This was an essay I wrote for my honors thesis in Sociology. It's pretty long, so I won't include the entire paper. Just the introduction and relevant facts about what influences these ideals have on women. I hope you enjoy.
Women and girls no longer feel that pursuing beauty is an option. Instead, many females feel a pressure that they must achieve the standard of beauty presented to them, and even use beauty to define themselves. Today we are bombarded by advertisements in the media trying to sell products related to beauty, fashion and dieting products. These advertisements can be found on television, on the internet, in magazines, on billboards, endorsed by celebrities, and even on the radio. They constant influence of these advertisements conveys that we must improve the way we look in order to be accepted by society. The pervasiveness of unrealistic beauty deals in the media creates a cycle of both the inattainability of these ideals and extreme unhappiness in girls and women.
As these standards become more prevalent and more persuasive, so do the amount of women and girls with low self worth, eating disorders, and depression. By the time the average American girl reaches the age of 17, she has seen “more than 250,000 commercial messages aimed at her appearance” (Yu 2014). The same girl has also been bombarded by 3,000 advertisements in any given day. These images of unrealistic beauty standards are harmful in many ways to women, and while there have been changes in the way women are portrayed in the media, many changes still need to be made.
Levine and Murnen (2009) explain that “mass media are saturated with potentially unhealthy messages, and citizens of virtually all ages are motivated to use and be engaged with these media on a regular basis” (p. 16). Why, then, do we continue to be surprised by the facts that women and girls are unhappy with their bodies? According to Levine and Murnen, this dissatisfaction with the way our bodies look is both caused by and continually perpetuates “a schema that integrates three fundamental components: idealization of slenderness and leanness; an irrational fear of fat; and a conviction that weight and shape are central determinants of one’s identity” (p. 11).
Many women succumb to society’s standards for beauty without questioning why we conform or where these ideals have come from. These ideals cause extreme amounts of emotional pain, and yet many women feel that these standards are natural. Unrealistic beauty standards have evolved over time, and once even had an evolutionary basis. According to Goehring (1999), in our “evolutionary past… it [was in a male’s] reproductive best interest to find a female who is healthy, and able to bear young with minimal difficulty.” Observable physical characteristics must be used to define what is healthy and therefore indicative of procreation in a potential mate, “hence the evolution of preferences in the dimensions of age, skin completion, [and] body shape.”
Two more modern studies of women’s fashion magazines documented the striking changes in beauty standards over time. Each focused on a different aspect of how beauty is defined within those magazines. Sypeck, Gray, and Ahrens (2004) conducted a study examining the cover models of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Vogue magazines from 1959 to 1999. Sypeck et al. specifically studied changes in the size of the cover models, as well as studying the change in type of photograph used (whether it was a full body image, or image of face and torso only). While changes in both models’ size and type of photo occurred over the years of this study, the shift towards increased thinness was found in this study to begin around the 1980’s (p. 346). “Particularly striking is the finding that not only are the models becoming thinner, but that the public has also been increasingly exposed to depictions of their bodies” (p. 346).
Gane’s (2007) study focused strictly on the changes made in the way Seventeen Magazine advertised over a period of 60 years. Gane sought to identify the changes in advertisements, specifically “products applied to the body as compared to products worn on the body” as well as the changes “in the cultural messages of these products over the years in terms of reproduction of traditional beauty and femininity.” Starting in 1945, Gane examined two issues (each six months apart from each other) of the magazine per year, in five year intervals ending in 2005. Gane found that “as applied bodily-enhancement ads for beauty increase over time, clothing/shoe ads appear to decrease… over time, ideals of beauty changed from being defined by attitude and fashion (1950’s) to being defined by physical appearance” (p.12). Another prominent change found by Gane was the fact that the majority of the bodily enhancement products were specifically made for the face, making it an increasingly important symbol of beauty and femininity. “To be beautiful,” Gane proposed, “it is necessary to have an enhanced, non-natural face” (p. 13). The augmented body has become the new symbol of femininity.
There is a high cost for women who pursue these unrealistic beauty standards, including physical, financial and psychological pain. The highest cost to pay to achieve these standards is psychological. One of the biggest impacts of unrealistic beauty standards for women is the belief many women have that what they see portrayed in the media is achievable. The media is an influential source of socio-cultural values, which are easily learned. From a young age, we are assaulted by unattainable “‘body perfect’ ideals in the mass media that become a source of body dissatisfaction. According to Dittmar (2009), for many women and girls the “body perfect” images we see are of models that are extremely thin and underweight. The value that women and girls then consume is that what is normal in reality is not good enough; they must be normal by media standards, and that “normal” means being both unattainably beautiful and thin. Advertisements make it look easy for women and girls to become as thin as the magazine models we idolize “Even more destructively, they get the message that this is possible, that with enough effort and self-sacrifice, they can achieve ideal,” because we live in a “culture that encourages us to believe we can and should remake our bodies into perfect commodities” Kilbourne (1999 p.132).
The failure to reach unrealistic beauty ideals sets off a chain reaction starting with poor body image, and its effects are far reaching. “The experience of negative thoughts and esteem about one’s body is linked to a range of physical and mental health problems, including disordered eating, obesity, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, or low self-esteem (Dittmar, 2009).” Even women who manage to succeed at matching society’s standard for unrealistic thinness may still experience these feelings because there’s always something that doesn’t match what the media portrays. These women are expected to maintain their bodies “by exercising frenetically and compulsively, implementing severely restrictive and nutritionally deficient diets, developing bizarre eating habits, and using continuous self-degradation and self-denial” (Saltzberg and Chrisler, 1995 p. 6).
Girls and women begin to compete for unhealthy body fixations, and while a tiny waist was once coveted immensely, girls have now moved the thigh gap to the top of their list. When standing with feet together, this is the space between the thighs. It is one of the most sought after body shapes. Another current trend is “thinspiration” so-called inspiring messages with images of emaciated women working out. Harmful messages like “I am currently in training to be the hottest girlfriend you’ve ever had,” which link self worth to body size are another obsession of young women and girls (Miller 2013).
The media bombards us with images of unrealistic beauty, and as a society, most women and even girls are aware of the digital manipulation that goes on. What we don’t realize is how much these images are altered. And according to the blog Beauty Redefined, “not everyone understands that it isn’t just fashion magazine covers that feature drastically Photoshopped images. It’s TV. It’s video. It’s your favorite brand online. It’s everywhere” (2014). No wonder women are incapable of reaching these standards of beauty. They’re not simply unrealistic, they are physically impossible, and yet those images are internalized as average and beautiful. “It’s a profit-driven idea of normal and beautiful that women will spend their lives trying to achieve” even though we are aware of how unrealistic these expectations are (Beauty Redefined 2014).
Notes: The ellipses represent portions of the paper that have been left out. I have used parenthetical documentation to cite my sources, but I have not included the full (two page) list of references. If, for some reason, you are interested in reading the entire paper, please PM me and I can post it to google docs. Thanks!
Conforming to Beauty in The Bluest Eye Essay
1300 Words6 Pages
Black Hole Sun The characters within The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, all attempt to conform to a standard of beauty in some way. This standard of beauty is established by the society in which they live, and then supported by members of the community. Beauty is also linked with respect and happiness. Both people who reach the standard of beauty, and those who try, are never really satisfied with who they are. This never-ending race to become beautiful has devastating effects on their relationships and their own self-esteem. Geraldine, a respected woman living in the community, does conform to the standard of beauty, and she feels that anyone else is greatly inferior. So as to retain the beauty, Geraldine loses her culture and her…show more content…
This obsession of retaining the standard of beauty also separates the women from their family. In Geraldine's case, the husband married her because of her pervasive cleanliness, and does not expect anything more. The relationship between the couple is very machinelike and without feeling. The effects on the child are even more profound. From on early age, Junior is taught that he is better then the other children, that playing with them is beneath him. Not only does this create extreme feelings of superiority within Junior, it also isolates him from the other children. Although he wants to have fun, he is not allowed because he would no longer be clean. Without a relationship between his pears, Junior can only have one with his mother, but he is failed in this sense also. Geraldine feels that it is her duty to bring up a clean and moral child, but she does not feel that she must have any bond with him. In truth, any emotions between Geraldine and Junior are almost nonexistent. The relationship deteriorates to such a degree, that Geraldine feels more love towards her cat, a clean and proud creature, than she does towards her son. In reaching the standard of beauty, Geraldine is actually abandoning that which makes her unique. She is, in essence, washing herself of her culture and her identity, and becoming a faceless member of society. By becoming "beautiful", Geraldine is actually