I think most people, of any gender, have some part of their body that they’d like to change, that they wish was different or that they just kind of don’t like. It’s the nature of humans to always be in competition, and our bodies are no exception. There is, definitely, an ideal for people that is promoted by society. That ideal ranges somewhat depending on your upbringing and personal feelings, but it exists, nonetheless. There is a certain paragon that each person is somehow supposed to mirror while still maintaining their individuality. Of course, whether that ideal is achievable or even healthy is debatable. And yet, people spend thousands of dollars each year trying to come closer to that ideal. Plastic surgery is a booming business across the world. One keeps hearing of new, sometimes strange, fads that come from countries all over, while breast implants remain a popular choice in Western countries, particularly the United States.
The media plays a huge role in our conception of the ideal body, and this effect has been enhanced with the growth of media in recent years. Society reflects the media, although that image changes over time. Picture the old ads for pills that would help women to gain weight because they couldn’t get a date since they were too skinny; now there are pills and supplements aplenty to do the opposite.
Now there are many self-help articles telling us to take charge and be happy with our bodies—to not to worry so much and that a “natural” body type is really what’s attractive and desirable. Simultaneously, the same newspapers and magazines that carry those articles also have material and advertisements dedicated to telling us how to get healthier—and thinner and leaner and fitter. Essentially, we are not supposed to be happy to with our body we have until we perfect that body; but not until then.
Like a lot of girls, I started having body issues in middle school. I was around new people and things were changing and it was all very confusing. I was bombarded with the realization that I didn’t look like the girls on TV; the ones with the perfect hair and the perfect skin. The ones who looked great in a bikini and never had a zit. But those same girls were shown to be unhappy with their bodies or with their hair or some other little thing. “If those girls aren’t satisfied with how they look, how can I be?” I thought. Maybe their trials were supposed to be relatable, but all they really did was enforce the stereotype that you have to look a certain way in order to be considered acceptable.
There was a big spectacle made a few years ago when a picture circulated around the Internet. It was a set of store mannequins who were “bigger”—in other words, they were more average-sized and looked less like oversized Barbie dolls (who are famous for being completely unrealistic and having feet designed only for high heels).
Reactions were torn between congratulating efforts to promote a healthier body image and condemning them for promoting an obese society. To be fair, obesity is a huge issue, especially in the United States, but having realistic mannequins is hardly promoting the idea of a fatter society. They were promoting the idea that not every girl (yes, they were female mannequins) looks like a supermodel, nor should they.
In Venezuela, there was a scandal a couple years ago when a mannequin maker started producing ones with the “ideal” female body—huge breasts, a small waist and large hips and butt. An hourglass shape taken to extremes. Many women in Venezuela try to match this ideal with silicone injections in both the ideally larger areas, and as a result, many have also suffered serious complications and, in some cases, even died. And then there is the perpetually popular media spectacle of the “living dolls” who have been so altered as to look like their plastic counterparts. They are often compared to Barbies for their extreme proportions; one made headlines recently for her desire to live on nothing but light and air.
If nothing else, this all says that something needs to change, though that’s been said for years now with no resulting change. Societal change doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over years. But it undoubtedly happens. The question is how it will change. Will an unrealistic ideal of too-thin girls and overly muscled men persist? Or will ideals shift towards more natural body types? But what body type is that exactly?
Because it isn’t the same around the world and across different races. And this is only a small part of the large issue regarding gendering and gender roles which spans across far more of our life and is impacted even more heavily by the media.
Perhaps, though, one day we won’t look at the TV and wish we looked more like someone else who looks “better.”
—Lily Elbaum ’16 is an international studies major.