After spending months working on my sophomore project, I thought I was done talking, thinking, and writing about body image forever. The topic was quite interesting to me at the beginning of the year, but 80 notecards, three presentations, and two essay drafts later, I was bored.
Several months later, and with some distance from the stress of the ordeal, I’ve remembered why I chose to research body image in the first place. In my project, I talked about how the media affects our perception of how we look and how harmful that can be to our mental and physical health. Since then, I’ve realized once again that it’s an issue impossible to escape from.
We are constantly bombarded with images of what people should look like. Based on the people we see in the media, it would seem that there is an extremely small range for what can be considered beautiful. Not only are we surrounded by “perfect” people, but advertisements make us think that happiness, beauty, and whatever product the company is trying to sell us are intrinsically connected.
I know, and think most people realize, that skinniness is not a criterion for being pretty. None of the traits we see in celebrities and models (high cheekbones, full lips, long legs, and the list goes on) are particularly important.
In fact, by the ridiculous standards set up magazines, TV shows, and movies, almost no one is good-looking. Yet I’ve never looked at one of my friends, or anyone I like and respect, and thought that she’s ugly.
When all we have to go by is a picture, looks become pretty important. But in real life, that’s never the case. We look at people and see not just their physical appearance, but also how they make us feel.
Of course, among shallow people someone who more closely conforms to society’s idea of “pretty” will always be at an advantage. Unfortunately, we do behave as if looks matter. I doubt we’ll ever completely stop judging people based on appearance.
But I think that it is very possible, if not to stop caring about looks, to care less about them. However, the sentiment that looks are unimportant is difficult to internalize when only one kind of beauty is ever portrayed in the media.
Not only do we have a narrow margin of acceptable appearance, we learn to associate prettiness with everything that is actually important. If a female character on TV is strong and capable, she’s almost bound to be gorgeous as well.
For the sake of my sanity (and also because I find them boring), I avoid fashion magazines like the plague. But it’s impossible to escape the glamorous stereotypes of what women are supposed to look like. We see hundreds, if not thousands, of advertisements a day. We watch movies and TV shows that feature almost exclusively pretty people. The Internet is full of lists rating celebrities’ bodies and features.
We can’t avoid the constant messages telling us to be skinny and have shiny hair, but we can choose to make our own priorities.