Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The myth that persists

"Just like 'aspirational' airbrushed advertising in women's magazines, reality TV beauty programming invites female viewers to envy models' unrealistic figures, and, by proxy, their clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and lifestyle products. Though impacts vary, decades of research have documented that women's self-esteem often drops with exposure to advertising and ad-driven media."--From Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

"Beauty. It touches everything."--Calvin Klein perfume ad

When I lived in New York and worked in midtown, I'd often find myself walking through Times Square to get to my office at 1745 Broadway. Loud, flashy, over-the-top, Times Square is the tackiest of tourist meccas. It impressed me as a child when my parents would drive through it on our way to see a Broadway show. I remember feeling awed by these giant photographs of models and celebrities and Coca-Cola ads. But as an adult, the images on these oversized billboards made me feel uneasy, dwarfed as I was by these scantily-clad Amazon women posed suggestively in the latest Calvin Klein perfume ad or H&M poster.

During most of my time living in New York, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was naturally thin. I didn't diet or exercise religiously. In fact I loved food--going to new restaurants was one of my favorite activities in the city and where I used up most of my disposable income. Restaurant Week, when assorted expensive "It" spots offered lunch for $20 and dinner for $30 to us average-salaried workers, was especially exciting to me. As soon as the participating list of dining establishments was posted, I'd be making plans and reservations, emailing friends to quickly line up dates.

Not worrying about what I ate or how much I weighed was a tremendous freedom that I tried not to take for granted. I had other insecurities, but at least in this area I felt confident.

Looking back at my life then, I realize that being thin was nice (especially the whole eating-what- I-want-and-never-gaining-weight part), but it didn't save me from feeling bad about my appearance. Being thin didn't translate into looking like a model or loving myself in a bikini. It didn't make me feel more worthy of a good relationship or confident enough to wear sweatpants in public. I didn't chastise myself about what food I ate, but neither did I think I was good enough in a city filled with images of perfection.

The thing that saddens me about this is even knowing that fitting a particular beauty standard doesn't necessarily make us happy, many of us still aspire to be as perfect as those Calvin Klein models. We may not even know that we're thinking this way, but looking back I see how much importance I placed on appearance and how I rarely measured up to its tough dictates. I immediately felt inferior to prettier friends though I tried not to let it affect our relationship. I would feel unfashionable in a skirt I bought six months ago and feel compelled to buy something new to wear out that night. The feeling was more of a compulsion than an actual choice.

Some women are able to see past the "Beauty Myth," the title of a popular book I read in the nineties. But a lot of us are susceptible. When you're confronted by images that are exalted on advertising posters and in magazines, and you don't resemble those images, after a while this high beauty standard starts to feel like the norm, which can only mean, my dear, that you are abnormal.

I regret not having taken advertising classes in college. Mike talks about a class he took that really changed how he viewed marketing strategy. Even as a college-educated person, I never stopped to evaluate these images and wonder what they might be trying to tell me, namely, buy this and you'll feel better! The answer is beauty and acceptance and if you only buy me you will have these things in spades!

I like to joke that, even though I've worked in marketing, I'm a sucker for packaging. But it's not just the rose-shaped pallets of eyeshadow in a $79 Chantecaille kit that captivate me--it's the longing--informed to a large degree by messages in advertising and television--that have effected how I view my own packaging.

Many women strive to be thin and flawless--it's almost impossible to find a women's magazine that doesn't emphasize this wish and insist we can achieve it by reading another 4-page article filled with "essential" tips and "must-have" products. The most successful woman can be made to feel inferior by just ten minutes of reading Elle or Glamour or even O magazine. As a publicist it's part of my job to look at magazines. Thankfully I've ended up at a Buddhist publisher, where the women in magazines are often bald and wrapped in plain robes. But that doesn't mean I'm not also looking at more traditional publications that always feature young flawless models, even when promoting an anti-aging cream.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look nice. I happen to love clothes because I like the challenge of finding good pieces and matching them into outfits. I have never outgrown the pleasures of dressing up. But though they may "say" otherwise, beauty ads and diet articles that claim they're helping you to"look your best," are really saying "look like her" (fill in model's name/picture.) Is it any wonder women feel less-than? Is it at all surprising that we silently compare and compete with each other?

I'm older now and not as thin as that city girl I was. When I start to feel bad about that, I try to call to mind how being thin didn't really change how I viewed myself. It was nice when I went to try on jeans and had no trouble finding a good fit even on the first try. But it didn't make my life infinitely better or more valuable.

Everyday I fight the urge to give in to the hundreds of messages that call out to me like sirens from the Odyssey. Often their invitations seem innocent, even helpful:"Sabotage cellulite 24/7 with our all-day, dimple dashing duo" (Bliss) or "Tired of looking tired? We hear you (Origins.)" Sometimes they're downright aggressive (open any Victoria's Secret catalog.) The thought of not "buying into" advertising can be disappointing--you mean self-confidence and contentment can't be bought at Sephora?

If only it were that easy.


Unknown said...

I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. If you've grown up with a less-than-perfect self-image (and really, whose isn't?), you want to believe the ads, because the prospect that they can't help you, that you might actually have to deal with yourself as you are, is scary.

Levi said...

I've found more effective methods of resistance as I age or maybe it just doesn't make sense to buy into the beauty myth any longer. Maybe I'm wiser. Maybe just angry. I dunno.
I know that really what I'm after is health & longevity and not beauty because beauty is so subjective especially once you hit the age of invisibility. If they can't see you, why does advertised beauty matter?

If I have to ask myself "what are these people selling?" as a test..then I know it's not something I need to buy in order to feel healthier.

Gutsy Living said...

I like returning to Europe where I grew up because women there aren't fixated on appearance in the same way as over here in the US. Somehow I feel more at ease over there.