The gloomy drift of my mind sent me into an emotional spiral, as I sat very still with my back firmly pressed against the wooden head of my bed and began to do what i do best, evaluate and overanalyse. I was completely aware of what I was doing and how it would affect and impact my state of mind, however I simply did not care at all. There was a small part of me that hoped it wouldn’t end the way it did, and had in the past. Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”?
This essay will aim to critically evaluate the claim made by Naomi Wolf in her book The Beauty Myth, that “women are shaped by the media” through the use of secondary sources of information (Naomi Wolf, 1991). This essay will address the issues that women face in the media, specifically the increase use of airbrushing in magazines, the declining waistlines of models and the popularity of cosmetic surgery to achieve physical features similar to celebrities.
In her book The Beauty Myth, Wolf argues that despite the growing dominance of feminism in society, women are still subject to the ideals of beauty, arguing that beauty is the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact” and that similarly to economic markets, beauty is strongly influenced by politics (Wolf, 1991, p. 12). At the time of publishing her book, over twenty years ago, Wolf foresaw the rise of cosmetic surgery and eating disorders as well as the growing influences of women’s magazines. Wolf claims that modern culture was “fixated on female thinness…” where “…dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one” (Wolf, 1991, p. 187). Additionally, Wolf states that mainstream magazines have assisted in selling this beauty myth with their pages often featuring advertisements for diets and cosmetic skin care products.
Mainstream magazines are a strong psychological influence on young women and their body ideals through the frequent use of thin models and airbrushing techniques (Boyd & Moncrieff-Boyd, 2011). Body image varies per individual as no same individual perceives body image in a similar way. An individual’s view on body image is vulnerable to the images of mainstream media and this can have an effect on their self confidence and can lead to long-term eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa (Farley, 2011). Murphy & Jackson identify the role of images in women’s magazines, noting that they “communicate about women’s bodies and subjectivities, and so contribute to cultural knowledge about what it means to inhabit an identifiably gendered body” (Murphy & Jackson, 2011, p. 19). It is from the images portrayed in mainstream magazines that women develop strong but varied opinions on the ideals of body image in society.
Comparatively, Kristie Clements, the former Australian editor-in-chief of the fashion industry’s most renowned publication Vogue, recently revealed the measures that some models adhere to in order to remain slim and attractive to the industry, claiming that many would starve themselves or eat tissues to deal with their hunger (Forster, 2013). Editors of mainstream magazines claim they are often faced with the challenges of fitting healthy shaped and sized models to the small pieces provided by major fashion companies (Fisher & Davies, 2009). In response, the fashion industry argues that it has attempted to move away from the size zero models through the use of plus size models on their catwalks. This however, has resulted in some parts of the media scrutinising whether it is appropriate to have larger women as role models with many claiming that they are sending out the wrong message about healthy eating (Rawi, 2011).
In contrast the editor-in-chief of the Australian Women’s Weekly, Helen McCabe, penned an article on why airbrushing should not be banned in mainstream media. McCabe claims that “many celebrities insist on having their photographs retouched. Some will not allow their pictures to be used without it” (McCabe, 2012). Regardless of the demands made by celebrities, McCabe also notes that women are attracted to magazines that have glamorous covers and that given the easy accessibility to techniques such airbrushing, it is likely that this will cease in the media. Despite professional opinions about the use of airbrushing techniques in mainstream media, an eighth grader in the United States Julia Bluhm has petition a popular youth publication Seventeen magazine, to feature un-airbrushed photographs claiming that rarely do the models seen in the magazine reflect the school friends around her (Davis, 2012).
In an opinion piece undertaken in 2011 by The Sydney Morning Herald, four professionals were asked to give their views on the influences of airbrushing in magazines and advertisements. Activist Jo Swinson states that advertisements create a false reality and despite celebrities such as Julia Roberts being naturally beautiful, cosmetic companies still used digital technology in their advertisements while they strive to achieve perfection in beauty. Former model and author Tara Moss argues that “companies aim to show us what we collectively desire” and that airbrushing is used sparingly and has its benefits like providing older models and celebrities the opportunity to be the cover on magazines (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2011). Similarly, advertiser Daniel Leesong agrees that airbrushing should be used in moderation and aims to achieve “to get the best quality production possible” without creating a false effect to the target audience (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2011).
Women commonly find themselves faced with the pressures of society’s ideals of the post baby body image which has been a result of how the media portrays celebrities post childbirth (Buckley et al., 2012). This expectation is a major theme that was found when Buckley et al. conducted in-depth interviews with new mothers, noting that “celebrities presented an unrealistic portrayal of post-partum weight loss” (Buckley et al., 2012, p. 861). Similarly, Roth et al.states that “the social status of celebrities gives them a voice above others and when channelled through the media often becomes more significant” (Roth et al., 2012, p.129). This creates a type of value and pressure that women face in society as celebrities often feature in mainstream media about their pregnancies, birth and post-childbirth bodies.
New mothers relate the pressures of achieving the post-childbirth bodies to the efforts of recovering from an illness (Roth et al., 2012). In many ways, the ideals of “picture-perfect women have ‘infected our minds’” and this has led to women becoming fixated on their body image as it is commonly portrayed in mainstream media and many young mothers feel the pressure to adhere to cultural ideals (Chang, 2012). In contrast, a study by Deakin University found that new mothers compared themselves more to their peers than celebrities but also felt pressure from their husbands and mothers to meet the cultural ideal (Critchley, 2009).
Plastic and cosmetic surgery has become an increasingly popular trend among women with many aspiring for the physical features of celebrity role models who themselves have often undergone treatment and are frequently seen photographed by the media (Willis, 2012). With plastic and cosmetic surgery dramatically increasing, such procedures are no longer only accessible to those who are wealthy. While middle-aged women being the predominant group type to undergo such procedures, the socio-economic background of consumers varies however, they all hold the common purpose of improving their physical appearance (Slevec & Tiggemann, 2010). From their investigation, Slevec & Tiggemann discovered that ageing anxiety was a common concern for middle-aged women, noting that it was “a positive and unique predictor of social motivations for cosmetic surgery” and this in turn was a direct and indirect result of their exposure to mainstream media (Slevec & Tiggemann, 2010, p. 70).
Plastic surgeons are commonly faced with patients requesting to have certain physical features of celebrities and with most of the procedures performed in the private sector, there is little regulation. This has resulted to many professionals promising enhancements that they cannot deliver (Tipler, 2013). It is reported that Australians spent an estimated $850 million in 2012, with non-invasive cosmetic procedures also increasingly rapidly to around $560 million which is an increase of approximately 25 percent from the previous year (Willis, 2012).
A study undertaken by Van Vonderen & Kinnally found that while mainstream media may influence thin ideals in women, it had little influence on body dissatisfaction, which related more closely to self-esteem and peer comparisons (Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012). A clear theme from the study was that “media figures and peers serve as references for body image standards that are also likely to connect in some way to eating or exercising behaviour” (Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012, p. 52). While it may appear to be the responsibility of the media to portray a positive message on body image, much of the pressure comes from peers and the broader society. A Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image was introduced in 2009 as a result of wider campaign by the Body Image Advisory Group who had raised concerns about the affects of the fashion industry and women’s body image. The Code provides a guideline to mainstream media on the best practices of promoting positive body image and encourages publications to use a range of differently shaped models and limiting the use of digital enhancement techniques such as airbrushing (Boyd & Moncrieff-Boyd, August, 2011).
Women of all ages are faced by the daily pressures of mainstream media which often results to psychological stress and disorders. Wolf is inspirational with “the woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her” but with plastic and cosmetic procedures becoming a popular and more affordable trend and despite efforts made by industry professionals to change these ideals, it appears that women will continue to face these pressures as technology continues to improve (Wolf, 1991, p. 290).