Mass Media and Female Body Image
During the last two centuries, there has been an unprecedented transformation of the role of females in modern society. Females are being increasingly perceived as empowered agents of their own destiny instead of helpless, docile women. However, the legacy of females as passive objects of male desire casts a giant shadow on the female psyche and female self-confidence. Thesis: Cultural influences such as mass media exert such a harmful influence on female body image because standardized ideals of female beauty harm the ability of individual females to find a suitable male mate and reproduce, thereby threatening the fundamental biological impulse for females to settle down and start a family.
Cultural Factors in Shaping the “Ideal Body”
An Ancient Form of Mass Media: Greek Sculpture
The very first influences on society’s understanding of the body came through, as they do now, media. The form of media then were sculptures and paintings depicting Gods and other famous figures. The Greek statues were particularly influential because Greek Gods, having created humans in their own likeness, were therein depicted in the likeness of humans. They were, however, not supposed to resemble any old human, but rather a remarkable one.
Because the Gods were understood to be the personification of certain traits themselves, such as beauty, martial prowess, wisdom, or art, Greek sculptors strove to depict perfection of the human form, the most perfect, ideal human form for each God. They began with the fanciful, yet poorly detailed descriptions of each Gods found in old myths and poems. To fill in the details, the sculptors had to employ their imaginations, asking themselves what a perfectly beautiful or wise person would look like.
In doing filling in the innumerable subtle details constituting perfection, sculptors naturally drew on experiences and memories from the own lives in the human world. The Greek Apollo, for instance, was said to embody the ideal of the beautiful Greek youth, the “Kouros.” Statues of Apollo attempted to depict the “Kouros” ideal through Apollo’s muscular, v-shaped torso and the face’s confident, serene countenance. Meanwhile, Aphrodite, the embodiment of female beauty and love, was depicted as a partially draped woman raising her robe to expose her large breasts, wide hips and plump buttocks.
The Greek notions of the ideal human body were to persist well into and past the medieval ages into the Age of Enlightenment and beyond. Curvy, buxom figures were to populate the large majority of Renaissance portraits and frescoes depicting beautiful women. The most common exceptions were the Renaissance-era portraits of actual historical figures, meant to be give the most accurate and realistic representations of the subjects, which sometimes revealed that some prominent women failed to meet the standard of the buxom beauty, appearing rather frail instead. Thus, even when thin was not in, reality did not always match up with the ideal.
Although cultural influences play a large role in shaping a society’s ideal of beauty, it is not the only factor at work. There are also more biological, universal factors that shape what we consider to be attractive. It is widely assumed that ideals of beauty are not universal and vary from society to society and era to era. However, recent studies suggest that people everywhere regardless of race, class or age share a common sense of what’s attractive in other human beings. A clear and rosy complexion, for instance, is considered desirable in any society because it is an indicator of health.
A human being’s views regarding the beauty and desirability of a particular body type is informed by a most fundamental biological issue, reproductive fitness. People, as well as animals, select mates based on their evolutionary fitness, their likelihood of surviving in their environment and reproducing offspring which will inherit fitness-promoting traits. The value placed on reproductive fitness has led human beings in all primitive societies to desire tall, muscular male physiques that can help fend off hostile competitors and buxom female physiques with wide hips to bear children and plump breasts and buttocks to store food.
Some people may even be genetically predisposed to preferring thinness in the female body. A recent study of identical twins separated at birth found that such twins gave strikingly similar responses regarding the ideal female body type. Some pairs preferred the thin ideal, while others preferred more buxom or athletic physiques. These findings suggest that there may be genetic determinants involved in the formation of one’s idea of beauty which may supersede environmental or cultural determinants. Although the nature of these genetic determinants are still unclear, one expert has theorized that genes determine one’s idea of beauty by making some women more sensitive to thinness-promoting environmental cues.
Throughout history, a small waist-to-hip ratio has been equated in the mind with good health and high fertility. Because female hips store varying amounts of fat during different stages of life while the female waist stays relatively constant, the hip-waist ratio indicates how much fat the women has stored. The distribution of fat stores in the hip and thigh areas are predictors of fertility and reproductive health. A “perfect” ratio of 0.7 sends a biological signal to men that that woman is most fertile and most likely to produce a healthy offspring, no matter what size that woman is.
Modern Western Society’s Unique Preference for Thin Female Bodies
Up until the end of the Victorian era, the ideal body type for women was plump and full-figured.
Although the industrialization of Western Society was already underway during the Victorian period, women were still relegated to the household with occasional trips out on the town. Thus, Victorian notions of beauty were, as in the preceding periods, still driven by the goals of childbirth and child-rearing. However, the image-oriented nature of urban Victorian society also added the goal of looking attractive and presentable in society. Women during the Victorian period wore restrictive corsets in order to make their waists look artificially tiny while accentuating the hips and buttocks.
It was only in the 20th Century that slimness started to become fashionable. Industrial Capitalist society provided unprecedented amounts of leisure time for the well-to-do to enjoy. This leisure class chose to spend this newfound time in physically active pursuits such as tennis, golf, ballroom dancing, and hiking. The inclusion of leisure class women into these traditionally male-dominated activities presented women with a more active lifestyle to maintain. This shift to an active lifestyle caused society to value energy and vitality in females, causing society to prefer a lean, fit female who can keep up with an active social schedule. Plumpness was not only seen as excess fat to carry around but also as a sign of self-indulgence and sloth.
Though thinness came into fashion during the 1920’s because of its helpful function in an active lifestyle, thinness would later come to be admired for the sake of form itself. During the 1960’s, a teenage fashion model from London named Twiggy caught the imaginations of the Western world with her cute, slender, and almost boyish physique. Twiggy’s figure was more suited to the sleek, modern fashions that emerged in the 1960’s.
Thus, it was through fashion publications that the thin-ideal of beauty was propagated and reinforced.
Even publications which had nothing to do with fashion championed the thin ideal as the modern standard of beauty for the modern woman. For example, Playboy Magazine, a “lifestyle” magazine aimed at men which featured sexually suggestive photos of scantily-clad women, adopted the slim look coming down from the field of fully-clothed fashion. Playboy magazine, which had, since its founding in 1953, featured highly sensual, buxom physiques for their sex appeal, began to feature younger and thinner models in its publications during the early 1960’s as it began to sell a lifestyle instead of just sexual fantasy.
The deep influence of Playboy on the attitudes and psyches of males aged 14 and up cannot be underestimated because it had a significant indirect impact on women’s attitudes and psyches. With Playboy Magazine showcasing and partly dictating the women of every man or boy’s dreams, women found themselves face-to-face with their ultimate competition.
Publications such as Playboy made life much harder for females in attracting and securing a mate. In the primordial competition between females for the attention and interest of desirable males, the average female was being quickly outgunned. Females did not just have to compete for the attention of target males with the other females in the neighbourhood, they now had to compete for this attention against a neverending stream of playmates and models selected specifically for their beauty and sex appeal.
In the 1980’s, the competition became even stiffer because of the emergence of plastic-surgery which could alter the facial features and body shape of females. Now, the average female was competing with carefully selected, surgically enhanced, and paid professionals for the eyes and hearts of most of the heterosexual male population. As a result, an increasing number of women are taking extreme…