Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Last night, I went to the Canadian premiere and panel discussion of America the Beautiful.

America the Beautiful Trailer from J B on Vimeo.

In some ways, it was a story we’ve all heard many times before: plastic surgery is on the rise, girl’s self-esteems are down, models depict an unrealistic ideal of beauty that most women can’t achieve, etc, etc. However, the fact that this tale has been on repeat, or that it isn't always perfect in its execution, doesn’t mean that it is without value.

It is just too much of a damn shame to see beautiful girls of 12, 13 years old, staring into the camera with wide, earnest eyes, and asserting with every iota of their being that they are ugly. This is not spoken with the flutter of eyelashes and the search for praise. It is stated with utter conviction, as though nothing could shake their fundamental faith in their unattractiveness and their subsequently diminished worth as a result.

Yes, it is simplistic to blame it all on the media. We are not merely vessels that absorb and regurgitate what we see on television. But it is also blind and shortsighted to pretend as though the barrage of images merely ricochets without even grazing the surface.

A sociologist reported on how she saw the rate of bulimic behaviour in Fijian adolescent girls increase from 0% to 11% in three years—coincidentally timed with the introduction of television to the island.
A 6 foot model who weighs 130 pounds is told she needs to lose 15 pounds, despite the fact that this weight loss will put her at a BMI in the severely underweight category. When asked about health concerns, she sneers and laughs. “If you want to worry about your health, you go to college.”
Fashion designers justify these requests by stating that fabric is expensive, so it is much more affordable for them to make runway outfits in a Size 0.
Research shows that minutes looking at a fashion magazine results in substantial drops in 70% of women’s self-esteem, and that watching pornography or films with hyper-attractive women make men rate their own partner’s attractiveness as significantly lower.

The filmmaker doesn’t posit a solution, outside of seeing the beauty in everyone, and learning to love oneself—the same messages that have been thrown into Seventeen magazine for years alongside swimsuit spreads and treatises on how to get boys to like you.

I don’t have one either. Awareness is a start, but can be dangerous, too, because images and stories intended for shock value often instead inspire teenage girls. I know that when I watched clips of modeling agencies tearing apart a tiny teenage girl for gaining a pound, I should have been focused on the absurdity of the situation, rather than pondering how appalled they would be at my body.

Perhaps I am a hypocrite, for harping on about the cruelty of beauty ideals while embarking on my own intense diet and exercise routine for the primary purpose of losing weight.

Perhaps media literacy is the key, and if we even spent a proportion of the time that we do harping on kids to say no to drugs instead informing them about the gap between media depictions and realities, they would be substantially better off.

Or perhaps low self-esteem is merely the cross we all have to bear as a part of growing up.
I certainly hope not.


Nilsa S. said...

Really interesting post. I don't have answers, either. What I do know is I've never been obsessed with beauty magazines. While I might have bought/subscribed to them in the past, I would get bored easily. Repetition does that to me.

I've also always been more interested in how I feel about myself than how I look. I never expect to be rail thin. Or even thin. I expect to feel good about myself. And so, my diets and exercise have always been focused on that goal.

Who knows what the cause and effect of my behaviors are. But, I would argue what we see in the media definitely plays a role in how we envision ourselves. And if we don't pay attention to it or our attention is diverted elsewhere, maybe that is part of the solution to higher self-esteems.

Kyla Bea said...

It’s so hard – so much of what television brought us to cope with has been exponentially complicated by the internet and its images an opinions… I think the most important thing is dialogue with kids. I work in children’s theatre and one of the things it has taught me is that children are hyper aware and hyper observant, they soak everything up and then try to disseminate it all at once. I think it takes years to understand the context of our media, and only then is it possible to be properly critical which… is problematic when you’re trying to help young people.

Really, really interesting.

My only thought is that maybe if we can help kids see the validity and importance of their experiences as stand alone events that could help them care less what other people think and say.

Thanks for posting this.

Surfergrrl said...

I'm with you. I feel like a hypocrite too because how I can say, "love yourself the way you are," but buy crest white strips, and dye my hair, and get my hair cut..i mean aren't those kinds of the same things? where is the cut-off on beauty being a maintaining issue or a self-esteem issue. hard to say.

on a similar and appalling note, did you hear how they used another little girl to lip sync the girl who originally sang the song in the olympic opening ceremonies because she was a lot "cuter" than the girl who really sang it? Wow!!! That's bullshit!

Katelin said...

i'm so with you on this. it's just so sad to see such young girls have body image issues. i'm really curious to see this movie.

Tony said...

Honestly, this has always just made me feel sick. I do everything I can to fight against it, and help people feel good about the way they look, but it's really hard. I prefer a girl when she looks natural. I'm turned off by dyed hair and gobs of makeup and people who tan obsessively. A girl who's skin and bones just looks unhealthy to me, not super hot. I always tell my girlfriend (and I honestly believe it) that she looks absolutely beautiful when she wakes up, and she doesn't need to put the makeup on.

I don't think there IS a real solution to the problem. People have been convinced that skinny is beautiful; that it's the only way to be. That fake is pretty. Overcoming that would take...a miracle.

As for me? I'm going to keep waking up every morning and telling my girlfriend how beautiful I think she is...JUST the way she is.

P.s. She's starting to believe me, too!

Mrs4444 said...

I think it would help if adults learned how to talk to girls. By that, I mean how to praise them in a way that builds self esteem for what's inside; what they are capable of, rather than what's on the outside. My daughter is beautiful, but I know she'll get further in life if she knows her value lies in who she is, not what she looks like. Great post.

lissa said...

thank you for sharing this. i def have to be sure to see the documentary. i've had plenty of image and self-esteem issues. i think it would be futile to try to change the media. i think the biggest difference for me came from surrounding myself with supportive people and family.

Anonymous said...

I don't have the words for a real comment regarding your post, but I did want to say "thank you" for posting it because it is definitely something that I've been thinking through lately. I've never considered myself overweight, because I haven't been, but when you get married, you are pressured on all sides to lose weight to look "perfect" on your "special day." (Sorry for all of the quotes.)

My motivation? What he sees is what he's going to get. I don't want him to think that what he gets on the wedding day is what he's going to live with unless it is a lifestyle change with my health in mind. I mean, really. . . why get his hopes up? ;)

But seriously, sometimes it just takes a few pep talks, and I'm back to feeling that being a stick isn't something that would make me happy. But it does suck because there have most certainly been times that I've felt like the most unattractive person on the face of the earth. Anyway, I'll stop babbling now and get back to the point -- thank you for posting this because I've been thinking about it lately. :)

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

The average runway model weights 23% less than the average American woman....scary, huh?z

Daisy said...

I definitely want to see that documentary! Thanks for sharing.

I think there is a fine line between trying to look your best and trying to look unrealistic. It's a tough one! And I have no doubt that Hollywood/Media affects our perspectives.

X. Dell said...

I would see a more fundamental point here: the very narrow definition of beauty to a standard that does not exist in nature. People are loath to see media as a causal factor in this, probably because educated people shy away from deterministic explanations (for good reason). In this case, the media are simply dumb tools. They reflect someone else's vision of acceptability--and ironically, someone's strange notion of what constitutes normal.

That we participate in the charade that only certain attributes make up beauty, then, of course, we have some cupability in perpetuating the beauty myth. But I really see bigger liability in a number of industries that rely upon the consumer's need to fit in. One of the most enduring qualities of beauty marketing is that the potential buyer is inadequate, or should be made to feel that way (about a whole list of things, from wrinkles, to weight, to hair color, to skin tone, to whatever.) As stressed in advertising, the only solution to this inadequacy is buying.

To change things, you would really have to, at some point, address the economics of ugliness.

Princess Pointful said...

Thanks for all the interesting commentary so far, folks!

With regards to beauty being an issue of mass marketing (especially with your insightful comments, X.Dell), I thought I would egotistically link to an old post of mine that discussed the topic:


Joanna said...

It sad to see how young girls feel about their bodies. When I got yogurt tonight, I overheard these 10 year olds talking about how many calories were in certain toppings!! I didn't even know how to count calories when I was that age. Scary....

NamesAreHardToPick said...

Six pack? There are eight muscles in that region - at least. Dear Science that guy was dumb. Personally I think people should be who they are; I got into physical fitness not because I wanted people to love me, but because I found that physical pain overcame emotional pain. But instead of cutting, like many people I know, I turned it into something more productive.

So yes, psychologically speaking I have my issues in that I am not over emotional pain, but then again, I am being honest.

As far as the expectations on women in our society, they are unreal but why should we be surprised when we have the technology that can create a perfect non-existent female? In my opinion this is exactly what the materialists of America want - more money by convincing everyone they should spend billions of dollars a year on things they don't need.

Anonymous said...

seems like a really interesting story. I took a gender and sexuality class which really got me interested in beauty ideals and made me very critical about social ideals of beauty even though I'm a workout freak with a strict diet like you.

Yoda said...

My answer to all of this?


The people who pay so much attention on their appearance that they compromise their health will statistically have fewer offspring than the healthy people.

Healthy people teach their children the benefits of being healthy, while anorexic fucktards die a horrible hungry death.

S'Mat said...

some compelling issues pointfully princessed here. what intrigues me are the fomenting undercurrents of this beauty fever. what predicates our mediated dysmorphia? like the postulate that having a tan became a signifier for affluence: tan = money to travel on a jet, take time off work, tour other cultures etc. and now it is just plain old desirable in and of itself. before all that exclusivity it signified that you were a field-laborer. it all boiled down to small-group social dynamics... tan = prestige.

so, to take a similar tack with other psycho-socio-economic perceptions, perhaps similar conjectures can be make...
being thin might signify: you have such a nutritional surplus that you don't need to carry it around on you (ie. you can afford to be thin); you do not need to pump out babies to be economically viable (maybe even demonstrates a further individuation from males, like the suffragette flapper style)... these are but possible contributing factors, to be sure, but i find it's a fun and worthwhile exercise to peel back the cosmetic veneer, and basically do the "it's not you, it's not me, it's us!"

something i read recently stated that there was a proportional correlation between the brain volume of chimpanzees and their preferred group-size (about 30-40) any less, and they're lonely, any more and their anxious) and humans' brains (4-5 times larger, if i remember) and their preferred group-size (exactly 4-5 times larger). so we can have direct relationships with about 200 people, where we know the names, emotional states, their news and how they react to us. when studies have assessed how lonely people feel in reference to how much media they are presented, it was discovered that people who had more limited social lives but watched more TV FELT less lonely than those with opposite habits. it was surmised that TV personalities acted upon the viewer as their friends would: gossip, information, feedback, proprietary values etc. a brazenly obvious study, if you ask me, but it reveals the machinations of media consumerism, it hijacks our social cuing system (a false friend, informed by audience demographics and focus groups and market research) and supplants our community oriented brain with dissociating and basically irrelevant information (in my opinion, international news is designed now to immobilize and disempower the viewer. i CARE about Georgia vs Russia, but i can't do one tiny little thing about it without entirely altering my life: therefore, i perceive how little i can control of my surroundings, and thusly erode my sense of determination. i cede control, and then am told by the next set of commercials how to regain it... i believe this goes back to a post of yours a week ago, which i was too chicken to comment upon as it would've led to a beefy, blathering comment much like this one has become).

phew, must cease... sorry for going off there. haven't talked about this kind of stuff while sober for a while...

Bayjb said...

Gosh I don't know if I could see that although the curiousity is high. I hate it when I see these girls think that surgery will change everything for them on the outside but the inside damage doesn't go away. I'm not against plastic surgery in a reconstructive way but it won't make you prettier or happier.

Dorky Dad said...

This is the great thing about big-screen, HDTVs: You see many of the actors' flaws -- well, the ones you can SEE, anyway.

eric1313 said...

Wow! Look at the responses! Good job, you get a gold star.

Great subject.

We are supposed to be so advanced and civilized, yet every day we still teach our youth that it is often better to be a quiet object that looks pretty than a loud living being, that may not look perfect, but it substantially better off than a poor soul on a quest for the nearly impossible.

Here's an argument I like as of late: Hello Kitty has no mouth; she represents the marginalized condition that media and corporate america would like our young women to fall into, that of the silent object.

I raised a ruckus at a gaming community by printing that in a chatbox while exchanging with a local ignoramus who believed himself to be the most intelligent and competent being to ever walk the face of the earth. He soon learned differently, I should say. An hour later he finally put caps on and cussed me out for being liberal p---sy, and I answered by sending little smiley face spams whenever I felt some point was beneath my answering.


I never saw him again online, been a few weeks actually.

Sheila said...

My niece is 5'11", weighs 130 and wears a size 8. She has long legs - her inseam is the same length as my 6'3" brother's! When she was interested in modeling, they said she would need to weigh less and wear a smaller size.Totally ridiculous!

Anonymous said...

Lady, I think this was such an important and insightful post. I think...body image is something we all struggle with, and I know I certainly have been as of late.

But really...some of these arguments and some of these facts are absolutely shocking. What was it that led to this shift in thinking?

Jocelyn said...

This is so easy to comment on, as my reaction is completely YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.