Walking through the halls of the Upper School and during conversations with my peers, I regularly hear statements along these lines:
“I feel like a fat slug.”
“My skin makes me want to cry.”
“She literally has the perfect body.”
“I’m legit huge.”
“My legs constantly slosh together… I’m so jealous of her thigh gap.”
“I look so gross today.”
Hearing statements similar to these truly makes me wonder where girls and boys get their ideas and definitions of beauty. I asked asked Lily Cardozo (‘17) and Travis Reifsnider (‘18) to tell me someone they think is attractive, beautiful, or pretty. Cardozo replied, “Cara Delevingne, she is hot… And seems to be a genuine person… I really like her face and her eyes and how she chooses to dress. Also, she has a really good body.” Reifsnider then replied saying “Ciara, because she seems nice and she is aesthetically pleasing… She has a nice body, and her face is symmetrical.” I then asked the same question of four kindergartners. The two boys I asked claimed they did not know a single person who was beautiful or pretty. One of the girls answered by saying, “my sister is pretty because she is nice to me,” and the other responded with “Princess Aurora [of Disney fame] is beautiful because she has blonde hair and is a princess.” The simplicity and innocence of the kindergartners’ responses, compared to the details regarding physical appearance in the Upper Schoolers’ responses, presents us some questions: Why do teenagers think this way? Why do we obsess over physical appearance? What, over time, has influenced and changed our definition of “beautiful”?
Today teenagers are constantly checking their Snapchats and Instagrams. We are constantly up to date on all things social media (check out Excellence Perry’s article, “On Your Phone, On Your Computer, In Your Head” to get a better understanding of this.) With these easy-to-access apps on our phones, we are able to follow the activity of celebrities, models, athletes, and countless others. The images we see on Instagram and Snapchat, along with images in magazines, television commercials, and advertisements, are readily available to teenagers and viewed regularly. The constant exposure to these images might be a primary reason why teenagers obsess over physical appearance. I asked Julia Mitchell (‘17) if the media influences her definition of beauty; her reply was not surprising: “Yes… You see the most fit and admired people all concentrated in the media and always looking fabulous.” In actuality, however, the images that the public is exposed to via social media, magazines, television, and the internet are only somewhat real. The use of digital photo editing is so intense that in some cases the man or woman in the image is unrecognizable from the original. Despite this sad truth, teenagers are still infatuated by these images and tend to base their definitions of beauty off of them.
According to Telegraph science writer Sarah Knapton, in “The science of sexiness: Why some people are just more attractive,” “Face shape, body ratio, hair colour and smell are all linked to attraction.” Like Mitchell said, images in magazines and on Instagram are so publicized that viewers believe that the incredible facial features and exquisite physiques presented in these images are the most beautiful, thus setting incredibly high “standards of beauty.” The software program Adobe Photoshop, a staple of photo editing for 25 years, alters images incredibly and creates an image that is both unrealistic and discouraging. The ABC News story” Time Lapse Video Shows Model’s Photoshop Transformation” shows the dramatic effects that Photoshop has on images. It has the power to shrink and enlarge facial features, alter the color of skin, thin and elongate body parts, perfect and shine hair, and smooth out any imperfections.
These highly altered photos that are viewed regularly can have an incredibly negative impact on viewer’s self-esteem. The flawless facial and body features present in these images have the potential to create insecurities for viewers. I asked classmate Gwin Sinnott (‘17) if looking at these attractive pictures on social media and in magazines ever made her wish she could change something about her appearance. She replied, “Absolutely… seeing these 5’9’’ and taller models fitting into sizes I can’t even fit into makes me feel like I need to fix the way my body is shaped. I see these small waists, and it puts the wrong message in my head.” The desire to “fix” one’s own appearance has the ability to encourage people to go to drastic measures, such as plastic surgery and or extreme dieting, to try and keep up with the appearances of the men and women in these magazines.
In 2012, The American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimated that there were 14.6 million cosmetic plastic surgery procedures performed. Of this 14.6 million procedures, two million were soft tissue filler procedures to treat “firmly established wrinkles,” 126,000 of the procedures were face lifts, 243,000 were nose re-shapings, and 286,000 were breast augmentations. All of these cosmetic procedures go hand-in-hand with the aspects of the body that are so highly edited and perfected through Photoshop. The fact that the images in a magazine can create such insecurity in people to the point where they feel the need to alter the body they were born into is absurd, as is the idea that some people go about obtaining these flawless bodies in an unhealthy way.
I regularly observe discussions regarding people’s dissatisfaction with their body and size among girls my age (17). This discontent and aspiration to be thin leads to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 10-15 percent of Americans suffer from some sort of eating disorder. May Donahue (‘16) was treated for anorexia at Veritas Collaborative, a Specialty Hospital System for the Treatment of Eating Disorders, in Durham, North Carolina in 2014. “I started on the diet because I wanted to be ‘healthier’ like some other girls in my class, and lose some weight because I thought I was too chubby compared to other girls… I feel like that was a time where a lot of us felt self-conscious, but the idea really anchored in my mind, and then I felt like I was out of control of the diet” says Donahue.
After 139 days at Veritas, she returned back to Richmond. “It felt so good to see all my friends and teachers again, but it was definitely tough to be at home. Veritas felt really safe and protected, and it was a big transition to not have that there for me every day.” Today, nearly a year and a half after her return from Veritas, May is finishing up her senior year at Collegiate with a renewed perspective and with a well-deserved future enrollment at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She speaks very openly about her experiences with anorexia and her time at Veritas. In fact, this past winter, Donahue spoke about her experiences with anorexia during the TEDxYouth conference at Collegiate. I asked Donahue what she would say to the large numbers of girls and boys who compare their bodies to those of others: “To the girls and guys struggling with that, I would say that everyone’s body is unique to them so it works differently than other people’s, it looks differently than other people’s, and that’s how it is meant to be… You were made the way you were made, and that might be totally different than all of your friends.”
There are steps being taken to reduce the amount of eating disorders encouraged by images of thin models. For example, a new law was passed in France in 2015 will have models checked by medical professionals to ensure they are above a certain body mass index. France is enforcing this law to prevent “excessively thin models.” This law will also mandate that “digitally altered” photos be labeled “touched up.” The concept of this law is full of good intentions; labeling the use of Photoshop to enhance photographs in order to expose the misleading content of some images and ensuring the health of models are both positive and thoughtful actions. However, this law can be viewed as discriminatory to those in the modeling world who naturally have a BMI below what is being enforced.
I recall hearing Brigid O’Shea (‘17) discussing the passing of this law: “It is true that there is a significant issue with anorexia and other eating disorders, and it is absolutely crucial that it is addressed more seriously, but it is also true that there are girls in the world who may feel like they are not capable of being ‘commercial pretty’ because they have a low BMI or struggle to gain weight. We need to ensure that the world addresses issues like this with perspective on all sides of the story.” O’Shea continued explaining the connection she has to the new law: “The minimum BMI for models in France is set at 18… I would have to put on 30 pounds just to meet the requirement… I wouldn’t say that this impacts me, though. I was born into the body that I have, and aside from my frequent complaints of being a tall girl, I know that this body is my home, and I would never deprive it of the energy it needs, nor would I fill it with too much just to meet a requirement or a societal standard… I want girls to focus their interests on eating healthy rather than dieting, and smiling at themselves in the mirror, rather than criticizing themselves.” Encouraging women to be proud of the way they look is especially important to promoting confidence and blurring the distinct guidelines of today’s beauty standards.
The influence of Photoshopped images has serious repercussions on the confidence of and self-image of teenagers, and it sets an unrealistic standard of beauty. Many of the Photoshopped images among us are published in places targeted for teenagers. Social media, magazines, and clothing advertisements all are notorious for publishing Photoshopped images. In 2014, Target had to issue a formal apology after a “thigh gap photoshop fail.” On an advertisement for junior (teenager) swimsuits, there was a blatant error of Photoshop cutting out entire gaps in the model’s body. Despite its discouraging and misleading effects, we can’t stop the use of Photoshop; banning the use of it is not a realistic possibility. However, this doesn’t mean people should continue to conform drastically to meet these unrealistic standards.
Before the end of my conversation with O’Shea, she said one last thing that struck me: “Confidence is hard to come by these days, and I think it’s important that girls aren’t taught to look a certain way, but love the way they look.” If we can encourage those with insecurities about their appearance to be proud and confident, and continue to recognize and spread awareness of the impracticality of the images on social media and in magazines, I believe that our definitions of beauty will become less superficial than they are now. After all, beauty is undefinable, so nobody should second guess whether they are beautiful or not because of an unrealistic standard.
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Featured image courtesy of vogue.com.