What should you look like?

(This is something that I’ve thought about since being a teenager, but it’s such an important message that I wanted to write about it)

“Twenty-two-year-old Erin…kept a stack of men’s magazines – Playboy, Maxim and FHM: “A lot of times I say, “Oh, she looks good, or, check out that ass, but sometimes I’m like, oh that’s so airbrushed, or, her tits are fake or whatever.”   – Ariel Levy, ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture’

Every morning, as part of my job, I flick through the daily newspapers. Turning through pages of The Daily Mirror, The Mail, or The Sun, the women in my team are bombarded by images of scantily-clad women, women dressed to impress, headlines that shriek ‘what women really think of their bodies’ to ‘woman and her four girls have 13 boob ops.’ Unsurprising reactions from the women surrounding me in my office can range from ‘she’s just a nutcase’ to ‘she’s got such lovely hair’ to ‘she’s got a fantastic body’ to ‘she’s a tramp’. Judgements are cast hot off the tongue, and women let loose by openly criticising other women automatically or judging them on body shape, the colour of their hair, or the clothes they wear. The product of women reading these newspapers, and a whole host of other magazines, can be to turn females against their own sex, against themselves as body shapes and hair colours. I’m often left feeling more confused about what deems ‘normal’ and what I should look like as a young woman by reading tabloid newspapers alone, not mentioning billboard health and beauty product campaigns, catwalk models, or hearing about TV programmes like Geordie Shore or How To Look Good Naked. Do women really want to look like celebrities, super models and glamour models? Why are we so automatically critical, not really giving a thought to what statement we’re making?

Interestingly a study conducted in 1995 by Harvard Medical School found that after teenage girls in Fiji were introduced to television and shows like Melrose Place and Xena: Warrior Princess for the first time, after 38 months 74% had said that they were “too big or fat”. You only have to look at numerous news stories that emphasize the impact of size zero models or diet fads on young women. The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality published a motion (note 1 below) on how marketing and advertising affect equality between women and men. This raised notions such as advertising and marketing creating culture rather than just reflecting it; our concepts of gender being socially constructed and advertisements helping us construct them, marketing and advertising and its stereotypes echoing the unequal distribution of gender power. The report also states that efforts to combat gender stereotypes in the media and advertising should be accompanied by education strategies and measures to cultivate awareness from an early age.

It’s a popularly covered issue that we’re pre-programmed by media, marketing and advertising to feel neurotic about our looks, to feel perfect, to fit the mould. We all know that gender is based in stereotype and caricatures, not real people. So why do we constantly compare ourselves to these cartoons? Confusion and paranoia is inevitable – “I want to look like woman a, and I hate what woman b looks like, but why do I want to look like her and who will I please if I do?”

In Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’, she states that the combined efforts of the mass media and beauty industry aim to ‘keep male dominance intact’. By making women feel inadequate all the time, more beauty elixirs are sold – smoothing hair, homogenising faces, perfecting smiles – and keeping women in their submissive place.

I don’t agree that we should say that the beauty myth keeps women in their place in accordance to male desire as this only serves to emphasize a patriarchal theme. I think we should really start questioning why we compare ourselves to unreal depictions of women on X Factor, on Broke Girls, on Made in Chelsea, on L’Oreal campaigns, on H&M swimwear posters, on American Pie films, and stop making those comparisons. I believe that women should separate themselves from these depictions of ‘beauty’ and think about the impact that this can have on your mental health. Repeatedly putting yourself down and criticising your looks, is unhealthy and unjustifiable. Putting strangers down, celebrity, glamour model, politician, for her looks, sends out the wrong message entirely.

(1) – http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&reference=A6-2008-0199&language=EN#_part2_ref5

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