The Perfect Body Is a Lie

Laurie and Debbie say:

Fashion models are, almost by definition, people with “perfect bodies.” That’s how they get chosen. Bodybuilders have become, for a large segment of the populace, the symbol of a different kind of “perfect body.” Let’s take a look behind that perfection.

Bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman, in oxygen mask, just after the Mr. Olympia competition

Coleman, stepping off the stage after a competition, is dependent on supplemental oxygen. “The strain of intense dieting, dehydration and muscle-flexing,” says Zed Nelson (who took the picture) “places high levels of strain on the heart and lungs, rendering many contestants dizzy, light-headed and weak.”

So, the image we see on the stage, of a man who has refined his body and built up his strength in a way we can envy and wish to achieve (or come close to), is a lie.

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images paired this image of Coleman with a photograph of Victoria’s Secret Angel, Adriana Lima, who discussed her pre-shoot regimen in a recent interview.

For the last three weeks, she’s been working out twice a day. “It is really intense, it’s not really the amount of time you spend working out, it’s the intensity: I jump rope, I do boxing, I lift weights, but I get bored doing that. If I am not moving I get bored very easily.”

She sees a nutritionist, who has measured her body’s muscle mass, fat ratio and levels of water retention. He prescribes protein shakes, vitamins and supplements to keep Lima’s energy levels up during this training period. Lima drinks a gallon of water a day. For nine days before the show, she will drink only protein shakes – “no solids”. The concoctions include powdered egg. Two days before the show, she will abstain from the daily gallon of water, and “just drink normally”. Then, 12 hours before the show, she will stop drinking entirely.

“No liquids at all so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that,” she says.

Lisa’s point is that “Bodybuilders and models, then, represent aesthetic extremes of masculinity and femininity, but their bodies aren’t the natural extension of male and female physicalities. Instead, achieving the look requires significant sacrifice of one’s body.”

In other words, like the bodybuilder’s strength, the model’s health, attractiveness, and desirability are a lie. Trust us, she’s nowhere near so desirable when she’s drinking her daily gallon of water, or parching herself to drop eight pounds in twelve hours.

In this context, it’s heartening to read Chloe at Feministing, writing about Norway’s minister of equality, Audun Lysbakken (why doesn’t the U.S. have a secretary of equality?), who “is pushing for advertisers to begin disclosing when their billboards have been retouched.”

Ralph Lauren poster of an impossibly skinny woman

Similar campaigns have happened in the United Kingdom and France, and some ads have even been banned in the U.K. for being excessively retouched.

Lysbakken and her counterparts in other countries are trying to make sure everyone sees and notices what many of us already know–pictures like the one just above are a complete, total, and irredeemable lie.

As Chloe points out, awareness of retouching and Photoshop is not sufficient. Many young women who understand that the images are photoshopped still want to look like the resulting picture.

Forcing advertisers to reveal their lies would likely have the secondary effect of having fewer advertisers use retouched photographs. And having fewer deceitful images out there would help change people’s goals. Similarly, revealing just how much models and bodybuilders wear out and destroy their bodies so they can pretend to “perfection” can help us all re-evaluate what we really want to look like–and what it would cost.

2 thoughts on “The Perfect Body Is a Lie

  1. Two things occur to me when I read Chloe’s comment that even after young women know the images lie, they “still want to look like the resulting picture”:

    (1) The social rewards of thinness are still real and tangible, as is the stigma that increases with each pound over the unrealistic/impossible “ideal.” So it’s a lie that packs a knockout punch of social approval. Yes, they know it can’t be done, but the social rewards for trying still exist.

    (2) My view is that the only way to keep young people from buying lies (or to help any-age people, but young people are most vulnerable) is to help them build very strong self-esteem based on non-superficial attributes.

    Once you go deep, it’s harder to slip back up to shallow.

  2. I don’t think you’ve mentioned this on the blog, but I was interested to see the recent fuss about H & M using computer generated models instead of real models. There’s a great deal that could be said about this – but today I want to highlight this to people… because it offers a really good opportunity to tell kids about how false the images they see are. My boys are both still pretty young (eight and ten) – but one the other day asked ‘am I fat?’ (he’s as thin as a rake). I showed him the images on their website – introducing the conversation by asking “what do you think about what that woman looks like?”. He said “a bit strange”. We went on to explore the images quite a bit – finishing off with a look at some retouching video material on youtube. What’s helpful on the H&M site is that identical images have different heads/faces – and that their images are fairly extreme. This makes it really clear that they are silly shapes and completely false. What better way to get young kids educated in this issue – and protected for their future self esteem?
    I’ll not dignify H & M with a link as their site is easy to find. Take note that the false images are easy to find – look for those with grey backgrounds (other’s may be false too – but these ones are obvious). For full effect find two with different heads which are otherwise identical and switch between them…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *