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The Flaws of Frail: How Media Has Altered Body Image by Sharon Lin

 

As the winter season rapidly approaches, the fashion industry prepares to unveil their newest trends. Fashion catwalks erupt around the holidays, while adoring fans of Victoria’s Secret, Bloomingdale’s, and Vogue tune into their televisions to scrutinize the latest styles.

Super skinny models take the runway, showing off skimpy outfits and outrageous costumes to an adoring audience. After all, the holidays have always been a time for fashionistas to find inspiration for the coming season. With the standards of beauty constantly changing, it is practically essential to keep up with the most innovative styles or risk being left in the dust.

Or is it?

One thing is certain: in the past few decades, the general definition of beauty has undergone severe and drastic modifications. Gone are the days when women with curvier bodies were accepted by society. Gone are the days when natural beauty was admired by fashionistas. Gone are the days when health and perfection could coexist.

Today’s definition of the perfect body shape is closer to the likes of actresses Nicole Ritchie and Keira Knightley. With thin, wiry arms, shockingly wide thigh gaps, sunken cheeks, and bony frames, their figures would have been distasteful had they lived in an earlier era. Although it is likely that many women such as themselves are naturally thin—and can live healthily with a lower body weight—it is inevitable that envious young women will come to fawn over their body as the epitome of beauty. Simply because they are subject to images of thin women on a daily basis, today’s young girls develop the mindset that beauty means mirroring their favorite celebrities.

The standards of beauty seem to change with the fads that fade in and out through the seasons. It has become nearly impossible to keep up with the latest styles without either spending a fortune or driving oneself insane with fashion tips, magazines, and clothing catalogs. In fact, the effort required to keep up with the latest fashions is hardly even conceivable, since the volatile nature of the fashion industry deems it about as erratic of the modern day stock market.

Printed magazines include a plethora of ads calling for women who wish to change their appearances. From over-priced protein shakes and “magic pills” to severe surgical procedures such as liposuction, there are an incredible number of companies taking advantage of women who are uncomfortable with the shape of their body. In fact, a shocking 97% of all women who had participated in a recent poll by Glamour magazine were self-deprecating about their body image at least once during their lives.

Why is this so? It is widely believed that the Romans had cherished the thicker bodied women in their society. Similarly, rural cultures in parts of Asia have a long history of rich gluttony. Namely, the poor, malnourished peasants had to work in the field, burning off significant amounts of calories. Meanwhile, rich landlords were able to afford an extravagant life where their every need and hunger was waited upon by an attentive staff. This led to a widespread belief that the plump were to be admired for their wealth and fortune.

Thus, it may come as unsettling that the Romans did not necessarily believe that their women were to be as voluptuous as their paintings and sculptures suggest. Christopher E. Forth, a history professor at Kansas University, explained in Flab: A Cultural History of Fat, “It is a common misperception that, if we fear fat today, there must have been a time when fatness was accepted and even celebrated […] The fact is there was never a time when Western societies viewed fat as entirely good or entirely bad. It has always been viewed with ambivalence. […] What has changed over time is the intensity with which different societies have viewed fat inside the body. Our obsession with very thin bodies may be relatively recent, but our misgivings about fat as a substance are not.”

Although the Romans had associated fat with richness, fertility, and increase, they also warned that too much could lead to rot and ruin. Ancient Hebrew words for greasiness—a quality of fat—referred to fertile plots of soil. They warned that overly fat soils would be infertile. St. Augustine had even gone so far as to counsel his patrons that their bodily fat would be redistributed upon acceptance into heaven.

Historians have uncovered a first-hand account from ancient Rome on a middle-aged man who was commenting on the tendency for mothers to emphasize a slim figure for their daughters. In the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, there is a story about Terrence, a comic living in ancient Rome. An analysis following the tale explained how mothers would “strive to make [their daughters] have sloping shoulders, a squeezed chest so that they look slim. If one is a little plumper, they say she is a boxer and they reduce her diet.” Although the men of the time did not particularly care for such slender bodies, the girls were nonetheless dieting in order to achieve a sort of body that they believed others would prefer over their natural form.

Because the body has been seen as a canvas of the soul, perhaps we will never be satisfied with our own shapes. However, a perpetual cycle of self-hate does nothing but damage the emotional maturation of a young woman. Especially during  teenage years and early adulthood, when many women are still biologically fitting into their body shapes. They may grow several inches wider, taller, have lankier arms, or even experience voice changes, but nothing really awful happens. Puberty is simply the period of time when hormonal changes occur and when young bodies are transforming into mature bodies. It is, however, the period of time when most girls become most self-conscious about their bodies. They think they must change their body to conform to the expectations of society.

Many girls today mistreat their bodies, developing an unhealthy relationship with the basic activities that our bodies need to survive: eating, exercising, and waste removal. The use of laxatives, the development of eating disorders, and the woes of over-exertion all originate from a desire to please others. In fact, the opposite can end up happening in the minds of young women who abuse their bodies in this manner. Rather than becoming the slender and fit self they envisioned, their eating disorders become addictive to the point where they can no longer accept themselves. There is no skinny enough for their standards. And many young women see only fat, ugly, and disgusting representations of self.

The body should not be seen as a canvas on which we can change every aspect to fit our personal needs. There is a reason why humans are so diverse and our DNA unique. Each person is their own definition of beauty. There need not be such malevolence felt towards the self, because it is essentially the body that is the physical representation of the spirit, of one’s soul. The body, so long as it is treated well, naturally adjusts and adapts to its environment. Whether it resembles the shape of a famous model on television or an actress in a tabloid does not change the fact that each body-type should be cherished simply because humanity is so diverse.

Because humans are such socially inclined organisms, we have a natural tendency to want to conform and participate with others. Standing apart from a group may prove to be dangerous, as the group is not there to help with protection. Many of the same mechanisms that had once kept humans alive as a group or civilization with the ability to reproduce may be at a disadvantage today. However, the ability to blindly follow in the footsteps of others can often lead people—not necessarily just self-deprecating girls—to their demise.

In many ways the media is to blame for these negative body images. More attention must be paid so that we can veer away from media images that promote unrealistic body types. Instead, the media should have a greater focus on natural beauty and a healthy form. Seventeen magazine has promised not to Photoshop their models’ photos to such an extent as to alter their body shape. By changing the body types of people young women are subjected to seeing on a daily basis, we can begin to turn the tide on this destructive cycle of bodily abuse.

The winter season may be delivering an awaited change of fashion, but can it also spur an era of self-appreciation? Will Victoria’s Secret finally take their Love Your Body campaign seriously and begin to display models who actually encompass a genuine glow of health as opposed to the deprived appearance of starvation? After all, it is never too late to start a revolution and, if anything, a revolution is exactly what this culture needs. Many of today’s young women will be the leaders of tomorrow, and unless we want a future of misconstrued preconceptions, now is the time to start a new standard of beauty.

Sharon Lin

Sharon Lin is a freshman at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, New York. She enjoys musing about life and meditating on the various reasons people act the way they do. In her free time, she plays flute, paints, and runs.
  1. Wonderful piece! Who knew that St. Augustine was counseling about the redistribution of fat upon acceptance in heaven?! Thanks so much.

  2. This is really awesome! I enjoy reading it and I have learned a lot!~