In the past week or so, I’ve run across a whole spate of articles about how our obsession with perfect bodies affects young people.
Gabby C at fBomb writes about the effect of social media imagery on young girls:
… the addition of these body positive images has done little to eliminate the longstanding, media-created image of the “perfect” female body. This “perfect” body is essentially a skeleton covered in thin, fair skin and is an image that has transitioned from traditional media to social media. Tumblr blogs, harassing comments, and glamorized mental illness posts — like those on “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) websites — that bolster this image have existed for years.
I experienced this firsthand.
I started to post my own half-naked pictures and the swift approval (and disapproval) of online strangers began to fuel a dangerous disorder. The power of manipulation, misinformed comments, and a stream of “perfect” body images acted as triggers and I began to calculate my 900-calorie, low-fat daily food intake. Over the course of a few months, I gained approval from other bloggers — I, too, became “enviable,” and traveled down a dangerous road to an eating disorder.
Gabby goes on to talk about “pro-mia” sites and the ways some platforms (like Instagram) are starting to make active choices to combat the dangers of anorexia and bulimia, as encouraged by peers and others on the net.
Seth Matlins at TakePart is more concerned with advertising imagery than social media per se. Writing from his split viewpoint as a parent and a marketing professional, he says:
The truth is, we don’t parent our children alone. …
Children can’t help but absorb and internalize the images of beauty and “perfection”—often altered so significantly that even the models and actors no longer resemble or recognize themselves—screaming at them from store windows, magazine covers, and billboards. An innocuous drive to school, a walk in the park, a playdate, a trip to the mall for socks—these all become exercises in media literacy, as their tender minds are prodded and poked by images, ideas, and so-called ideals that parent alongside mothers and fathers, with no regard for what we want and think.
They see what’s false, think it’s true, compare themselves to fiction, and take to dieting, hating, and hurting themselves when they fall inevitably short of the manufactured fantasy.
Matlins also quotes a fantastic 2014 speech by Lupita Nyong’o which I somehow missed:
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
Just as I was putting this post together in my head, the Women’s Media Center pointed me at a newer Gabby C post, also at fBomb:
I was 10 years old the first time someone commented on my appearance in public. I was walking with a boy in my class down the narrow, dark street of East 86th street in New York City. As we reached the end of the street, the boy looked at me and said, “You’re going to be sexy when you’re older.” …
I had only paid a tiny amount of attention to my appearance up until that point — only enough to replicate the hairstyles and fashion trends of celebrities dancing in MTV music videos. I was aware that “sexy” was a good thing, however, so when this boy validated that I had potential, it felt mollifying.
By 12, my looks were the first thing on my mind each day.
All three authors offer ways forward: Seth Matlins is putting his energy behind the Truth in Advertising Act, cosponsored by The Representation Project and I Am That Girl. This act would limit Photoshopped and manipulated images, so what children see would be more like what they might actually grow up to become. I feel certain Gabby C and Lupita Nyong’o would support him, since both are concerned with the role of the media, whom Nyong’o calls “the far away gatekeepers of beauty.”
Gabby urges taking care with every single social media comment and post: “I speak from experience when I say even just a simple comment, a single post, can make all the difference.” Thanks to this advice, I chose a positive image for the top of this post, rather than one of the hundreds of sexualized choices open to me. (Most of the positive images I found came from political/nonprofit/feminist sites, while the vast majority are from advertising sites.)
Lupita Nyong’o offers her own success as one model for struggling black girls.
In the end, it’s simple: either we honor our children as they are, and teach them to be themselves, or we continue to worship at the altar of commercialized, sexualized, unreal and unattainable beauty, and destroy countless lives in the process. I wish I didn’t live in a world where anyone thinks that’s a difficult choice.