Media and Beauty Standards: Causes and Effects

10252 words (41 pages) Dissertation

13th Dec 2019 Dissertation Reference this

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OUR BEAUTY OBSESSION: AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF MODERN BEAUTY IDEALS IN A WORLD DRIVEN BY CONSUMERISM AND MASS MEDIA

Introduction

The concept of beauty is one that is difficult to define and has remained a popular topic of debate for centuries. Philosophers, artists, scholars and poets, all have attempted to capture and define the quality that is beauty. The question as to what is beauty remains one with many varying answers. A common belief is that beauty is subjective, that for a person, place or thing to be considered beautiful, depends on the opinion of the person perceiving it. The Oxford dictionary defines beauty as, “a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.”[1] And according to Aristotle “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness.”[2] Regarding physical beauty, in her book “The Beauty Myth”, author and feminist Naomi Wolf wrote, “Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard.”[3] Wolf’s theory of beauty being a construct used for profit and control from male dominated institutions and political agenda, is one that will feature in this body of writing.

This essay will focus primarily on the notion of physical beauty, particularly beauty in a modern society and how it has today become a fabricated concept put in place to control and manipulate the masses primarily for profit. By referencing and referring to various writers, feminists and sociologists, such as Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolf and Ted Polhemus, and having collected a variety of research via text, documentary films and articles, this essay will analyse the subject of beauty ideals in a capitalist culture and will discuss various aspects within this topic such as westernisation and the influences and effects of globalisation and mass media on body image and beauty standards.

The first chapter of this essay will debate the theory of sexual selection vs globalisation as the primary causes behind modern beauty standards. The second chapter will discuss beauty in advertising and mass media and the strategies and tactics used to market and sell products. Prior to completion, this chapter will also include a discussion about male beauty. Finally, before concluding, chapter three will analyse the effects of these beauty ideals and will show statistics regarding mental health and eating disorders, but will also discuss what the effects on the economy would be if certain industries did not exist.

Chapter 1.

As a society we have developed a dangerous and ever-growing obsession with physical beauty, a fixation that is particularly damaging and destructive to the body image and self-esteem of women and men. Scars, excess body fat, aging and body hair, each of these “imperfections” and countless others are so often the object of scorn and condemnation by many beauty, fashion and lifestyle magazines that fill their pages with articles body shaming various celebrities for not adhering to the perfect, unattainable beauty ideals dictated by society, while simultaneously praising those who do meet these unrealistic standards.[4] Images of perfect bodies flood mass media and propaganda promoting skin care, weight loss and any other expensive and unachievable ideals brainwash the majority of the global population. What may seem like harmless advertising and entertainment, can through enough exposure become detrimental in how we view ourselves and others, and can cause serious repercussions to our health as proven in the increase of eating disorders throughout the years.[5] But where has this obsession come from and who is behind it?

Figure 2- National Enquirer Magazine cover, Sep 2017.
Figure 1- National Enquirer Magazine cover, July 2017

There are various theories regarding the man behind the mask, so to speak. One possible explanation is based upon the theory of sexual selection, a theory derived from natural selection in which specific characteristics of a species are found particularly attractive to the opposite sex and therefore mates are chosen to reproduce.[6] According to this theory, our craving for physical perfection is biological and evolutionary, it is a natural part of who we are and cannot be altered or changed, and to some extent this is true. However, in society what people are increasingly becoming attracted to has less to do with a biological instinct to procreate and more to do with what advertising agencies and global industries tell us we should be and what we should desire. Long hair, rosy cheeks, red lips, wide hips and large breasts, each of these characteristics are just a few examples of feminine physical features that are scientifically proven to attract the attention of heterosexual men because they signify fertility, good health and sexual arousal[7], this is a perfect example of sexual selection. But in modern society these traits are all but overlooked and forgotten as new artificial beauty standards emerge and take over.

Modern beauty promises happiness, love and self-satisfaction. These promises are empty, because the ideal beauty we are fed via mass media and advertising is nothing more than a marketing strategy and a lie.[8] [9] Naomi Wolf claims that these lies are a “cultural conspiracy”[10] against women, a conspiracy she aptly termed the beauty myth. In her book of the same name Wolf wrote,

If the beauty myth is not based on evolution, sex, gender, aesthetics, or God, on what is it based? It claims to be about intimacy and sex and life, a celebration of women. It is actually composed of emotional distance, politics, finance and sexual repression. The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power.[11]

According to Wolf, the beauty myth has been in existence since the 1830’s and grew with the rise of industrialism, however, the myth in its current state was born when housewives of the 20th century set aside their domestic responsibilities in the home for new exciting career opportunities and independence they otherwise hadn’t had before. Companies and advertisers whose primary consumers were these unfulfilled homemakers, then began to fear a considerable loss of profit because women just weren’t consuming like they used to. As a result, an “innovative” marketing strategy was set in motion, beauty creams and cosmetic products replaced the household essentials that every good housewife swore by.[12] “Inexhaustible but ephemeral beauty work took over from inexhaustible but ephemeral housework.”[13]

Since then the marketing of female beauty has grown rapidly, various industries have long since been dictating feminine physical beauty standards and have been making an abundance of profit whilst doing so. Included amongst these is the pornography industry, worth $97 billion globally[14] and grossing $3,000 every second.[15] The fact that pornography takes up 12% of internet content[16], and that the most commonly used sites are more popular than Amazon, Twitter and Netflix combined[17], are just a few statistics to reveal how porn incredibly popular and widely accepted porn has become. Since the dawn of the industry, pornography has been seen as a controversial pastime for numerous reasons: It’s highly addictive, promotes unhealthy ideas of sex and (arguably) endorses the sexual exploitation of women. But another example of the detriment of porn, which many people often overlook, are the harmful effects that it has on female body image. The typical physical traits associated with female porn stars are often unrealistic and unattainable, such as the absence of body hair.[18] There is a stigma that surrounds female body hair, women that decide to reject the conventions of hair removal and flaunt their natural body, are often met with hostility and disgust, this is a result of porn and the ideals that are promoted within it. Attempts to achieve these ideals are often time consuming, uncomfortable and painful.[19]

The images pornography present of women are damaging for multiple reasons, they provide adolescent boys and young men with unrealistic expectations of sex and of the female form. And for girls and women alike, whether they are themselves consumers of pornography or not, images of women in porn aren’t easy to avoid and can shape their concept of beauty and result in added insecurity and pressure to conform to the beauty standards presented by an industry whose main targeted audience is predominantly male. However, currently pornography is no longer associated with being a form of “entertainment” used exclusively by men, the use of erotica with women has become more widely acknowledged and socially acceptable, and has received acclaim from various feminists such as Betty Dodson, who praise pornography for its role in female empowerment and sexual liberation[20]. It has recently been found that teenagers and younger women were more likely to actively seek out porn than women over 25[21]. Regarding body image this is quite worrying, if this is the kind of imagery that the younger generation of females are increasingly pursuing, it could alter their self-perception and damage their self-esteem.

Studies have repeatedly shown how the frequent viewing of pornography has severely influenced and weakened the viewers sexual desires and attraction for “real” people. Statistics claim that 75% of men consuming pornography would prefer their partners to look like their favourite porn stars.[22] And a social experiment conducted in the 1980’s by Dr. Jennings Bryant and Dr. Dolf Zillmann showed the results of what happened when 160 male and female participants were exposed to hourly six-week sessions of pornography, “After consumption of pornography, subjects reported less satisfaction with their intimate partners affection, physical appearance, sexual curiosity, and sexual performance proper. These effects were uniform across gender and populations.”[23] Like pornography, the consumption of mass media and consumerism in modern society have similar effects on the population; lowered self-esteem, higher physical standards and distorted views of body image.

Chapter 2.

Throughout history, and within many indigenous cultures still active today, concepts of beauty have varied and changed. These standards can include almost anything from the receding hairlines of the Renaissance period,[24] to the traditional tā moko (chin tattoo), a tradition within the Maori women that symbolizes beauty, identity and womanhood.[25] For many cultures, beauty ideals are a result of tradition and have been enforced for centuries, but for the remaining majority of the global population this is not the case. Our view of beauty is dictated by consumerism, capitalism and globalisation. As the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and according to the 2015 documentary, “The Illusionists”, “It also has a lot to do with the beholders cultural environment. We can’t discuss the evolution of beauty ideals without discussing the rise of consumer culture, the two are inextricably entwined.”[26]

During the beginning of the 20th Century consumers were frugal and bought products based upon their practicality and function. Ernest Dichter and Edward Bernays[27] are the men responsible for revolutionizing marketing and advertising by connecting shopping to desire and emotion. By successfully romanticising consumerism, customers began to buy out of want rather than need.[28] Now almost a century later, capitalism has boomed, and combined with the rise of the digital age and birth of the internet, multi-billion-dollar industries are experiencing an all-time high, particularly the beauty industry. In 21st Century consumer culture the bombardment of images depicting seemingly perfect women are everywhere. Advertisements and marketing campaigns promoting this flawless image of the female body saturate media, and industries such as the cosmetic surgery, anti-aging, fashion, cosmetics and diet industries profit remarkably. The selling of products relies heavily upon the images promoting them, and in displaying this image of elite female perfection, companies and brands are spreading a very simple yet effective message, a message that promises beauty, desire and happiness, but only to those who are willing to pay the right price. By promoting this unattainable body image, it increasingly encourages unhealthy feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt and anxiety; it’s the perfect marketing strategy. “Sex sells, what sells even more? Insecurity.”[29] Happy, satisfied and confident women, generally don’t make good consumers, for a woman that is content with her appearance she may not necessarily see a need for dieting pills or miracle creams. And so, for industries to sell products and create substantial revenue, that same secure woman must then become insecure and self-deprecating, ever seeking the perfect products to transform her from flawed to flawless.[30] Of course, the majority of these sought-after products very rarely deliver the desired effects, or at least permanent ones because if they did the industries who produced them wouldn’t profit as successfully, it’s an ingenious marketing ploy that keeps supply in demand, and dissatisfied costumers constantly consuming[31].


Figure 5- ‘Cellulite: The Fat You Couldn’t Lose Before’, US Vogue Magazine Cover, 1968

The numerous physical imperfections invented by advertising agencies, magazines and media has been an incredibly successful strategy to create products and profit based on an ‘imaginary’, fabricated need. For example, throughout history cellulite was thought of as perfectly normal and healthy body fat, then in 1968, Vogue magazine published an article stigmatizing this inevitable and natural characteristic.[32] [33] Now cellulite, a trait most people have regardless of shape and size, is a popular object of scrutiny and dread among women and a common hot topic within women’s celebrity and lifestyle magazines.[34] Anti-cellulite creams and treatments are a thriving sector of the cosmetics industry.

Advertisements promoting products often contain contradictory imagery. This has proven to be a powerful marketing tool for the diet and fast food industries. Commercials frequently portray sexualised images of attractive, physically fit men and women indulging in unhealthy, calorific and fatty foods, which send mixed messages to the viewers.[35] The combination of the diet industry and fast food industry (including soft drinks and sweets), together create an incredible annual income of $1.39 trillion worldwide.[36] In April 2000 Unilever, the company that owns Dove and Fair and Lovely skin whitening cream, subsequently bought Slimfast and Ben & Jerry’s on the same day[37]. No other business with a 98% failure rate is as successful as the dieting industry[38], and like the anti-aging, relies on the failure of its consumers to create such extensive profit. The vicious cycle of dieting and splurging is one that has benefited both trades for many decades but has also further endorsed a culture of binge eaters, yoyo dieters and obsessive behaviour regarding body image and weight, albeit these industries don’t care about the well-being of the consumer or whether you meet your goal weight or not, as long as the products keep flying off the shelves and profit continuously increases[39]

One of the greatest problems with globalization are the effects of Westernisation in various countries across the world. Because of the authority and influence that Western society holds predominantly via mass media, and the celebrities and cultural aspects it presents, many non-Caucasian, non-European men and women aspire to conform to the ideals presented within Western Culture.[40] This is in large part due to internalized racism because of colonialism[41], especially regarding beauty and physical appearance. However, another reason is that many of the men and women that belong to these countries believe that if they adopt the physical attributes typically associated with western body types, then they too, like countless white celebrities, can have success, status and power because that is where such qualities come from.[42]

“We’re losing bodies as fast as we’re losing languages. Just as English has become the lingua franca of the world, so the white, blondified, small-nosed, pert breasted, long legged body is coming to stand in for the great variety of human bodies that there are.”[43]

Encouraged endlessly by advertising and mass media, women (and men, but to a lesser extent) often go to extreme lengths in pursuit of achieving the American and European beauty ideals. Countries such as South Korea, China and Lebanon have seen a surge in cosmetic surgeries over the years. With 980,000 recorded procedures in 2014 alone and more surgeries per capita, Seoul, the South Korean capital city has been named the cosmetic surgery capital of the world,[44] [45] and as 1 in 3 women have undergone plastic surgery in Lebanon, it is no surprise that banks provide special cosmetic surgery loans of up to $5,000.[46] [47]

In countries such as India, Japan and even France, the ideal beauty comes in the form of a fairer complexion.  Advertisements upon advertisements hoard the men and women of these countries with the promise of a beautiful, flawless and fair skin tone, and that with this complexion love and professional success will surely follow.[48] Since the 1970’s skin lightening creams have seen exponential growth, in the Asia Pacific region 50 new creams are introduced annually.[49] Of course, the models and actors/actresses that are featured in skin lightening commercials are heavily edited and airbrushed, therefore creating the deceitful illusion that these products work, when in reality the effect of these creams are much subtler considering that their main ingredients include sunblock and exfoliants.[50] Although there are still illegal bleaching creams responsible for causing cancer and disfiguration that are available on the black market, not only in India but in many countries where stigma surrounding darker skin tones still occurs, even in Europe.[51] The digital lightening and airbrushing of dark skin tones don’t exist exclusively for the marketing of whitening creams, but has made its way into mainstream media with the white washing of various celebrities. When comparing past and present magazine covers, music videos and ad campaigns featuring stars such as Beyoncé, Rhianna, Naomi Campbell[52] and Nicki Minaj, the difference in the images are obvious and shocking, depicting the women as blonder, whiter and more westernized.[53]

When analysing the idea of beauty, it seems that it has long been a concept synonymous with femininity. For centuries through art, literature and even now in film, music and media, beauty is a quality heavily associated with women.[54] [55]This is also evident in how the majority of beauty products are aimed towards women and not at men. However, this is not to say that men don’t long to be attractive and desired just like their female counterparts. To quote Plato, “The three wishes of every man: to be healthy, to be rich by honest means, and to be beautiful.”[56] But if a man were to wear make-up (men that aren’t professional models and actors) or use the same cosmetic products that are targeted towards women, his sexuality is automatically called into question, because these things are related to womanliness. Typically, male beauty gets marketed quite differently; a man’s attractiveness must correlate with his masculinity. Generally speaking, the same rules of beauty that are put in place for women, haven’t always applied to men. Take for example aging; when a man shows signs of aging it can give him added sex appeal and a look of maturity, whereas aging in women is usually seen as unattractive and undesirable, a sign that a woman looks haggard rather than empowered.[57] [58] Although this kind of hypocrisy still exists, it has slowly begun to change as the male skin care industry has grown dramatically. Before 2000 the industry did not exist but now earns $3 billion per year[59]. The branding and marketing campaigns of skin care and cosmetic products aimed towards men usually feature fit, manly actors and athletes, so as to secure and reassure the male masses of their masculinity and sexuality.[60]

Despite magazines such as “Men’s Health”, that promote the masculine ideal, the magazine “Shortlist” aimed at “men with more than one thing on their minds”, has seemingly taken a more honest and open approach in its first issue dedicated to male beauty. The front cover displays an image of actor Stephen Graham flaunting a full face of make-up, and the pages that follow contain articles with headlines such as “Bluff Yourself Beautiful”, “Who’s A Pretty Boy Then” and “Beauty Products to Pinch Off Your Girlfriend”. Advice columns on disguising hairlines, Botox, ridding yourself of signs of fatigue and tricks on achieving the appearance of longer legs, fill the pages. Beside the table of contents lies a short, somewhat intimate editor’s letter that appeals directly to the reader and proclaims messages of self-love and leads on to further claim,

“In the past, ‘beauty issues’ were the sole preserve of women’s magazines. But it’s 2017 and gender norms are being shredded like beef shin ragu. In the same way women can pursue careers as powerlifters and blacksmiths, we should be free to dive face-first into the world of potions, emollients and youth-preserving tinctures. Gentlemen: let’s get pretty.”[61]

The magazine appears to have a positive and refreshing point of view towards male beauty ideals, by embracing beauty and rejecting the stigma that surrounds it. It seems like a progressive step forward in the male beauty world, one that could prove beneficial for both genders as it could help discard the negative associations of femininity, whilst also providing men with newfound freedom. However, the liberation of men’s beauty will also prove beneficial to countless industries, now that men are increasingly jumping on the beauty band wagon, markets will expand, and the same tactics and manipulation used on women will also extend towards men. 

Chapter 3.

“The Ideal Beauty is the source of untold human misery.”[62]

(Polhemus, T., 1988)

In a day and age where the consumption of media is at an astonishing high, statistics have shown that by the year 2020, the average person’s expected media intake will reach 90 hours per week.[63] The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than words[64], and considering that much of the media is visual, the incredible influence that this over-exposure holds is not surprising. In a culture where physical appearance has become a quality more valued than any other, the rise of eating disorders and disordered eating (the effects of poor body image and body related anxiety that result in disrupted eating patterns and dieting habits. Disordered eating is not considered a disorder)[65] has become an increasingly worrying global health crisis. Research has shown that 80% of 10-year-old girls in the United States have dieted at least once and half of American teenage girls have resorted to the use of laxatives, vomiting, smoking and not eating in attempts of controlling their weight[66]. What’s more is that 70 million men and women worldwide suffer from eating disorders such as Bulimia Nervosa, Anorexia Nervosa and binge eating disorders, and that the number of children under the ages of 12 that are hospitalized for eating disorders has increased by 119%[67]. There are of course several factors that contribute towards eating disorders other than societal pressure and body ideals, such as genetics and sexual abuse[68]. However, that does not lessen the accountability and involvement that diet culture and media have in the development of these serious mental health issues.

The use of photo-editing software and airbrushing has become a common tool used in many forms of media. For the most part it would be an almost impossible task to find any un-edited images in magazines and television, the exception being images used for the purposes of body shaming. While the majority of models and celebrities make up a small percentage of elite individuals born beautiful by society’s standards, in the world of beauty this is still not good enough. It is not uncommon for already thin models to be told to lose weight by employers and to be put under immense pressure to obtain and preserve an unhealthily skinny figure[69]. But while the endorsing of these body types is harmful enough, to the public and to the models themselves, much of the published imagery is heavily edited, creating bodies that without the use of photoshop, are humanly impossible to achieve. In the words of Laura Mulvey, “The idealized body has become even more idealized”[70].

There is no denying the harm caused by capitalism, consumerism and mass media and how an epidemic of low self-esteem and distorted body image is plaguing society, but what would happen if the beauty, diet and fashion industries etc were to simply close and discontinue? What would the consequences be, and would the world be better off? Well, to answer this question in depth one would require a strong knowledge and understanding of economics, but as a brief speculation; without the trillions that such industries earn every year the economy would probably collapse, and millions of people would be left unemployed. And eventually other industries would rise and take their place to only continue the cycle of manipulation and brainwashing for profit. This would do very little to resolve the issue of body image and would only cause an even greater global crisis. However, the problem with such industries doesn’t necessarily lie in the industries themselves but rather in the toxic tactics and ways in which they target, extort and body shame consumers. But without the use of such effective methods, large companies would see a considerable decline in income, resulting in more modest earnings. It seems that the only way to effectively bring forth social change and put an end to this epidemic of negative body image is to transform a narrow-minded society into one with diverse ideas of beauty, where bodies outside the “ideal” will be accepted and celebrated.

Conclusion

In summary, the relevance of Wolf’s theory regarding the beauty myth is still as prominent in society today as it was in the 1990’s when the book was first published. Although capitalism is the driving force behind modern beauty standards, the patriarchy still holds incredible influence in dominating these ideals. This is evident particularly in the sheer concentration of beauty aimed towards women and how in a day and age where women have had more freedom and advantages than ever before, they are still valued based on their looks. It is because of this that the standard of beauty for women has been set incredibly high, much higher than the standards for men. As earlier explained, the male beauty industry does exist, and men are used as tools for profit and extortion just like women, however to a far less extent. Based on the countless advertisements and products aimed towards females, not to mention the societal pressure pushed upon them, when regarding male and female beauty ideals there is no comparison. When it comes to beauty, society is full of double standards; men are allowed much more freedom in their appearances and how they present their bodies than women. Characteristics in women such as signs of ageing and body hair are seen as grotesque and socially unacceptable, a betrayal of femininity and beauty. Whereas, the same characteristics in men are generally accepted and considered natural. Regardless of gender, human beings are born naturally covered in hair, if women were not meant to have hair then they would have been born hairless. Such standards only further separate men and women and create more needless inequality.

The pressure of obtaining some form of ideal beauty is something that has affected everyone, at least to some degree. Throughout history there have always been beauty standards to some extent, however due to the unique technological advances of the 21st Century, there has never before been such an intense exposure as there is today. This has only caused an influx of insecurity and self-loathing within the global population, resulting in the rise of eating disorders and poor mental health. However, as previously addressed in chapter three, by putting an end to the industry’s that endorse and promote such unhealthy body image, it would only lead to greater problems and wouldn’t solve the issue at hand. Neither would giving in to the societal pressure and adhering to these ideals. For a person who struggles with low-self-esteem, the feelings of success, self-satisfaction and security when achieving a target weight or any other “accomplishment” are fleeting and temporary and only feed the feelings of anxiety and self-deprecation when the sense of achievement fades or when weight gain occurs. The only way to create a lasting difference is to change the mind sets of the global population and our perceptions of physical beauty.

Recently, slightly more varied body types have been slowly integrated into mainstream media with the occasional token plus size model or model with a darker than average skin tone. The level of diversity depicted within mainstream media is still seriously lacking. Women of body sizes larger than the average supermodel (women whose bodies represent the majority) still receive media backlash because of their bodies, fat-shaming these women in articles and social media.

Finally in closing, if the minds of the masses were to become unconditioned, and people changed the way they thought about beauty, not only would the levels of self-esteem rise and eating disorders decrease along with societal pressure, but industries and mass media would as a result be forced to change their perspective on beauty as well, which would further result in the inclusion of bodies in the mainstream regardless of shape, size, ethnicity or physical ability. And the stigma that surrounds this diversity would eventually disappear, creating a healthier, happier society.

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[10] Wolf, N., 1990, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. p15

[11] Wolf, N., 1990, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. p12

[12] Wolf, N., 1990, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. p14-16

[13] Wolf, N., 1990, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. p16

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