From the moment we are born, pink in the face and screaming, we are exposed to a world obsessed with beauty. Let’s just think for a moment. What are the first words we are likely to hear? “You’re so beautiful!” perhaps? As our mothers catch eyes with us for the first time, overwhelmed by our beauty. “What a stunner!” maybe? As an over-friendly relative yanks at our rosy pink cheeks. Okay, we are babies. The alien blurs of colour dancing around our eyeline, making foreign sounds, could be telling us we looked hideous, for all we know.
But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. Our parents continue to tell us how beautiful we look, how smart our clothes are and how pretty our hair is. Our relatives continue to tell us what stunners we are growing into. And the world continues to wrap its beauty ideals around us, until it feels comfortable, like a second skin. In fact, absorbing beauty ideals all day every day is part of how we function. It has become second nature to think that our appearance is the most important thing about ourselves. After all, we’ve been programmed to believe so since we were little kids.
Little girls are praised for their pretty faces, cute dresses and beautiful hair. Little boys are typically considered cute, handsome or dapper. This incessant positive regard we received throughout our childhoods makes us grow up to believe that we need to spend significant amounts of time, energy and money to continue to conform to society’s expectations of beauty, because…
…being beautiful makes us feel good.
The beauty of being a child is that everything and anything is possible. Through a child’s eyes, all singing all dancing princesses, fighting off dragons without a hair out of place, are real. Where adults lack in imagination, children lack in rationality. They have a tendency to believe the unbelievable. In many ways this is marvellous, imagination is a wonderful thing, but sadly, this can also make them a vulnerable target of danger from seemingly harmless sources.
Seemingly harmless sources like the princesses I mentioned above. Not for the reason that a dragon would most probably devour the poor princess if Disney metamorphosed into actuality, but because those perfect princesses are a poor representation of true life.
Jasmine, Ariel, Snow White and Cinderella. What do they all have in common? Well, most evidently, they are all flawless. It’s funny how our favourite childhood princesses never had a bad hair day or a blemish on their beautiful face. Even when the waves swept poor Ariel clean off the rocks she surfaced looking fresh out of a L’Oréal advert, and Snow White looked the picture of health as she awoke from her poison-induced coma. Furthermore, these Disney princesses are the pinnacle of what women all across the world desire to look like; big doe eyes, small pixie noses and long beautiful tresses. Oh, and we’d better not forget those dazzling whites!
Our princess-in-distress is then rescued by a very handsome prince, who just so happens to be very rich, owning an enormous mansion and an array of flying carpets. An impressionable young girl see’s the princess swooshing her long luscious locks around as she and her prince ride off into the sunset and thinks “I want to be a princess!” A mother gushes at her little girl traipsing around in her over-sized ball gown and plastic jewellery, looking…
Animated princesses then transform into plastic princesses, or otherwise known as Barbie. For decades, Barbie was always one of the most popular toys worldwide. In fact, it has been reported that a Barbie doll is sold every 3 seconds. With her ultra-slim waist and perfect looks, she is a little girl’s dream. But how does she measure up to reality? The answer; not even close. With a tiny 16-inch waist, she would barely have enough room to accommodate her vital organs, let alone consume food. Moreover, with her freakishly long neck – twice the size and 6 inches thinner than the average woman – Barbie would be incapable of lifting her own head. Not so perfect, after all, hey Barb?
Some people may roll their eyes and say, “It’s just a doll!”, but yet, it’s a proven fact that young children absorb ideas of how they should look through their toys and popular media images. There’s no denying that, over time, dolls have become increasingly falsified. You only need to look at a Monster High doll (pictured below) to see how frighteningly abnormal her skeletal frame is in comparison to reality. Our children dress their emaciated bodies with their tiny barely-there clothing. They comb their long flowing locks and gaze admiringly at their heavily made-up faces. In their fantasy world, they ARE these dolls.
It’s not just girls who are being influenced by their dolls, let’s take a look at Action Man and other influential action figures. Although the machete-wearing Action Man has seen better days, boys are generally drawn to these overly-masculine role models; the Hulk, for example, looks like he has taken one too many steroids. Spiderman, Ironman and Batman, what do they all have in common? Well, that’s easy, they are all body-builder buff and oozing in testosterone! So, what’s the harm? Sadly, it sends a precarious message to the minds of young boys that they, too, must be big, strong and
manly… violent! That’s right, unrealistic body proportions aren’t the only concern, it also promotes some extremely unhealthy ideas about masculinity. In order to gain respect and approval, one must be physically well-built, strong and perhaps armed with a weapon or two. The violent behaviours these so-called superheroes illustrate are often re-enacted by children in real life. This is because, in a child’s mind, the bridge between real life and fantasy is not as defined as it is for the average practical-minded adult. These young boys aspire to grow up to be big, tough and, well, ready to kick some arse!
Children’s toys are just a small crack in the vanity mirror, with images of ideal bodies and physical perfection lurking everywhere we turn, it’s easy to see why just about every young individual in the western world obsesses over their physical appearance or fantasizes about becoming a successful model or celebrity someday.
For a world that told us “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, how did we become so brainwashed into thinking and feeling otherwise? Well, I guess it’s hard not to when this warped idea of ‘beauty’ over the past few decades has been relentlessly drummed into our psyche. The main culprit? The media. In fact, the media is considered the most influential education medium in existence today.
Television, movies, billboards, music and magazines are only a few mediums through in which the media delivers messages to children. As they watch TV and participate in life, they are constantly bombarded with a picture of what beauty is. Repetitive exposure to these powerful messages about physical perfection, everywhere we turn, is what fuels the public’s conception of what beauty stands for. It is both manipulative and misleading in nature, and yet, it continues to spread harmful implications about beauty ideals. Like an unceasing fire, we are all aware of the dangers, but yet, we continue to feed it and watch it grow.
You only need to flip through a teen fashion magazine and you will find countless advertisements and articles glorifying the significance of perfecting one’s body to achieve an ideal physical form. The words in these magazines are likely to be accompanied by pictures of thin, attractive models and celebrities. The young girls who buy and flick through those magazines, might not be aware of it, but are being influenced by these powerfully manipulative words and images. Too often than what is healthy, the images they aspire to, are not as authentic as they may assume, and have been dramatically modified and digitally enhanced. It is clear to see why children and young adults of today place so much importance on their physical appearance. In their eyes, beauty is how we are valued.
How can we blame them? When the celebrities they so dotingly look up to are dramatically altering themselves to gain popularity. If we alter ourselves, will we be more likable? Air-brushed beauties with their flawless skin and perfect figures are being absorbed into their psyche, mind washing them into believing that they should look a certain way.
So, what happened to Intelligence? Athleticism? Personality? It seems like those attributes are a dying cause, and we really are becoming a society that is completely looks-obsessed? The sad reality is, we are allowing our physical beauty to define us. We are allowing the twisted media to wrap itself around us and poison our minds.
Times are changing and we are fast becoming a digital world obsessed with this social networking phenomenon that appears to be taking over our lives. Children, younger and younger, are being exposed to the World Wide Web. From tablets to iPhones to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the age requirements are disregarded and children as young as six-years-old are precariously exposed to the perils of the social media world. Prowling predators, phishing scams and cyber-bullying aside, social networking opens a whole new world of BEAUTY, one that is gift-wrapped in the most eye-catching ribbons and prettiest of bows. Only, underneath its cleverly constructed façade lurks a darker reality. Sadly, life is all about the packaging and little about what’s behind the dazzling paper and enticing bows.
The media poses an enormous risk to children because it cunningly disguises dangerous and illogical messages in attractive packets. From Facebook feeds of filtered seflies to overly-edited celebrity Instagram photos, we are constantly reminded of how we ‘should’ look. There’s an idea that women should have flat stomachs, but still manage to have curves in all the right places. There’s another notion in which we should also have perfect, clear skin and hairless bodies. Not forgetting long, straight, preferably blonde hair. Young teenage boys begin to think they need to be perfectly toned, tall, broad and stereotypically masculine. Why? Because those ‘stereotypically’ attractive people on Instagram have a million likes just on the basis of how they look in their online photos!
Any adult will know these images are heavily tampered with and far from their authentic selves, however, this Photoshop culture continues to hoodwink young minds all around the world. It sends the perilous message that a person’s physicality sets the definitive standard of their beauty and worth. Is there any surprise that we are all trying desperately to obtain a certain, and often unrealistic, set of physical attributes when the media feeds us unrelenting messages that if we look a certain way or behave a certain way, we will be given the key to self-worth, empowerment and success?
Why is it that we only feel adequate and contented if we are beautiful?
Tell me, how many times have you imagined your body looking a certain way? Would I be correct in saying, too many times to remember? The unceasing representation of ideal beauty by the media continues to affect millions of children and young adults every year. For those young and often easily influenced people who believe that they fall short of these societal ideals, the outcome is often one of distorted body image, lowered self-esteem, eating disorders and steroid use. In pursuit of trying to achieve these unrealistic goals being put forward by advertisements and social media, a growing amount of young people are finding themselves taking extreme measures to be more like their role models.
A darker side of beautiful
Wanting to be beautiful is not the problem. The problem is when it is ALL the youth of today wants to be. This obsessive nature to be beautiful – like the airbrushed beauties gracing the pages of our glossy magazines – urges us to become fixated with our outer appearance. Pursuing beauty no longer seems to be an option, but rather, a necessity and a way of life. We need to look a certain way in order to fit into this looks-obsessed society because if we don’t, we simply aren’t considered ‘beautiful’.
It’s a shame how children grow up to be made to feel ‘ugly’ if they don’t fit into society’s limiting definition of beauty. Furthermore, the constant desire to work on one’s exterior means that young people of today are not addressing their inner feelings and emotions and, as a substitute, are covering up their issues with a veil of clothes, make-up and Instagram filters.
Females generally experience greater dissatisfaction with their physical appearances and are, therefore, more likely to internalise harmful messages from the mass media. I already have great concerns for my daughter, who at just seven-years-old, asked me if she looked fat. My heart plunged into my stomach that day, as I experienced a small glimmer of things to come. Sadly, my daughter isn’t alone, millions of children and young adolescents feel that they must achieve the standard of beauty presented to them on a day to day basis. Young people are constantly exposed to images of unrealistic and often unhealthy thin figures. However, what they don’t realise, is that the majority of these images are fabrications that have been manipulated in order to deceive the public eye. The reality is, these so-called ideals are both unattainable and way beyond our reach. The younger generations impressionable nature and longing to fit in makes them susceptible to develop mental illnesses like body dysmorphia or eating disorders, such as; anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. What’s more shocking, is that if these disorders are left untreated, they can cause serious physical and mental problems and can eventually become life-threatening.
But who is to blame?
“The average consumer is exposed to 1,500 advertisements each day, and an average young woman will have received over 250, 000 commercial messages through the media by the time she is 17.”
The advertising industry. Everywhere we go, it raises its ugly head. Like a shadow, it follows our every move, inescapable and desperate for us to fall into its trap. More often than we’d like to admit, we plunge vulnerably into its darkness and allow it to consume us. I, myself, am a slave to the beauty industry. If I see a cream that claims to illuminate my fine lines, my money is out and I’m ready to buy it! If I see a mascara that will treble the size of my lashes, it’s already in my handbag. If there is a toothpaste claiming that I could have the same big pearly whites as the person on the box, I’m brushing my teeth vigorously as I type! Okay, so the last one was an over-exaggeration but said toothpaste is sat upon my vanity shelf collecting dust alongside the many other waste-of-money must haves! You see, there are no miracle cream answers, and as much as you douse your face in that ‘magic’ lotion you re-mortgaged the house to buy, the sad truth is, you’ll never look 10 years younger.
“If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think about how many industries would go out of business” – unknown
If adults find it almost impossible not to be manipulated by the merciless media that surrounds them, do children stand a chance? We might think these advertisements are seamlessly harmless and legitimate, however, they continuously manipulate both feminine and masculine insecurities based on physical appearance to make products more appealing, and ultimately, boost sells. Clever, huh? Firstly, corroding self-confidence, and then offering them a backup product to ‘improve themselves’ and supposedly, make them feel better. And what better target than already look-conscious young girls and boys?
In fact, studies have shown that it is children and adolescents who are affected most profoundly. This is because they are less likely to cope with these destructive messages than a person with more life experience and maturity on their side. Shockingly, the media industry preys on insecure young girls. As we have seen above, they do an effective job at influencing them to be self-conscious and obsessive over their physical appearance, so once they have torn them down, they build them back up, but with a price tag attached.
How do they do this? By deceitfully showing us an alternative version of reality so that we will feel pressured into buying their products. Products that promise us the world, but only give us a handful of dust. Happiness? Sex appeal? Higher social status? These things don’t come in packages, they come from acceptance, positive mentality and hard work.
But it isn’t just the younger generation, most of us are chasing after perfection…
It’s quite ridiculous when you think about it because this warped notion we call ‘perfection’ isn’t even real. Everyone’s life may look picture-perfect, but we’re only seeing a snapshot of reality. And yet, heavily embellished realities are making us feel simply inadequate. I mean, how could we ever measure up? The reality is, we can’t.
We can’t, because underneath the pore-less complexions and perfect pouts, lurk ordinary people with insecurities just like the rest of us.
Rather than chase this idea of idealism, we need to accept that perfection is nothing more than a notion. A torturous trick of the mind, making us believe we can wave a magic wand and transform ourselves into something we’re not.
We need to stop spending lots of time and money trying to bridge the gap between reality and perfection, and celebrate the bodies we have. Men and woman of all shapes and sizes are beautiful and we need to educate our young boys and girls to be confident and comfortable in their own skin. Together, by educating one person at a time, we can promote a healthier environment for our children. One in which they don’t feel the need to starve or dramatically alter themselves to fit into society. An environment in which they can begin to start loving and accepting themselves for who they really are.
Children must be educated about the fabricated images that surround them daily. Most importantly, they need to learn to define themselves by their abilities and uniqueness rather than how they measure up to these ‘fabricated’ beauty ideals.
The pressure young people experience to conform to the narrow ideals of so-called beauty is overwhelming, and until it is tackled, it will continue to undermine attempts to convince young people they are ‘good enough’.
It’s time to fix the cracks!
Every crack in the vanity mirror makes us view ourselves more and more distortedly. We need to stop fueling the fire. We need to learn to be kinder to ourselves and stop comparing ourselves to this fake beauty that surrounds us. Next time we find ourselves getting jealous of whoever is on the front of that ‘photo-shopped to death’ magazine, ask yourself what you think these celebrities and models look like without the perfect lighting, team of makeup artists, hairstylists and image editors.
If we spend our lives focusing our self-worth on something as materialistic as our appearance, we’ll only regret it in years to come. It’s time to let go of the deceptive vanity mirror and free ourselves from a life of self-scrutiny and self-loathing.
You only get one life, learn to love yourself for so much more than your looks.
And most importantly…
“Beauty isn’t about having a pretty face. It’s about having a pretty mind, a pretty heart, and most importantly, a pretty soul”