainable beauty (remember, I am a black girl with tightly coiled hair. 99.9% of the images I see are unattainable). What I am hoping to do is to remind us media consumers that we have the power. We have a say so.

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