When we think about those people in our lives who we consider to be truly beautiful, invariably our thoughts turn to those who bear qualities such as kindness, generosity, and warmth; those who have been there in a time of need, demonstrated selflessness, or personified those things that we most value. We don’t choose our friends based on their looks, nor do we rate their importance based on their physical features. So why do we continue to use our own looks – assessed in accordance with a socially-constructed definition of ‘beauty’ – as a basis upon which to determine our self-worth?
Beauty is a difficult thing to define, as interpretations of beauty are diverse rather than definitive, subjective rather than scientific, and culturally influenced rather than universal. Yet somewhere along the line we have been conditioned to believe that ‘beauty’ is something quite specific and the result of adherence to a manufactured rule-book which details the right body type, the right proportions, the right hair colour, the right skin tone and so forth. We are told beauty is something to strive towards – something that can be achieved through investment of time, money, self-discipline and the use of the right products – rather than an intrinsic state of being which can be observed through our words and actions as well as our appearance.
Our desire to meet the constructed standard of ‘beauty’ and our underlying feelings of inadequacy are lucrative phenomena upon which the beauty industry continues to feed and thrive. There is much money to be made from self-doubt, and indeed, from our efforts to curtail the anxiety associated with body-consciousness. In the advertising world your feelings of inadequacy are heightened when your perceived image is contrasted with images of the ‘ideal’. These images are used in conjunction with insidious messaging detailing the error of ‘flaws’ such as fine lines, wrinkles and blemishes. Words like ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ are casually thrown around as if this were a realistic or even measurable standard for the human body.
In this capacity, the advertising world feeds off the very thing that it continues to create: the poor self-image of the consumer. Within the space of a single-page advertisement the consumer’s ‘flaws’ are identified and a solution – in the form of a product or service – is prescribed. Our consumption, therefore, is largely fuelled by an inherent desire to alleviate our feelings of inadequacy, so that we feel that we are ‘doing something’ towards reaching this ideal, and is much less a reflection of the perceived effectiveness of the products themselves. Cosmetics companies, skincare companies, cosmetic surgeons, beauty clinics, weight loss companies… how many of these industries would go out of business if tomorrow we all woke up and decided we really liked our bodies?
As an image-driven teen I compulsively read magazines aimed at the teenage girl market. My body flaws, my lack of attractiveness and dubitable fashion sense became all the more apparent to me as I mindlessly compared myself to the images of the models that graced these pages as pictorial evidence of what ‘beauty’ entailed. The more I read these magazines, the less attractive I felt, as my own definition of beauty became narrow, rule-driven and increasingly superficial. I invested a great deal of time and what little money I had trying to modify my own image in an attempt to meet the standards set by the advertising world. Ultimately, I lost sight of reality. When I looked at my own image I felt repulsed by what I saw. My sense of self-worth plummeted, I avoided mirrors and social situations and sometimes even cried in disgust at my own reflection. I was viewing myself through a thick, powerful and deceiving lens.
It was in my later teens that I began to realise the effect my immersion in the magazine world was having upon my self-image, my sense of self-worth, and ultimately, my happiness. The more I read them, the worse I felt about myself, and the worse I felt, the more I believed I needed these magazines to prescribe the remedies to all of my apparent inadequacies. Although it is certainly possible to be a rational, critical consumer, in my formative years I was absorbing the messages without questioning the integrity or ethics behind them. My growing suspicion, however, and gradual deepening of self-awareness eventually brought me to an epiphany in regard to these magazines: I didn’t HAVE to read them. As obvious as it may sound, to boycott this form of media as a sixteen year old felt almost like an act of rebellion. My decision was met with initial self-resistance, and even then I realised the absurdity of the thought pattern that ensued: “But…if I don’t read them, how will I know what’s wrong with me? And if I don’t know what’s wrong with me, how will I know how to fix it?” Needless to say, breaking free of this cycle was one of the more liberating things I have done.
Despite this revelation, I remained unaware for many years that the magazine images with which I had been comparing myself bore only a tenuous connection with reality. Even when I learned about the technology known as photoshopping, it was only much later that I learned of the extent to which this technology is used. Almost every image that we see in a magazine (or on a billboard, or in a catalogue) has been digitally retouched in some way. Limbs are lengthened, skin is airbrushed, hips and thighs are made narrower, breasts are lifted, muscles are enhanced, hair is made fuller and glossier, eyes and lips are made larger. This technology can also be used to change the colour of the model’s clothing, hair, or eyes. So-called ‘lumps and bumps’ are smoothed out, blemishes removed, teeth whitened. Given the fact that the image is already a product of many hours of planning, hair-styling, make-up application and strategic lighting, once the image has been digitally modified the end result is far removed from the original.
These manipulated images present a wholly constructed, computer-generated definition of beauty that is fundamentally unrealistic and generally unattainable. To my detriment I expended a great deal of time and energy comparing myself – and in doing so, feeling shamefully unattractive – to images that weren’t even real. So immersed I was in the world of fashion magazines that this world became my reality. I accepted the airbrushed ideal as the norm, and considered my own image subnormal – even abhorrent – in comparison.
As conscious consumers, we can choose not to engage with such forms of media if they lead us to feel inadequate. Alternatively, we can read them critically and rationally, with an active awareness of the tools used to fulfil the marketer’s objective. In our own hearts and minds, we can reconstruct our definition of beauty, and broaden it beyond the scope of our physical form. We can nurture and celebrate ourselves as whole beings, rather than the mere sum of our physical features.
Twenty years on, I still feel the presence of that pain-ridden teenager. Though I am enticed by the concept of radical self-acceptance, the negative self-talk and lens of self-doubt re-appear far too often for me to consider myself free of the body image issues which plagued me as a young person. I have, however, learned to look in the mirror and treat my reflection with gentle compassion rather than repugnance. Though I have my occasional ‘fat days’ and ‘ugly days’, I have now (almost) accepted my solid, curvaceous figure. Concerns about my image don’t dominate my thoughts. Exercise is now for fun and overall health, rather than compulsive self-punishment. My definition of beauty is broader, and I don’t allow my appearance to preclude me from fully engaging in life. The lens of distortion no longer shields my eyes, but now sits in my lap, as a reminder of how much I have evolved.
Johanna Dutton is a counsellor working in Student Support at the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne. She enjoys drinking tea, writing lists and talking about her plans to adopt a cat. One day, she will finally get around to starting her own blog.