Thursday, 16 January 2014


Danielle Muntyan
OUGD501 Context of Practice

How has the 21st Century Media Affected Women’s Perception of Body Image and the Ideal?

Over the past century the media has successfully managed to change how women perceive their bodies, as well as others. This essay discusses theory behind the factual truth presented to use. Theorists Fredrickson & Roberts (1997), Thompson & Heinberg (1999), Greer (1970 & 1999), Freedman (1986), Heinberg (1996) & Mazur (1986), Nichter & Nichter (1991), Stormer (1999), Shorter, Brown, Quinton & Hilton (2008), Wolf (1991), Lacan (1949), Lind (2009), Fugella (2002), Grant & Philips (2005), Slater & Tiggemann, (2002), Moradi & Huang’s (2008) and Toscani (2007) have been analyzed in order to gain a further understanding on tremendous topic of discussion, both past and present.

A number of theorists and authors have considered how the 21st century media have used imagery to sexually-objectify women to the advantage of men resulting in, theories of self-objectification, the gaze, the mirror stage, and eating disorders, as well as other mental illnesses. Fredrickson & Roberts (1997), Thompson & Heinberg (1999), and Greer (1970 & 1999) have all commented upon the fact that the media plays a crucial part of body image perception and mental illnesses, in a sociocultural context. For instance, Fredrickson & Roberts, conducted social and psychological experiments which “asserted that women to varying degrees internalize [an] outsider view and begin to self-objectify by treating themselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated on the basis of appearance” (1997) showing the backlash of media and photography, and their perceived views of themselves. Thompson & Heinberg (1999) have supported this through researching into the media and it’s role within a socio-cultural realm. Together they stated that “a socio-cultural model emphasizes that the current societal standard for thinness, as well as other difficult-to-achieve standards of beauty for women, is omnipresent and, without resorting to extreme and maladaptive behaviors, but impossible to achieve for the average woman” (Fallon, 1990; Heinberg 1996) (see image 1) explaining the link to mental health and the need to constantly reach a goal. Whilst theorists analyzed the effect of the media on women, authors and feminists have also commented upon the change in the female ideal, supporting the evidence shown above. Germaine Greer commented upon the change, however in a more hard-hitting, feminist pun - “just how much sex is there in a skeleton?” (1970) mocking in ‘in’ figure, donned by the elite, celebs and the fashion industry, promoting an international visual ideal, whilst hiding the hurtful truth behind the sharp figure, which has captivated the youth of today.

The noted three authors and theorists mentioned above, all recognize a link between the media, photography and the changed perceived views of the ideal female physique, resulting in physical changes which cannot be acquired without great motivation, inspiration, distorted body image perception and extreme physical activity. Fredrickson & Roberts (1997), and Thompson & Heinberg (1999) look analytically at the mental issues related to eating disorders and similar mental obstacles, whilst Greer (1970) pays more attention to the perceived view of those not affected from an outsider’s view, whilst mocking those who are trying to fall in line. Greer shows passion in her writings when discussing the male view of the female figure. She discusses how a Kate Moss skeleton-esk figure, can be more appealing and sexual than the then ‘in’ figure of beauty, such as that of Marilyn Monroe, for example. The change over the past century has shown the ideal as a cursive figure, as well as a slim figure however the same issues have always surfaced, keeping in with the new, and the idea of perfection and acceptance. Greer has always argued that women should remain healthy, however remaining conscious of the socio-cultural effect of media, negating that “every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful” (1999). She is condoning the reasoning behind women’s desires to be beautiful, whilst recognizing that “every human body has its optimum weight and height and contour, which only health and efficiency can establish. Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them” (1970) elaborating on issues regarding mental health and self-perception of ones aesthetic.

Thompson & Heinberg (1999), noted during their research into the media’s influence on body image disturbance and eating disorders, that what is shown through mass media to the public promoting the present day ideal, is not necessarily what is seen on the other side of the camera. Theorist Freedman (1986) was noted stating -

“The impact of today’s visual media is different from the effect of the visual arts of the past. Historically, figures of art were romanticized as otherworldly and unattainable. In contrast, print and electronic media images blur the boundaries between a fictionalized ideal and reality … Photographic techniques such as airbrushing, soft-focus cameras, composite figures, editing and filters may blur the realistic nature of media images even further, leading consumers to believe that the models the viewers see through the illusions these techniques create are realistic representations of actual people”. 

This shows how powerful photo manipulation and photography can be with misdirecting the viewer to an ideal, which ironically doesn’t eve exist itself. The effect of photographic illusion, is supported by Heinberg (1996) & Mazur (1986), as they recognize the sociocultural pressures around an individual, whilst noting, “the mass media are the most potent and persuasive communicators of sociocultural standards” (1999) and therefore a reflection of being a main contributor to mental illnesses and eating disorders internationally. This is further supported by a study carried out by Nichter & Nichter (1991), whereby teenage girls, “endorsed their ideal as the models found in fashion magazines aimed at [this target audience]. The ideal teenage girl was described as being 5’7”, 100 pounds, and a size 5 with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Researching such an extreme ideal is quite unrealistic for most women and also dangerous, given that the body mass index of someone with such proportions is less than 16, clearly in the anorexic and amenorrehic range”. 

Amenorrhea is the loss of the menstrual cycle for women whose weight drops to a critical range. This echoes the extreme change in ideal, the power and the persuasion of the fashion industry, endorsing a physique, which is not achievable, unrealistic and very unhealthy and dangerous, at the cost of promoting, and pressuring a ‘beauty’, which could ultimately be a death wish. The dimensions and specifics stated show a stereotypical model aesthetic, similar to that of a Mattel Barbie doll. The daily pressures of looking beautiful remains a vital thought for women world wide on a daily basis. The media performing on an international platform has the power, money and pressure to press and advertise the ideal, whilst disregarding the harsh facts and evidence of being the ‘perfect’ size woman. The 3 authors mentioned above, group key elements together regarding the media, reflecting its strikingly powerful influence on eating disorders and body image perception after being brainwashed by different ideals for decades, with ever changing physiques coming into play – “The woman is tailoring herself to appeal to the buyer’s market” (Greer, 1970) allowing physiques and trends to come and go, causing further health problems and self image issues to occur and reoccur over time.

Whilst Thompson & Heinberg (1999) stated that the mass media and photography have played a tremendous impact on the constant need for females to desire a physique which is unattainable, for most, whilst being dangerous and harmful to oneself, they argue that internalization of rising social pressures adds more pressure and again can lead to miss-direction, eating disorders and other mental instabilities amongst women and teenagers causing them to strive for body image change. They carried out several studies to back-up their theories. Thompson & Heinburg, joined sides with Stormer, another theorist (1999) when they “used the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire, which they created, to discover a correlation between internalization and body dissatisfaction and eating disturbance, and that internalization predicts variance even when simple awareness of pressures and other risk factors as such as teasing are accounted for” (Heinberg, 1995).  This point is supported by Shorter, Brown, Quinton and Hilton (2008) whereby further prompts relative to media, appear to be starting points for body dysmorphia and resultant eating issues and disorders – “people reap rewards in society based on complying with societal ideals and norms. People make social comparisons in order to acquire socially desirable qualities” (2008). This point is further supported by a statement Shorter made (2008), stating that “people then go on to compare themselves to others that match-desired prototype and make changes accordingly” (Shorter, 2008, pp. 1365) regardless of the extremes which people which may fall in to and obey. The three theorists and authors noted, all support facts and evidence, showing how the media has a direct impact on the desired physique of those who strive to ‘fit in’ with the ideals of the media and society of the present day whether they are realistic to achieve or not.

It is a subject, which authors and theorists alike are passionate about, and all share similar views in the way the media portray the ideal, as well as the progressive updates of dieting, exercising and online thinspiration sites that are advertising the dangers of ‘beauty’. The end goal remains the same, regardless of the route chosen – thinness, whether for yourself or a dominant male figure. Feminist and Author Germaine Greer (1970) summarizes the point regarding those who strive towards a sociocultural considered perfect ideal, which has been created as a result of the fashion industry and mass media advertising –  

“Demands are made upon [women] to contour their bodies in order to please the eyes of others. Women are so insecure that they take measures to capitulate to this demand, whether it is rational or not. The thinnest women either diet because of an imagined grossness somewhere or fret because they are not cursive: the bounciness of their curves, or diet to lose them. The curvy girl who ought to be thin and the thin girl who ought to be curvy are offered more or less dangerous medications to achieve their aims. In each case the woman is tailoring herself to appeal to a buyers’ market; her most exigent buyer may be her husband, who goes on exacting her approximation to the accepted image as a condition of his continuing desire and pride in her … Whether the curves imposed are the ebullient arabesques of the tit-queen or the attenuated coils of art-nouveau they are deformations of the dynamic, individual body and limitations of the possibilities of being female.” 

Greer comments on the desire to fit in whether it is for a loved one, but each individual has different physical boundaries, which are often pushed to extremes to achieve the ideal that the opposition has envisioned. But how is the ideal donned to be the ‘perfect’ face or figure? Naomi Wolf (1991), author and feminist, supports Greer and the questioned ideal with a simple explanation; “The ‘perfect’ face … is not far-fetching because of anything innately special about the face: Why that one? It’s only power is that it has been designated as “the face” – and hence millions and millions of women are looking at it together, and you know it.” Wolf suggests that a reflection of the ideal is a trigger for change, whether it is facially or physically. The media are constantly advertising with thin, beautiful models, which fit in with the trend, and the ideal woman of the moment. When you are exposed to something so often, it’s common to fit in with the masses, and follow the ideal trends of culture and beauty. To do so one must analyze one and make changes where appropriate. To fit in with the sociocultural visage created and labeled perfect doesn’t just mean beauty it means a societal conformation to a categorized ideal. Whereby we think we will free if we fit in and conform, however we are being shaped together in a prison like society. Jacques Lacan supports the points made by both Greer and Wolf in his ‘Mirror Stage’ theory essay (whereby one can recognize themselves in a mirror from the age of 6 months); “In the anxiety of the individual confronting the ‘concentrational’ form of the social bond that seems to arise to crown this effort, existentialism must be judged by the explanations it gives of the subjective impasses that have indeed resulted from it; a freedom that is never more authentic than when it is within the walls of a prison; a demand for commitment, expressing the impotence of a pure consciousness to master any situation; a voyeuristic-sadistic idealization of the sexual relation” (1949, p. 508).

Expanding on Lacan’s Mirror Stage theory, it is important to recognize how the theory is associated with the media and disordered eating. Our physical being can be seen from a tender age, allowing us to criticize ourselves and acknowledge where changes should or need to be made. Lacan, along with other psychologists and theorists, such as Freud, stated that “the mirror itself is a ‘double’, where the person is oneself and the image the person sees is another self … Since this produces a double image, what is visible may actually be invisible or altered through our own perceptions” (Lind, 2009). Lind presses the point that as a child we are naïve to our self-image perception and generally remain happy with our physique and reflection, or gaze. However, psychologist, Felluga (2002) supports Lacan and Freud in their theories of the mirror stage, by noting that “as an adolescent or an adult, the image of ourselves is often replaced with an idol, someone that we wish was the image ourselves for whatever reason” whether this be for ourselves, the market or our target audience, who generally tends to be the male population, striving to be noticed by the male gaze. Wolf and Greer have both supported this theory of a male focus, which drives us to change our aesthetics to suit those of the ideal advertised through mass media in a sociocultural environment we are being held captive in. The severity of the dangers regarding being caught up in the mirror stage, is supported further by Grant & Philips putting Lacan’s theory into modern day sociocultural and medical context; “Often people with Anorexia or Bulimia suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which is clinically defined as by being preoccupied and obsessed with imaginary defects in appearance. It’s two most common behavior’s of Body Dysmorphic Disorder include comparing appearance to the appearance of others, and thus losing the recognition of the self, and “excessively checking the perceived flaws in a mirror or in other reflecting surfaces” (2005). By suffering from this type of mental illness, the mind becomes used to the image you are conscious of being, and believes the distorted view of themselves in the gaze and their reflection, being unable to recognize the beauty in their true reflection. Lacan and Freud with their theories of the mirror gaze and the mirror stage have proven that a reflection of oneself can be a blessing or curse if suffering from an illness, which becomes an obsession to achieve the unattainable without extreme measures.

It is known that our own views of ourselves aren’t the only contributing factor to dramatic changes in our appearance to meet the socially accepted standards of beauty and the ideal. As mentioned, males are noted to be a known contributor, as well as how we mentally recognize and view our reflection of ourselves. Self-Objectification is known as one of the main contenders, with theories of occupation and environments adding to mental illnesses and disordered eating. Slater & Tiggemann, (2002) suggested that -

“situations, environments, and subcultures accentuate awareness of observers’ perspectives on women’s bodies, such as ballet dancing, beauty pageants, modeling and cheerleading” leading to obsession with self image, and the opinion and views of others, feeling the desire to fit in and be in line with others in the same situation, allowing analysis of body image to rise. The outcome is further supported by Fredrickson & Roberts, (1997), whereby “turning to women’s internalization of cultural self-objectification, objectification theory postulates that self-objectification will be related to various psychological consequences, and these psychological consequences will mediate the relationship between self-objectification and disordered eating, depression, and sexual dysfunction (see image 1)”. 

To add further support to the theories noted above and throughout this essay, Moradi and Huang’s (2008) review of self-objectification theory research, “revealed that self-objectification has been found to be related to lower internal bodily awareness, more disconnection from bodily functions, decreased flow rates, difficulties in task performance, increased body shame, more appearance anxiety, and both eating disorder and depressive symptoms”. It is evident that which ever theory chosen to analyze the need or desire to be thin, ideal and beautiful, results in a list of consequences which affect one mentally and physically without necessarily knowing oneself.

It is possible to blame the media entirely on the advertised ideals in the 21st century, however, as discussed, there are many theories and view points on the topic of the ideal and the evident pressure for society to fall in line and conform, which all constitute good arguments individually. Every woman deserves the right to be beautiful, without feeling pressure from a socio-cultural society that dictates what is right, and what is wrong in regards to image and feeling attractive. However, this seems unattainable in a modern day environment whereby women are more negative about their bodies and self-worth than ever before. In a recent survey conducted by Rader Programme, it was stated that “the majority of runway models meet the Body Mass Index (BMI) criteria to be considered anorexic” whilst Psychology Today conducted a survey in 1997 claiming that “of 3,452 women [who responded], 23% indicated that movie or television celebrities influenced their body image … and 22% endorsed the influence of fashion magazine models” (Garner, 1997) which again supports the severity of the topic at hand and the power of the mass media world we are captivated by. In response to how the general public are treating their bodies in order to reach the unattainable ideal, photographer Oliviero Toscani (2007) released an advertising campaign (see image 2) to advertise anti-anorexia, using famous French model/actress Isabelle Caro as his model. The image was so shocking at first sight he had to make a public statement to enforce his reasoning’s; “I want to photograph what exists and we don't want to look at -- that intrigues me a lot. And there are people who, when they look at a picture, they get angry at it. But they should get angry at themselves for not having the courage to look into the problem.” (Toscani, 2007). Caro suffered from the severest form of Anorexia, and by the age of 25 when she participated in this photo-shoot is emaciated. 3 years later at the age of 28, sadly she passed away struggling to fight the illness. However, when at the worst stage in her illness she chose this at the perfect time to go ahead with the “no anorexia” campaign led by Toscani, stating that “Thinness generates death … It is everything but beautiful." She also stated that “she hoped her naked picture would show girls the "morbid reality" hidden beneath the "beautiful costumes and hair-styles" of the fashion magazines.” (Caro, 2008).

Whichever way eating disorders and self-image concerns are looked at, it is apparent with overwhelming evidence, that the mass media provides the perfect starting point for a mental illness or self-objectification to thrive off, and grow, leading to disordered eating and body dysmorphia, whereby in many cases it can reach extreme severity or death, as a result of wanting to fit in and be considered the beautiful, ‘perfect’ and ideal woman.

3322 words.

Image 1.

Image 2. 


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