I don’t think there are many females out there who have not, at one point in their lives, struggled with body image issues. Of course, there are varying degrees, ranging from the more typical thoughts of “I wish my thighs were smaller,” to a desire for plastic surgery (since 1997, the number of cosmetic procedures for women has increased over 164%), to actual struggles with eating disorders (currently, as many as 10 million females in the U.S. battle one).
So why is it that females – both young and old – seem susceptible to outside pressure to obtain a certain body shape and/or remain looking youthful? Well, research says that women often strive for the “thin-ideal,” based on the belief that thinner women and girls are more attractive, more sought after, and perhaps more successful. And you have to look no further than Hollywood to see female celebrities going to drastic measures to make sure they look as young and wrinkle-free as their younger, female counterparts. I’d also be remiss not to mention the somewhat cult following of all the Housewives on Bravo’s hit series.
While we cannot prove cause and effect when it comes to issues of body image (hence, why this topic has been studied and debated for years), there are some major culprits in perpetuating these “ideals” — and that is the mass media. Every day we’re bombarded with media messages that come in the form of advertisements, images, and texts. Now, I’m the first to admit that my guilty pleasure is reading the latest celebrity scandal in gossip magazines at the supermarket. (Ironically, I cancelled my $24 yearly subscription to one of these gossip magazines a year ago out of “moral principle,” yet somehow I continue to buy it every other week at the full $3.99 market price.) But these images aren’t just showing up in magazines. Pictures of “perfect” women (and men) appear on bus shelters, in mall kiosks, the movies, and on television. Sadly, research shows that by the time a young girl starts kindergarten she will have already watched 5,000 hours of television, including 80,000 ads. As we strive to look like the female models and celebrities we view in the mass media, we often feel disappointed with our “average” body shapes, stress about our emerging wrinkles, and are quick to point out our various imperfections.
This led me to ask, is there actual science behind these feelings of inadequacy? Well, one theoretical approach – social comparison – serves as a possible lens through which to understand how the representation of female images in the media can affect body image and self-esteem. This theory, originally put forth by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, stated that individuals have a desire to evaluate their personal opinions and abilities. We do this by comparing ourselves to others who are most similar to us, because this helps us gauge our own capabilities most effectively. However, Festinger highlighted one scenario in which individuals compare themselves to those who are different, and that is when the attraction of a particular group is so strong that an outsider aspires to be a part of that group. Basically, this is all of us who strive to look like the celebrities we see in the magazines or on TV. They’re certainly not our peers, but we definitely emulate them. Unfortunately, this “upward comparison” (i.e., comparing yourself to those better off, or at least those we think of as better off) results in lower self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.
The social comparison theory and our obsession with Hollywood may help explain why almost 9.5 million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed in the U.S. in 2010, totaling nearly $10.7 billion. Clearly, Americans and particularly women, who accounted for almost 92% of total procedures, continue to aim for perfection at all costs. It also might shed light on the fact that in the past 50 years, the number of eating disorders has doubled in the U.S.
That’s why it was particularly refreshing to see a piece on The Today Show last week that reported that M·A·C Cosmetics recently collaborated with 90-year old fashion icon and interior decorator, Iris Apfel. Known for her eclectic style, spectacles, and love of all things brightly colored, choosing Iris was a deliberate move on M·A·C’s part to represent real women (see photo below)… women who have lived long, productive lives and who have the wrinkles to prove it. Interestingly enough, this collection created by Iris hit stores this past January and sold out within days.
So what does this tell us about women, beauty, and body images? Well, perhaps the tide is starting to turn when it comes to advertisements and the mass media featuring real women, as opposed to young, “perfect” women. Our societal awareness of body image issues among women (and how devastating they can be) hasn’t been enough to fully change how females are portrayed in magazines, advertisements, movies, and television. Perhaps affecting the bottom line of businesses can…