An investigation into how body image has been portrayed in the media and what effect it has on us as an audience.

I have decided to base my coursework on the idea of the ‘perfect body’ and the way in which photos are manipulated by the media by being airbrushed and digitally enhanced in order to adhere a certain body shape and size. I will look into the effects this has on the media itself and the audiences and institutions surrounding the fashion and beauty industry, for example, the people who are affected by the way body image is portrayed, how they are affected and why and also who are the institutions that decide what the ideal body image and why they decide this.

The media’s lack of emphasis on different types of body shapes has become a controversial issue with 96% of women feel models used in beauty advertising are not a realistic representation of women today, (The Dove Real Women Campaign). This statistic seems to be quite accurate as the Love Your Body Campaign found only 5% of females naturally possesses the body type most portrayed in the media as the ideal body image, which is tall and slim with big breasts and a small waist.

This shows how body image is negatively portrayed in the media and just how unrealistic it is, by basing the ideal body image of real women on a fake plastic doll with unrealistic proportions. The negative effect it has on women is so strong that a survey done by the Dove Campaign in 2004, as a result of false airbrushing of images and the constant pressure this puts on young women, 20% of women in the UK feel less confident in their daily lives, which could show through their lack of self confidence, reluctance to socialise or their negative attitude. 

The cause for concern about the well being of women affected by the media have lead many institutions and charities to take part in trying to change these stereotypes. All the campaigns have one goal in common, to change the one ‘ideal’ body shape into a range of different body shapes that all have their own personal beauty. This is also my aim in producing my own positive body image campaign, in which I want to represent different body shapes and sizes so they may be socially accepted by the public in general.

One of the most recognised body shapes for women globally is the ‘Barbie Doll’ look, which is characterised by being tall and slim with long legs and big breasts. From my research I discovered that if Barbie would be 5’9” tall and weigh 110lbs, she would have a BMI of 16.24, which would make her underweight. Unfortunately the target market of Barbie Dolls are girls aged 3 – 12 years old, [Time Magazine, 1995], who are vulnerable to being most affected by this type of unrealistic portrayal of body image and can develop an unhealthy relationship with their body or food as a result.

If she were a really person Barbie would have ridiculous proportions (39” bust, 18” waist, 33” thighs and size 3 shoes) which would mean her back would be too weak to support the weight of her upper body and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and a few centimetres of bowel. Barbie-doll type images are often blamed for playing a part in the development of eating disorders and body-image problems within women. 

This could be as a result of the false proportions of the doll and the encouragement of having a small body size. Another considerable factor is the idea that the image of the Barbie Doll figure is encouraging the belief that having material possessions, being slim and attract are important factors in life that will lead to happiness. Young girls are very impressionable and want to be like their role models and as 99% of all U.S girls between the ages of three and ten years old own at least 1 Barbie, [Barard, 1980]. 

There are such a diverse range of body shapes and sizes within the world but one type of body image seems to be preferred by the media. In the media, there is not enough of a range of body shapes being represented in advertisements, magazines, websites and television, which encouraged me to produce a positive body image campaign of my own, that would deal with men and women, rather than focusing on one gender. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty aims to challenge beauty stereotypes by creating thought-provoking advertisements, confidence-building programmes and messages that embrace all types of beauty in a bid to change the audience’s viewpoint on seeing airbrushed images in the media.

This can be seen in one of their advertisements in which women of all ages, shapes and ethnicities are posing in simple white underwear promoting the body image campaign. The white underwear seems to signify the balance of equality between the women, a type of uniform almost, and shows no matter what skin colour or bra size a women is, they are all equally as beautiful.

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty was primarily a clever marketing tool to encourage sales. Rather than appeal to a certain target market and only target that audience, Dove included every type and age of woman in their campaign to send out the message that everyone can buy our product to increase their sales. By tapping into a previously untouched idea, challenging unrealistic beauty stereotypes, Dove were able to target all those women who do not have supermodel bodies, which is most of the population, simply broadening their target market to maximise profits. 

As the Dove Campaign it seems to encourage self-esteem and self-worth it has been highly successful and has helped start a change, paving the way for other campaigns to also challenge the media and their representations of body image. However, it could be argued that as Dove are a beauty brand, this implies that buying Dove products will make you ‘naturally beautiful’ which seems to mirror the same strategies other companies use, but in a less obvious way.

When conducting my research I seemed to discover a Culture of Thinness emerging within the representations of women in the media and as a result of this girls and women are 10 times more likely than boys to suffer from anorexia or bulimia, [The Royal College of Psychiatrists]. It seems celebrities are also under pressure to conform to the ideal body image of the Barbie Doll. Keira Knightley’s bust was considerably enlarged digitally to conform to the big-breasted Barbie look in the advert for the film King Arthur, but only in the American advertisements for the film. This could be as a result of her fame in the UK being known for being very slim but also because the Barbie look has become part of the American stereotype of women.   

Chanel fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld, famously said: ‘On the runways... a girl no wider than a coat hanger is preferred’. He explained that this would make the garments ‘look better’ and only chooses extremely thin models for his runway shows and photo shoots. He recently used Keira Knightley, who is famous for her very thin body shape, in his perfume advert for Coco Mademoiselle. In one of the adverts for the perfume, Keira Knightley is pictured looking very thin and scrawny. This example shows how fashion institutions like Chanel will only use people who fit their brief which is evident from all their adverts and runways, as all of the models featured in their recent campaigns have not been over a size 8/10.  

Another concern that would arise from the misleading images of body shape and size would be the negative affect it has on its target audience, young women, but also of another audience that the media are aware of but do nothing about, young girls. Unfortunately, children are also becoming affected by the images of thin models and muscular footballers they see in the media. The Hypodermic Needle theory seems to explain the way the messages the media sent about body image are wholly accepted by society and not questioned. 

Among one of the television programmes I watched which seemed to convey this idea of embracing different body shapes successfully was ‘How to Look Good Naked’. In this programme the institution, Channel 4, managed to show their attitudes towards body image as embracing what you have. The presenter, Gok Wan, a male fashion stylist helps women to change their own perceptions about themselves. Although the show is for women, the use of a male fashion designer seems to make the programme appear to cover how to dress to attract men and in a way reinforces the ‘Barbie Doll image beliefs’ in a sense that material things and being pretty will make you happier in life. However the institutions ideas were refreshingly different compared to previous makeover shows as they never encouraged participants to diet or undergo plastic surgery. 

In an episode of ‘How to Look Good Naked’, Gok uses the element of encouraging self-esteem to change the participant outlook on what is beautiful by throwing away their old underwear, to symbolically give a sense of a new change, and asking the public’s opinion on her body shape in a bid to make her more positive about her body, [Series 5, Episode 8]. By using these strategies, Gok attempts to change their perception of beauty as well as their appearance and educates the audience at the same time, by providing information on different body shapes and what clothing styles would suit them, which help the audience break away from the typical beauty stereotypes. 

Another programme which was also successful in this was ‘Miss Naked Beauty’ [Episode 1], produced by the same institution and featuring the same presenter as ‘How to Look Good Naked’ which is a continuation of their aim to change the perception of what beauty is in women. It aimed to show real beauty by taking a radical approach to beauty pageants that are all about perceived and unnatural beauty. The programme was focused on diverse and natural beauty by showing women of different ethnic backgrounds and also picking girls who were not stereotypically pretty.  

Instead of focusing on the conformist conceptions of beauty, like long blonde hair, slim, tall, long legs and big breast, like stereotypical beauty pageants which emphasis this and encourage a lot of the girls to participate to result to plastic surgery and other alternatives to become like that. Many issues were covered in the programme and a balance between brains and beauty was covered by contestants having to talk well about themselves but also the over-reliance on makeup young girls but making contestants take off all their make up when being interviewed. It also challenges the Modern verses renaissance and earlier notions of beauty, like the traditional hourglass shape.

The winner of the pageant contest would receive a modelling contract as part of her prize but it could be this could include them conforming to the media stereotypes to be able to get more modelling work. So while the institution was trying to breakaway from beauty stereotypes they seem to be reinforcing them by making the ultimate goal for the contestants a modelling contract where they would have to compete with size zero models and would therefore not be very successful. 

Throughout my research I found the same kinds of images of men and women and was able to see certain stereotypes emerging. In the 1940’s, the most desirable look for women was having a curvy, hourglass figure which connoted womanhood, glamour and health, with idols like Marilyn Monroe making it even more popular. In the 1960’s, the Barbie doll look was very popular and featured a lot as the Barbie Doll was produced. Although aimed at children, the knock-on effect it had on women over the years to want to conform to this false body image stereotypes. In the 1980’s, however this changed with the changes in society, exercise and workout videos become extremely popular with women and inspired them to have a more toned and slimmer figure. 

For males traditionally, the body type they aspired to be was big and muscular, with role models like Arnold Schwarzenegger who was known for body building, whereas now the most popular body type seems to be the slim, tall, trendy kind of body image which represents popular music and culture at the moment, and was the main feature in recent advertising campaigns [H&M, 2010, River Island, 2010]. This does show how body image and the way people perceive themselves because of the media changes overtime. Men are also becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their own bodies, as statistics like this show: As a result of airbrushed images of men in the media, approximately 1 million boys and men suffer from or struggle with eating disorders, (The National Institute of Mental Health). Although, this statistic is not solely based on airbrushed images in the media, the lack of realistic body shapes and sizes definitely plays a big part in a person about to develop these types of disorders or encourage relapse. 

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