As much as I can’t stand Heidi Montag, following her recent 10-procedure makeover, she made a statement on Good Morning America that exemplifies the problem I have with the importance of image in mainstream media. When faced with the question as to whether her choice to go under the knife for such a drastic transformation might negatively influence any young women who (for some reason) might look up to her, Montag replied that she’s in a special situation because she’s “in the limelight.”
Only a few years ago, before she rose to celebrity status via MTV’s reality show “The Hills,” Montag was a fresh-faced girl from the small town of Crested Butte, Colorado. Personally, I think she was fairly cute back then, but according to Montag, she felt pressured by the attractiveness of her costars and by being in the public eye to the point that she claims she hated her appearance. Even before her latest and most dramatic round of procedures, she had undergone a nose job and breast augmentation in 2006. Montag also claims that she underwent the plastic surgeries for the sake of her career.
In a blog on usnews.com, Scripps Memorial Hospital chief of surgery Richard Chaffoo considers women who feel they need plastic surgery for purely superficial reasons (particularly to such an extent as Montag) to be in need of counseling, not surgery. He points out the very real mental health issue of body dysmorphic disorder, which is comparable to other such self-image disillusionment problems as anorexia or OCD that are often exacerbated by images of beauty portrayed in the media.
Montag, of course, is hardly alone in her pursuit of her own idea of beauty; the pages of magazines and the internet are teeming with celebrity “before-and-after” galleries.
For every young starlet who goes under the knife for an image update, however, there are far more who are grounded enough to abstain. Really, though, with the miracle of Photoshop, there’s no reason why they should feel the need in the first place. I was amazed by the abundance of Youtube videos that demonstrated Photoshop’s capacities, and found this one particularly engrossing. (Probably the most famous video depicting the magic of makeup and digital enhancements is the “Evolution” video from Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.) Additionally, Newsweek featured a gallery of “the decade’s most egregious retouching scandals,” and the blog thestylebitches.com regularly posts eye-opening comparisons between celebrities as they appear in real life and on billboards and magazine covers.
With the ubiquitousness of such shameless retouching, enhancing, and otherwise nipping-and-tucking whether digitally or surgically, what kind of message must women of all ages be receiving about what it means to be attractive? And what kind of unrealistic expectations must these contrived paragons of beauty be affecting in men? The latter concern is addressed in an article on psychologytoday.com, which, in short, condemns the subjective ideas of beauty put forth in modern media; the former in a study by the psychology department at Vanderbilt University, which concluded that the general effect of media on the average woman’s body image is both strong and harmful, causing discrimination.
So what’s to be done? An article on nydailynews.com suggests that when an image used in mass media has been Photoshopped, that it be marked with a cautionary sticker akin to those used on explicit CD’s. Other groups such as Dove® have launched campaigns and workshops intended to boost self-esteem in young girls by reinforcing the idea that inner beauty is what is most important.
These measures are laudable, to be sure, but for them to rival the effects of what mass media wants us to think of as “beauty” seems, to be perfectly frank, like a fairly insurmountable task. I’m a big believer in “every little bit helps,” but if we really want to change our culture’s idea of beauty, it seems we should make an effort to confront the problem as much as invent countermeasures. For example, there has been plenty of outrage over the size zero standard generally imposed for runway models, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America has made at least some form of an effort to respond by creating its Health Initiative to encourage diversity in the sizes and ages of models. Also, this year’s New York Fashion Week reportedly saw an “eclectic array” of models walking the runway, according to an article on washingtonpost.com.
Between both approaches, it’s a start. Given the odds, can the ideals of beauty imposed on us by mass media ever truly be, themselves, made-over? What are your thoughts?
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