Impact of Media on Mental Health: Social Stress of Beauty

Body image and the media 

As I was standing around with my friends at a party, in my fancy dress with an orchestra playing and waiters scuttling about, I noticed that we were all complaining about the same thing: wearing heels. We were in all pain, and annoyed about wearing heels, but yet none of us thought twice about wearing four inch heels to the party. Later, I thought about the social construct of beauty. Why do we wear heels even though they hurt our feet and we cannot walk normally for at least an hour after taking them off? Who says that drawing with a black marker on your waterline or eyelid is attractive? Why do eyebrows need to look a certain way and why do we go through excruciating pain to have them plucked, threaded, or microbladed? More importantly, what happens to us and our self esteem when we look different as everyone else and do not follow the social norms for body image and beauty

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Throughout history women have been influenced by the unrealistic portrayals of women in the media. Whether they realize it or not, it can affect women physically, psychologically, and emotionally. The media lacks adequate, healthy, and truthful female role models. Shari Graydon, the former president of Canada’s MediaWatch, suggests that women’s bodies are sexualized in ads in order to grab the viewer’s attention. Women become sexual objects when their bodies and their sexuality are linked to products that are bought and sold. Because of these disgraceful portrayals of the human body, every individual feels the need to change some part of their body to fit the physical stereotype that the media is promoting. This stereotype can include anything from rigorous dieting and working out, having cosmetic surgery, laser hair removal, or waxing to get rid of unwanted hair that the media deems "not pretty". Everyone feels compelled to fit in and conform to the beauty standard that the media is encouraging.

The shift to a thinner ideal for women was first documented by Garner and Associates, who found that there was a significant decrease in the body measurements and weights of Playboy centerfolds and Miss America Pageant contestants from 1959 to 1978. For the rest of the world, these women epitomize beauty. These industries place an unconscious pressure on the psyche of women that these models are the symbols of beauty and it should be every woman's ideal to change their bodies to look like them. 

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The media has literally created unrealistic images and ideals for women. Vogue Magazine in 1968 actually created the word “cellulite”. There had been no previous documentation of the word before, and Vogue described how horrific this imperfection is, and the different products that can help to get rid of it. Vogue also created the term “occupational dermatitis”, which is skin problems that one can get just from being in a work environment. And, of course, they listed multiple products and remedies that one can do to get rid of the imperfection. Lastly, in 2006, Vogue coined the term “aging feet” and explained the different ways to make your feet look ageless. These “imperfections” did not exist until the media decided to make money off of women’s insecurities.

Body insecurity and spending habits

In fact, the research actually shows that sad and insecure people are bigger spenders. When someone is sad and self-focused, she tends to devalue her possessions and herself. This devaluation makes her willing to pay more for goods which she hopes will enhance her self worth. The media knows that if they plaster millions of beautiful women across billboards and screens and movies, it will create insecurity and depression. Thus, this creates a market in which they are able to exploit women’s feelings and emotions. 

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Impact of media on mental health

The American Psychological Association researched the impact that the media has on young girls and women and found that it is extremely harmful to them emotionally and physically. They released a report that included over 300 studies over a span of 18 months that reinforced how harmful the media is on females. The studies included the impact of media, television, movies, and song lyrics. The research found that the impact of body image starts from a young age, with body baring doll clothes for preschoolers, adolescent girls posing in suggestive ways in magazines, and encouraging sexual antics with provocative images of young celebrity “role models”.

Research found that these images made girls think of and treat their bodies as sexual objects and reported that they would like their bodies to look like the ones that they had seen in the media. This kind of pressure and struggle of looking and acting a certain way affects the developing female with increased numbers of younger girls having eating disorders and body image distress. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society for Adolescent Medicine have developed specific guidelines for the identification and treatment of eating disorders in children and adolescents, instructing their members to screen for these problems routinely and to develop the skills to manage them. 

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In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association claims that for every four TV commercials, at least one of them sends a message to viewers about what is and what is not attractive. A substantial amount of research surrounding anorexia and bulimia, the two leading eating disorders, has focused on how women with these disorders cannot properly rate her own size and body parts. 

Why do we compare ourselves to others? 

A probable cause for this might be Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory. The theory states that everyone is constantly comparing themselves to everyone else to reduce uncertainties in questionable domains. Social comparison theory explains individuals need to evaluate themselves and their worth against others. This can explain why people are perpetually comparing their bodies to Victoria’s Secret and Playboy models. 

Allure did a study in which they asked girls ages six to eighteen to discuss body image and it's impacts. Every single girl said that they compare their bodies to their friends' bodies and question why they are not as skinny or do not have a thigh gap. The youngest girl in the video claimed to have starved herself because she wanted to look as skinny as her friend. This kind of social stress can be even higher in cites where people are surrounded by wealth, billboards and celebrities.

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The impact of the “Disney phase”

As stated before, perhaps the reason why even young children are thinking in such corrupt ways is because of the media and television that they are exposed to. All young girls go through the "Disney phase", where they want to become a princess when they grow up.

Unfortunately, these "role models" are not accurate representations of a woman's body. All Disney princesses have skinny wrists, extremely thin waists, and big doe eyes. Their beauty is associated with goodness and purity. On the other hand, all of the villains in Disney movies are ugly and grotesque looking, thus associating evil with ugliness. This, unfortunately, is not how the real world works. Not all good people are pretty and not all evil people are ugly. Children even from a young age are primed to believe that beauty is important, suggesting your innocence, and further, in getting the prince charming. 

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The Halo Effect: 

Unfortunately, this mindset that attractive people are better than unattractive people is not only a Disney idea. This exists throughout the world. Science backs the fact that more attractive people are more likely to get the job, get paid more, and get more freebies in life. In fact, according to a paper published on the 2018 congressional midterms, people admitted that they are more likely to pick world leaders if they are attractive. This phenomenon is called the Halo effect, where we assume that one character trait such as good looks brings along with it a plethora of others. Because someone is attractive, we assume that they are also confident, capable, socially skilled, and intelligent, even though it might not be the case. 

In truth, the media, magazines, movies, and ads do not care if you are skinny or fat, have pimples or clear skin, or have blond hair or purple hair. All they care about is making money. In Japan, light skin is considered beautiful. In America, tanned skin is considered beautiful. In both countries, Dove promotes two different products: a skin lightening cream in Japan, and a self-tanning lotion in America. The company Unilever bought Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and the slimming drink SlimFast on the same day. Often you will see the same models and celebrities biting into a big, fattening burger in one ad and the next boasting their new weight loss machine in a huge brand deal. The media does not really care about anyone’s well being and health. All they care about is the best way to make money, which is the human psyche, by making others feel insecure and depressed about what they do not have and what the media makes them think that they need in order to live a fulfilling life. 

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We are all being exploited to hate ourselves. In a $586 billion business of dieting, how many of us actually feel better about ourselves after?  As prominent British psychotherapist Susie Orbach says, “We’re losing bodies as fast as we’re losing languages. Just as English has become the lingua franca of the world, so the white, blondified, small-nosed...long-legged body is coming to stand for the great variety of human bodies that there are.” We should celebrate our differences. We should have a say in what culture we live in, and not our corporations. We have the power to decide what will affect us and what we will decide is real or fake. In most cases, all of the ads, movies, and magazines are Photoshopped to make you envious and jealous. They are not real. The body has become the finest consumer object for the corporations to prey on. 

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So what can we do about it? At LIFE Intelligence, our goal is to help you feel beautiful and confident from the inside out. As a DIY therapist, career coach, and relationship counselor in one, our app teaches the science behind self-affirmation and the studies behind making upward comparisons on social media. We even discuss the difference between a fragile and strong high self-esteem. By putting science behind self care, we provide a no-BS window in how to build self confidence, in a way that lasts beyond the next diet, new outfit. For beauty from the inside out.

Elisheva Hoffman
December 15, 2020


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