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The Impact of Popular Culture on Body Image in Women

Body Image: A Concept Definition

Historically, body image refers to a social, cultural and often artistic overlap that exists between the objective form of human body and it’s subjective perception. It is a concept that depicts a combination of attitudes, both externally displayed and internalized, that a person has about their body. Although technically it may overlap with the ideas of health and body autonomy, in practice body image is almost exclusively centred around attractiveness and perceived beauty. People in modern society, and particularly women and girls, are exposed to the prevalent notions of what is considered beautiful. Body image then originates from the often-subconscious comparison of what a person sees in the mirror with what is considered attractive in their culture and time.

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It is then based on how their body fits or does not fit into currently popular framework of beauty does a body image become positive, neutral or negative. Positive body image is related to high levels of satisfaction and comfort with one’s body, and has been viewed as almost a privilege by many. As already established, the level of comfort in one’s own body tends to be tied to whether they fit the current beaty paradigm. Hence, if one is confident in their own skin, either they fit the paradigm from the beginning, or they have deliberately distanced their self-perception from the ever-changing norms (Suplee, 20). The latter, however, is made increasingly difficult by modern popular culture and social media development.

Negative body image is a prevalent social and psychological problem, predominantly amongst women and girls due to their vulnerable position in society. It is linked to a wide variety of serious and long-term mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and the body dysmorphia disorder. The self-perpetuating unhealthy cycle that exists between a negative body image and eating disorders is arguably a separate topic entirely, but it is woven in the semi-dangerous pop-culture environment.

Consistent self-perception in a negative way affects a person’s confidence, sense of security and emotional stability. The systemic prevalence of negative body image in women has lead to the emergence of the body positivity movement. This line of social activism insists on every body’s right to be respected, regardless of how they conform or do not conform to current beauty standards (Suplee, 36). However, what can be said about the reasons of such prevalence at the first place, particularly about how early it affects young girls and how perpetuated it is with adult women? The further sections explore the way media and pop-culture contribute to the negative body image in women.

The History of Beauty Standards

The existing information on the beauty concept in the ancient history is, naturally, incomplete, and of a somewhat speculative nature. Judging by the art works of the time period, the pre-historical ideals of beauty favoured larger and heavier body shapes. In contrast with the thinness culture of today, humans in the ancient past admired fatness, supposedly due to its associations with fertility. With the passage of time and institutionalization of the cultural norms, including the beauty standard, other reasons emerged for the same tendency. Fatness was associated with fullness, prosperity, resilience and, essentially, one’s ability to survive a hungry and exhausting winter.

Throughout history, the beauty standard was constantly evolving, often changing drastically within a short period of time. Such, during the 1950-s the American society was idolizing the hyper-feminine, hour-glass figure, further enhanced by then-fashionable A-type silhouettes, first introduced by the Dior fashion house. After the horrors of the World War II, a soft and suave figure were considered appealing and, analyzing the context of the popular culture of the time, almost reassuring (Havlin and Báez, 20).

By the 1960-s the totally opposite body time was considered to be in fashion, with models and actresses now looking tall, androgynous, almost sickly thin. Such rapid transformations of what is perceived as beautiful and desirable by the current narrative has been reported as one of the major reasons for body image-associated anxieties. With the standard shifting so quickly and drastically and alternatives often lacking in the public eye, many women feel trapped into a chase that does not truly end (Arendt et al., 1990). If the idea of the beauty is changes so often, how can one be confident in whether they are beautiful.

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The Role of Sexism

Interestingly enough, the concept itself of a beauty standard is associated by media and academics alike with women and womanhood. That is not to say that physical expectations and aesthetic trends are non-existent for men. Extensive research exists on the evolution of male fashion and relationship with bodies. Yet, these notions of male beauty, although existent, are never delivered so aggressively and in an equally objectifying manner as with women.

To provide an example, female insecurities are being used as a basis for the prosperity and commercial growth of entire industries, primarily so with beauty and dieting products. Exceptions apply, but in the vast majority of cases, cosmetic goods, weight-loss products and beauty-enhancing services are marketed aggressively at women. The issue lies not in the existence or availability of such goods, but rather at the way they are being promoted at the expense of the general and natural state a body is in without them.

Sexism comes into play by placing a woman into a position of an object instead of a subject. Female bodies are seen as marketable for consumption, be it sexually, economically or socially. Media in particular enhances this tendency, by its very nature facilitating the human capacity to entertain other people. While at work, a media personality, particularly an actor, operates to be perceived by others. Studies have commented on the impact this double-edged environment develops on the mental health of media professionals in general. Massive self-esteem struggles have been identified as a recurring pattern within the industry.

Yet although actors are put under the spotlight too, actresses are expected to look beautiful constantly, within the movies and outside of them. The culture of gossip magazine-centred surveillance may have faded away in comparison with the early 2000-s era, but is still overwhelmingly present. Women in the movie industry and media in general are treated like products, with the general public adopting the role of a rightful customer.

The actresses’ weight, body shape, makeup, skin condition, age and even fashion are constantly commented upon online and offline. Under the current social paradigm of increasing online access, the line between media entertainment and the private life of its professionals continues to blur (Houge, and Mills, 4). And with female performers the issue is sharpened by the intersectional implications of misogyny and objectification that are omnipresent in the industry.

The Power of Media

The movie industry and media in general are widely recognized as a powerful force with the ability to influence people’s perceptions of reality. If analyzed as individual works of art, they are a way for the creators to spread their messages and worldviews for the audience to internalize. However, unless there is a conscious effort to do otherwise, films and tv series often end up reflecting broader and subtler notions, reflecting the social consensus on relevant topics.

Media industry provides a unique overlap between art and business, where individual creativity gets represented and celebrated, but most often when it can also be easily made profitable. Studios delegate their funds and other resources to the projects that are likely to sell, wanting to appeal to as many people as possible. The imagery the films are built with, particularly when separated from the individual specifics of the plot, is usually one that is, in the eyes of the creators, likely to get wide positive attention. To sum it up, media reflects what is currently liked within society; what is considered attractive, interesting, desirable.

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As a result, the unique relationship develops between the film and media industry, and the female body image. The actresses and models in media industry are overwhelmingly fitting to the existing beauty standard, which makes sense considering their financial resources they can spend on this standard. The relationship is of a cyclical nature, where the media professionals are often required to maintain a certain look to remain in their current line of job and receive more opportunities (Liinamaa, and Rogers, 10). Yet at the same time they operate as reinforcers of said beauty standard by engaging in the promotion of the aforementioned cosmetics and dieting products or exercising the representative media power.

This power might just be the main reason pop culture is this impactful on the body image of women throughout the world. Films and tv series are the most popular visual media there is, showing definitive images and role models in a way a book never truly could. Films are usually limited in their room for interpretation of what was shown, and thus a viewer can always know what a heroine looks like. And when the majority of heroines, particularly when they are considered desirable or beautiful in the universe of the film, are show to fit the beauty standard of the era, the media indirectly justifies it.

One might even argue, that the beauty standard is often perpetuated by the pop culture very deliberately, with a range of repeated story tropes serving the purpose of reinforcing it. This has been less of a tendency in recent years with the rise of the body positivity movement and the effort made by media companies to increase the inclusivity factor of their projects. However, during the 1990-s and early 2000-s the American media has repeatedly built stories around the so-called Cinderella glow-up narrative. The concept in theory depicted a transformation of an awkward, non-polished young woman into an appealing, gorgeous beaty.

Such images were omnipresent in romantic comedies and teen dramas, which have historically been primarily consumed by and overwhelmingly marketed at girls and women (Gill, 158). This is a singular case, but it does aid in illustrating the prevalence of the issue and its strange cultural significance, with the trope, although rich in very unfortunate implications, becoming the genre staple.

The Lasting Effects

The body image’s fragility is caused by the existence of a beauty standard, that is simultaneously ever-changing and rigidly upheld. Those who do not fit it massively are, metaphorically speaking, punished with exclusion from the representation in pop culture and, often, outward mockery. Those who fit it somewhat but not entirely are encouraged or pressured to pursue the ideal while investing into the growth of the beauty products industry among the way. Due to their marginalized position in society and a history of objectification women are conditioned to compare themselves against the beauty standard more frequently and actively.

With popular culture, social media and film industry acting as social mirrors, these channels facilitate the general exposure to the current beauty standard. The ideals they portray are frequently out of reach even for conventionally attractive women (“Link Between Social Media & Body Image | King University Online”). This fact is to do with the way a look in a movie or media project is a result of the team effort, consisting of the actress herself, a costume designer, a crew of hair and makeup artists, and even a camera person. Even on a lesser scale, with social media apps such as Instagram, photo editing and filters alter massively the final image, often removing it quite far from reality.

By consistently depicting these idealized images with little to no alternative, media negatively impacts the body image and self-confidence of women and girls. The exposure begins at the young age and continues throughout women’s lives, since it is currently inseparable from the majority of media consumption. In the recent years, efforts have been made to diversify the entertainment industry’s faces and bodies, but so far it has been insufficient to alter the status quo.

Works Cited

Arendt, Florian et al. “Idealized Female Beauty, Social Comparisons, And Awareness Intervention Material”. Journal Of Media Psychology, vol 29, no. 4, 2017, pp. 188-197. Hogrefe Publishing Group. Web.

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Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture”. European Journal Of Cultural Studies, vol 10, no. 2, 2007, pp. 147-166. SAGE Publications. Web.

Havlin, Natalie and Jillian M. Báez. “Introduction: Revisiting Beauty.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 46 no. 1, 2018, p. 13-24. Project MUSE. Web.

Hogue, Jacqueline V., and Jennifer S. Mills. “The Effects Of Active Social Media Engagement With Peers On Body Image In Young Women”. Body Image, vol 28, 2019, pp. 1-5. Elsevier BV. Web.

Liinamaa, Saara, and Malia Rogers. “Women Actors, Insecure Work, And Everyday Sexism In The Canadian Screen Industry”. Feminist Media Studies, 2020, pp. 1-16. Informa UK Limited. Web.

Link Between Social Media & Body Image | King University Online“. King University Online, 2021. Web.

Suplee, Amanda. “The Effects of Appearance-Based Reality Shows on Body Image”. Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects., 2014, pp. 1-314. Web.

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