Virtually everything we see today is a form of media. What we think is affected by the movies we see, music we hear, and magazines we read.
This means the media also affects our perception of what we believe is “perfect.”
The definition of a perfect body centuries ago was very different than today’s. In ancient China, it was generally accepted that anyone who was too skinny was someone who did not have enough to eat, meaning they were poor. Therefore, someone who weighed more was richer and actually more attractive.
Today, millions of women and men deal with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia to try and be as skinny as the models we see on television and in tabloids. We are exposed daily to what society considers the ideal image – for men, unrealistically buff arms and six-pack abs, and for women, too-skinny legs paired with a flat stomach and large cup size.
What does this overexposure do to the self-esteem of teenagers, who are constantly exposed to these images through the Internet and TV?
Millions of teens starve themselves, work out past the point of exhaustion, or take unhealthy diet pills to try and become what they think is attractive.
“Some girls and guys will go to such extremes to fit in and be accepted,” says Natalie Olivia Wilson, a teenage model from Bountiful.
Sixty-nine percent of girls grades 5-12 reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape and 47 percent of the same girls said they wanted to lose weight because of those media influences, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc.
One teen girl took a stand against this semiconscious form of pressure. Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old from Waterville, Maine, petitioned Seventeen magazine this year to print at least one unaltered photo spread a month.
Bluhm says, on www.change.org, “Girls want to be accepted, appreciated, and liked. And when they don’t fit the criteria, some girls try to ‘fix’ themselves. This can lead to eating disorders, dieting, depression, and low self-esteem … I want to see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that’s supposed to be for me.”
Bluhm is a member of the activist group SPARK, a movement seeking to end the sexualization of women in media. She started her online petition campaign on Change.org and collected more than 80,000 signatures.
The teen’s efforts prompted Seventeen to announce a pledge in early July not to digitally alter face shapes or body sizes of young women on its editorial pages.
Some other magazines have also responded to concerns about altered photos. Glamour, for example, recently decided to stop editing the photos of models in order to make them appear skinnier.
Other magazines have started their own campaigns to empower teenagers. Seventeen launched its Body Peace project in 2007, pairing with Dove’s Self-Esteem Fund that asks teen girls to sign a Body Peace Treaty vowing to love their bodies.
Too thin and ‘fake’
Teens from all across the nation read magazines like Seventeen, including those in Utah. So what do they think of the self-esteem crisis?
“The ideal body everyone sees is the relatively tall, generally tan, and super muscled one,” says Jessica Hone, a senior at NUAMES High. “Magazines really should stop running Photo-shopped images. Guys want the edited girl … and that brings down the girl’s self-esteem because she’ll never be what he wants physically.”
Senior Abby Musgrove from Fremont High School agrees: “Although I’m fully aware that pictures in magazines are not completely realistic, it is very difficult to avoid comparing myself to the models in them. It can be very damaging to (a teen’s) self-esteem.”
One overlooked, and perhaps beneficial, effect of the use of unrealistic models is that even if obtaining the body in the picture or on the TV isn’t possible, the images may motivate readers and viewers to try harder to be fit enough to look like “perfect.”
Ian Martin, an incoming sophomore at NUAMES, says, “(Pictures in magazines) make me feel that I should be more in shape. My self-esteem is lowered a bit seeing that I’m not as fit, but it motivates me to work out and get in shape.”
But some teens don’t have favorable opinions on the altering of images in magazines.
“Photoshop is great for some things, like taking away blemishes or adding effects,” Hone says. “But completely changing how a person looks by elongating their neck or making their face thinner? That’s just too much, because it’s too unreal … It’s gotten to the point where models and movie stars have said, ‘I wish I could look like me sometimes.’ ”
Martin agrees, saying, “I think that they shouldn’t go out of their way to digitally change what a model looks like if (as a result) they seem much too thin, fake or unhealthy.”
Models in the Top of Utah have their own opinions about the editing of their images. Some say the vast majority of changes involve lighting, small blemishes, or background fixes.
And, rather than having a photographer spend valuable time making major changes to a photo in order to make a model thinner, it’s usually easier to find a model that fits the requirements of the industry.
McKenzie Peck, currently at the Fashion Institute NYC and from Salt Lake City, says, “I have been a model for 12 years and I have had some Photoshopping done to my pictures, but it has mostly been lighting and minor retouches.”
Austin Mae Hipwell, a home-schooled 10th-grader, agrees: “If they just lighten the photo, that’s fine, but going to the extreme of taking weight off (isn’t right).”
Photos out of magazines like Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour may even make other models feel insecure.
Peck says, “I would love to pick up a magazine and see a size 6-8 girl instead of a 0-2. Most women in the world are not really that skinny ... (but) it is instilled in our minds that models are a size 0.”
Wilson, of Bountiful, says, “I have really taught myself to look at more of the concept of the picture than to look into the model’s physical appearance. If I do that, I always end up feeling like I need to change myself. Magazines wouldn’t be as appealing if they didn’t use Photoshop, that’s just the way it is, and we as models have to deal with that …”
She adds, “I’ve been Photoshopped before to the point where I didn’t even recognize myself, and I (had to ask) the photographer if she could tone it down a bit. But as long as it’s just to fix a few minor things and not to alter my appearance to an extreme, it’s not something that I worry too much about.”
‘Pretty’ is healthy
According to the eating disorders association, it’s estimated that the “perfect” body type of females is natural to only 5 percent of all the women in the nation. That means a great deal of the other 95 percent try to become something they’re not through unnatural means.
And all of this false advertising — posters of shirtless boys, mannequins with skinny legs and nipped waists — makes it hard to believe the truth, that there is no perfect body.
But to Hipwell, “Everyone is beautiful the way they are.” And Wilson leaves every teenager a piece of advice: “The healthy body is the ideal body. Find out the way you can be at your best and work on it every day!”
Minna Wang is a senior at NUAMES who loves volunteering, reading and modeling. Email her at email@example.com.