Defining beauty is not without its challenges: look up the definition of beauty in any english dictionary and one will be met with an ambiguous description similar to this:
”A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense”
(Newman 2010) acknowledges the dilemma in asking what beauty is. She maintains ”we grope around the edges of the question as if trying to get a toe-hold on a cloud”. We know it when we see it, or so we think. Philosophers construct beauty as a moral equation (Newman 2010).
Plato once said that what is beautiful is good. Poets reach for the lofty, according to (Newman 2010). Jean Pullman wrote ”true beauty is how she acts, true beauty is inside.” Others are more definite in their definition. When people approach plastic surgeons and announce ”make me beautiful” what they are asking for are high cheekbones and a stronger jawline (Davis 2011). Scientifically beauty is seen as health. According to (Newman 2010):
”It’s a billboard saying ‘I am healthy and fertile, and I can pass on your genes.
Our personal perceptual process plays a large part in what we deem to be beautiful. Perception refers to the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses (Merriam-Webster 2010). The sensory receptors that are involved are skin, mouth, ears, nose and eyes and they inform our sense of touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight. The media has brought with it wonderful advantages in certain aspects of people’s lives but it has also brought with it a very alarming detriment, and this is a change and influence in society’s perception of beauty.
Through the media unrealistic images of western ideals of beauty are transmitted out all over the world. Advertisements, magazine articles and modern hollywood are the driving force behind the influence of the public’s perception of ideal beauty (Hoffman 2004). From magazines and billboards to film and television advertisements, it is fair to say that images of unattainable body ideals are everywhere for all to see. The age of technology has meant that there is more access and exposure to these images.
According to (Tornambe 2010) movie icons in the 1950’s and 1960’s that appeared on the silver screen were admired and adored, but never copied like today. Because it was understood that they lived a life far different from the average person. Fast forward to the present, where people are bombarded by images of the daily life of celebrities thanks to online social media websites like twitter and facebook, blogs and online magazines. This has created an intimate relationship between celebrities and the public (Tornambe 2010). This relationship has changed society’s view on beauty because now that celebrities are on our level, doesn’t that mean we can be like them?
Women in particular experience the brunt of media pressure. From reading magazine articles and advertisements that feature women that are models who are underweight and beautiful, they feel that they need to look like that to be happy and successful (Hoffmann 2004). This can create an unhealthy body image for women. Body image is the perception that one has about oneself (Martin 2009). This perception can be either positive or negative.The average height of a female fashion model is 5 ft 10 inches and weighs 110lbs (Waltz 2004). The average woman is 5 ft 4 inches in height and weighs a healthy 145lbs, yet the media glorifies the former as ideal.
The perception that to look like a model will make one happier and confident has led to an increase in eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, as women starve themselves or make themselves sick to aid in faster weight loss (Waltz 2004). Unsurprisingly, eating disorders are a growing epidemic and since 1970, the number of those with eating disorders has increased by a staggering 400% (National Eating Disorder Organisation 2011). Eating disorders account for more fatalities than any other psychological illness (National Eating Disorder Organisation 2011). Genetically some women are not meant to be very thin. The death of American singer Karen Carpenter shocked the world in 1983 when it was found that her death was caused by complications due to anorexia. Her death essentially opened the eyes of the world to this disease, because many had not heard of it as it was rarely talked about (Schmidt 2010).
Karen became the first celebrity victim of anorexia. As one half of the band The Carpenters she was a regular in the spotlight and felt the pressures from the media to be thinner. Naturally curvaceous and weighing a healthy 140lbs, she began extreme dieting and starvation in 1967. Her body suffered from the lack of food and many doses of laxatives and thyroid pills and she had fainted many times on and off stage. Her heart, weakened from the stress she placed on her body, eventually gave up and she died from cardiac arrest.The dark side of beauty is apparent. But according to (Newman 2010), studies suggest that beauty is regarded as more than a confidence booster:
”attractive people make more money, get called on more often in class, receive lighter sentences, and are perceived as friendlier”
Evidently beauty is so highly regarded that there is an immense expectation for women to conform to impossible standards. According to (Chapman 2011) women are made to feel ugly and ashamed if these standards are not met.
For years the ideal beauty in women was considered to be white skin, light eyes and blonde hair, as dictated by the media. Superior race is the most oppressive of beauty ideals which continues to dominate the media (Stephens, Hill and Hanson 1994). According to (Kite 2011) images of white women dominate the media, which creates a negative impact on women who are not of a white ethnicity. Celebrities such as Beyonce Knowles and Aiswarya Rai who are successful actresses in their own right, have experienced what is known as the whitewashing of the media (Beauty Redefined 2011).
In advertisements and magazine features these women have been subjected to this harmful media representation where their dark skin has been noticeably whitened before publication. See Figure 1 and 2 where you will see two photographs of both women, one of before each were whitewashed and one afterwards.The media digitally lighten both the skin and hair colour. The transformation of both women is very disturbing. The actresses are considered beautiful women but when they are respresented as beauty icons in the media, they fit the white ideal – light skin, light-colored hair and lightened eyes (Beauty Redefined 2011).
In Killing Us Softly, a documentary made by Jean Killbourne in 2010, Jean confirms this. In it she says that women of colour are considered beautiful only if they fullfill the white ideal that is light skin, hair, eyes and caucasian features (Kilbourne 2010). In Asia beauty is often equated with white skin. In fact it has spawned a lucrative and dangerous industry of skin-bleaching products (Hwang Lynch 2011). According to (Hwang Lynch 2011) the preference for pale skin is equivalent to the American obsession with tan skin. 70% of the Asian cosmetic and skin care market is made up of bleaching and whitening products aimed at women who want to artificially lighten their skin(Hwang Lynch 2011).Whilst most products perform safely, they have been linked to the death of a 23 year old Cambodian woman in 2010 (The Guardian 2010). The coined phrase dying to be pale rings true.
The search and pursuit of ideal beauty spans centuries and countries. Cleopatra famously wore black kohl made from minerals around her eyes to accentuate them. In the court of Louis XVI, women drew blue veins on their necks to emphasise their noble blood (Newman 2010). In the 18th century women used vermilion rouge that was made of a dangerous chemical compund made up of sulfur and mercury. So dangerous, it caused women to lose their teeth and some to lose their life from being poisoned. The pursuit of ideal beauty is also very costly. According to (Kilbourne 2010) what is most important to women is how we look and that we make the effort to look good:
”The media surround us with images of the ideal female beauty and we learn from an early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time and money striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed when we fail.”
Failure is inevitable because it is impossible to attain this ideal (Kilbourne 2010). Advertisments for cosmetic and skincare products contain models that have been made to look flawless via digital enhancement. The advertisments base their ideal on complete perfection. There are never any natural lines or wrinkles on the models that would be clearly visible without artificial enhancement. The flawlessness advertised by these cosmetic companies simply cannot be achieved (Kilbourne 2010).
”Nobody looks like these models, not even the models themselves.”
Kilbourne (2010) discusses female sexuality in her documentary. She says that from an early age girls learn that appearance and sexualised behaviour are rewarded by society. Whilst she claims there is nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy, she believes it is wrong that this is emphasised for women to the omission of other important attributes, such as having a genuine personality. (Wolf 1991) summed up the insecurities felt by young girls:
”Their [girls] sexual energy, their evaluation of adolescent boys and other girls goes thwarted, deflected back upon the girls, unspoken, and their searching hungry gazed returned to their own bodies. The questions, Whom do I desire? Why? What will I do about it? are turned around: Would I desire myself? Why not? What can I do about it?”.
Defining beauty is not without its challenges but according to (Englis, Solomon and Ashmore 1994) people actively look for it based on what is thrusted to them by the media. Female consumers are on the lookout for the latest products that will help them look beautiful. Marketers capitalise on this with advertisments depicting unattainable beauty that tricks consumers into buying their product. In the USA in 2011 six billion dollars was spent on fragrance and another six billion on makeup (Newman 2010). Hair and skincare products amounted to eight billion dollars each. 20 billion dollars was spent on diet products and services, and this is in addition to the billions spent on health club memberships and not forgetting cosmetic surgery.
It is clear that we live in a society and culture that values appearance, and the media bombards us with an array of images of ideal appearances for both men and women on a daily basis. This isn’t helped by the fact that we live in the digital age and images are thrusted in our purview through more mediums. The media is such a consistant member of our lives and is so dominant that we consciously do not understand the strong influence and control it holds over our perceptions of beauty. With every passing year and decade our perception of what is ideally beautiful changes as a result of what we are being fed by the media (Salome 2009) No doubt many women will continue to suffer because of it and strive to try and achieve it. Of course there are many of us who will sooth ourselves with cliches like it’s only skin deep and beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for better or worse beauty matters and has always mattered.
The media need to completely change their input in influencing our perceptions. They need to advertise women with realistic and healthy bodies that are beautiful. They must stop featuring unhealthy, underweight models in advertisements – they are not beautiful, they need help and it is wrong. Yes, beauty will always matter. But let’s appreciate and embrace being different and renounce any ‘ideal’. The media sends out messages to women that beauty is a central aspect to their identity and their sex (Salome 2009). It is extremely damaging for young impressionable women that attach easily to this notion. A genuine personality does not sell a product it seems and instead sex sells. The notion that in advertising and also in the film industry that sex sells, is a powerful force that keeps us trapped in crippling defintions of femininity and masculinity (Kilbourne 2010). According to Jean Kilbourne (2010) what is at stake in this debacle is a woman’s ability to have an authenthic and freely chosen life.