Humans have been adorning and modifying their bodies since the dawn of time. But with the rise of mass media, a global beauty product industry, and increasing popularity of plastic surgery, some are questioning whether unrealistic standards of beauty are being set. The controversy isn’t new; fashion designers have been criticized for using ultra-thin models since before Twiggy graced magazine covers in the 1960’s. Is the media guilty of creating unattainable expectations? Aren’t we all better off learning to live with our bodies and aging gracefully?
It’s a complicated question, and more than one correct answer is possible depending on one’s point of view. On one hand, it’s an advertising maxim that to sell luxury items, you need to create a perceived need where one didn’t exist before. It holds true whether you are pitching a nicer car or a procedure to give a more shapely figure. On the other hand, blaming the media for body image issues assumes that there is a sort of conspiracy within the beauty industry. I think we might understand the issue better if we ask the question the other way around: Do consumers push advertisers to extremes? Advertising executives will say that they are just using tactics that consumers respond to. Sex sells, always has, always will.
How social media affects self-perception
“Selfie dysmorphia” may be the ultimate expression of all this anxiety. But consider that in this case the standard to which people are comparing themselves is their peers, not supermodels or famous actors. Research from Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff, author of Survival of the Prettiest:
The Science of Beauty, finds that women now base their ideas of beauty more on social media than traditional media. (Interestingly, the research was sponsored by Unilever to understand their long-running “Real Beauty” ad campaign for Dove soap. The ads were acclaimed as a deconstruction of “officially sanctioned beauty” by using models of various body types.)
A wealth of research shows that attractive people are happier and more successful. No surprise there, but research also shows that you don’t have to be born beautiful; cosmetic plastic surgery can measurably improve people’s quality of life. It’s obviously not for everyone, but it’s equally apparent that plastic surgeons have no interest in pushing the boundaries of what’s realistic and healthy for each person. It’s not in our interest to fill our waiting rooms with neurotic narcissists any more than it is in our patients’ interest to chase unattainable ideals.
Ultimately it’s about being your best self (to borrow another popular phrase) whether this includes enhancements or not. Expect “the media” to stop using aspirational images when we stop watching – and purchasing – but not a moment before.