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.
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.
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 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.
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
- MissRepresentation: http://film.missrepresentation.org/
- Media stats, figures, and sources: http://www.missrepresentation.org/about-us/resources/miss-representation-sources/
- Photoshopped models, before and after: https://www.pinterest.com/socimages/re-touching-photoshop-nsfw/
- Kinnally, W., & Van Vonderen, K. E. (2012). Media effects on body image: Examining media exposure in the broader context of internal and other social factors. American Communication Journal,14(2), Retrieved from http://ac-journal.org/journal/pubs/2012/SPRING 2012/McKinnally3.pdf
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