Cameron Russell is a striking brunette, blessed an Amazonian stature and the face of a Grecian goddess. She has spent the last 10 years gracing the runways for Victoria’s Secret and Chanel. In October of 2012, she took the stage for a different kind of show: a TED talk, where she denounced the fallacy behind modelling, and examined the pervasive effect that distorted representations of beauty can and do have on modern day women.
It is a discussion that is often brushed upon, but not adequately dissected or criticized. While, every so often, there is an outcry in the media of the unrealistic representations of women, there is too little research done on the deep-seated psychological effects of the modern-day images of beauty, and what that does to the average female consumer. With eating disorder rates skyrocketing, and affecting girls at younger and younger ages, and plastic surgery becoming commonplace, it is becoming apparent the media’s distortion of the female image is moving from the realm of a superficial annoyance to a social and psychological issue that has deep-seated effects.
On the unattainability of beauty
While the media is saturated with a very specific ideal of beauty, in reality, the minority of women can achieve the modern day Western ideal. Super tall and super thin, the unrealistic expectations that have been established for the modern day woman lead to poor body image and a skewed vision of what the majority of the world’s women look like.
Russell herself quotes a PhD student who discovered that out of 677 models hired for runway shows, only 27, or less than 4%, were non-white. The current media ideal of thinness is only achievable by 5% of the population. Fashion models’ weight averaged only 8% less than the average women 20 years ago. Today the average fashion model weighs 23% less than the average woman. 25% of Playboy centerfold models meet the criteria to be considered anorexic.
Even without statistics, it is easy to see the constant onslaught women are subjected to, reinforcing a belief of inadequacy. In any given department store, there are solutions for excessive body hair (which is any body hair), for bleaching, clearing or smoothing skin, for whitening teeth, for making hair more voluminous, shinier, longer, thicker, curlier, straighter, for reducing wrinkles, for breast enhancement or for tummy reduction, not to mention makeup. One begins to wonder when and why normality became a thing to be disguised, rather than celebrated.
On individual responsibility
While there are campaigns to combat the stereotypical images of beauty that are infecting girls and women, they are insufficient in quality and quantity. It is becoming more and more apparent that the way to combat media pressure is not to attempt to change representations of women, but to embrace our own appearances.
In our individual experience, we all know friends who have flaws that would be unforgivable in a fashion magazine: crooked teeth, a few extra pounds, frizzy hair. We still, however, find normal looking women beautiful all the time. If we can find beauty in the people around us, and they can find beauty in us, no magazine and no television program should be able to tell us otherwise.
As women, we rail against the pressures others put on us. Yet, simultaneously, we do not question the standards we’ve learned to set for ourselves. What weight is low enough, what hair is shiny enough, what teeth are white enough and why? While it is reprehensible for media outlets to propagate a harmful image of women, it is far worse for us not only to condone it, but to encourage it by buying into it.