WE ALL GET a little self conscious sometimes, it’s pretty hard not to be. Nobody wants to be considered unattractive. But have we all become too obsessed with body image? Do we live in a superficial society, where looks matter more than personality?
It’s a worrying concept, but one which appears to have an element of truth behind it. In 2011, Daniel Hamermesh published his book, ‘Beauty Pays’, in which he looked at the connection between appearance and success. He found that on average, attractive people earn between 3 and 4 per cent more than those with ‘below average’ looks. They also have job applications accepted sooner, are more likely to gain promotions and are given more perks within their pay package.
Perhaps this is nothing new – society celebrates beauty and always has done. Back in the 16th century, Elizabeth I used her appearance regularly to gain support of the men around her. Popular culture has always included visions of beautiful women, read Jane Austen, Shakespeare or even fairy tales and this is a clear trend. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Romeo fell in love with his beau predominantly for her looks – “Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
So perhaps society has always been preoccupied with beauty to some extent, but are we getting worse? At least in the past, poems, books and plays left looks to the imagination – now the constant bombardment of attractive people in media and adverts is arguably making the quest for personal beauty more ‘real’.
This has become widespread over issues with body weight. Between 2007 and 2011, almost 500 more girls under the age of 17 in the UK were treated with anorexia compared to the five years between 2002 and 2006. And concern over weight begins at a really, really young age. The Social Issues Research Centre has suggested that 81 per cent of American ten year old girls have dieted at least once, while 25 per cent of seven year olds in Sweden have expressed a desire to lose weight.
Society or something closer to home?
But, are eating disorders caused by the media? Kings College London have just launched a genetic study into anorexia. Cynthia Bulik, who launched the campaign (AN25K), has said that ‘We know very little about the biology of anorexia and hopefully by identifying these genes we will be able to develop new treatments. It is not just one gene – it will be hundreds of genes.’
The research project is backed by UK charity ‘Charlotte’s Helix’, which was set up in memory of Charlotte Bevan who died in January. Her daughter Georgie was diagnosed with anorexia aged 12, and Charlotte was a strong believer that Georgie did not want to be anorexic, that it wasn’t a choice based upon a desire to be beautiful or thin. In her book for parents of sufferers, ‘Throwing Starfish Across The Sea’, Charlotte wrote that ‘I want people to know that my daughter is not a vain, mindless bimbo who just wants to be thin, but a stellar, brilliant, important part of the community who just happens to have a brain blip.’
The AN25K project is a really significant step forward for our understanding of anorexia, and aims to include 25,000 DNA samples from sufferers worldwide.
However, understanding the science behind eating disorders is perhaps only part of the process needed to reduce victims. Changing attitudes is also important, and in the media – especially on the internet – there is also an increasingly large backlash against make up, photo-shopped pictures and the idea of a ‘perfect’ image.
Make up free
Colbie Caillat, for example, has recently released her music video for her new single, ‘Try’. In it, a group of women – herself included – are shown taking their make-up off, symbolically revealing their true selves. Speaking to Elle magazine, Colbie said that ‘for the “Try” video I didn’t prep or starve myself and over-exercise. And then I didn’t get my nails done, I didn’t get my hair done. I didn’t get a facial. I didn’t have a stylist… it felt really cool to be on camera with zero [make up] on, like literally nothing on. And then when it got to the full hair and makeup, I actually felt gross. It was just so caked on.”
It’s a refreshing song and video, but Colbie isn’t the only one in the media advocating less makeup. Hundreds of thousands of women took part in the ‘No Make Up Selfie’ for breast cancer , including celebrities like Beyoncé, Cara Delevingne and Cheryl Cole, raising £8 million for charity.
Similarly, a campaign launched in Australia called ‘Make Up Free Me’ is advocating that women across the country are sponsored to wear no make up on the 29 August, to acknowledge ‘the unrealistic body image expectations we put on ourselves, each other and that we absorb from the media and social media on a daily basis.’ The charity is aiming to raise money for projects which increase young people’s self confidence, and has suggested that across Australia 77 per cent of women think that too much emphasis is put on make up.
Asking around, it seems that there is a similar feeling in Europe. Some suggested that “society is definitely focused too much on appearances: which is ironic because when you become friends or fall in love with somebody, it goes beyond what they look like”, while another pointed out what an odd concept make up is. “You’re painting your face, trying to appear like somebody else. It’s like in history lessons when you’re given self-portraits, and told how they used certain colours to show wealth and certain objects to show they’re well-travelled. To some extent we’re doing that to ourselves.”
However, the general consensus was not against make up; “for me it primarily works as a booster of self-confidence and in that sense I think it’s a good thing – what harm does it do to feel good?”
Annie Gauru, a 20-year old Indiana University student, tested this theory by wearing no make up for a year. Eight months in, she has written about how it has felt so far; “I’ve learned that some people do treat me differently, but the people who matter don’t. I’ve also learned that I over-emphasised how much thought other people gave to my appearance. I’ve started relying more on my other assets. Working on kindness, humour and positivity has helped me change in meaningful ways.”
So, have many girls and women forgotten the importance of personality?
Addressing the issue from a different angle, Esher Hoing, a 24 year old American journalist, sent the same photo of herself to magazines around the world, asking them to photo-shop her to make her look beautiful, like a model they would see in a magazine in their country. The contrast of images from different cultures is astounding. So far she has images from 27 countries, but she wants to continue the project and get as much input as she can. “There’s so much to be told through this experiment,” she says. “It’s me, but it’s not me. It’s everyone.”
Idealised beauty is a huge issue in modern culture, but the backlash against it is growing and important. If you listen to the lyrics of Macklemore’s song, “Thin Lines’, he suggests that ‘The greatest trick that the devil ever pulled, Was convincing women that they looked, Better in their makeup.” Perhaps we all need to start believing this a little more – or at least remembering that appearance is just one part of who we all are.
Written by Sarah Newey
Photo Credits: Mil8, BudCat14/Ross