Debate Over Media and Body Image Continues
> 9/15/2006 10:50:57 AM

The recent decision by Madrid's local government to ban underweight models from participating in Spain's fashion week is only the latest, most unexpected episode in the ongoing battle over the intense societal pressures spawned by our media's focus on physical perfection. The fashion and entertainment industries face continued criticism for presenting unrealistic standards of beauty to image-conscious women worldwide, and the deep-seated influence of such distorted ideals touches every corner of Western culture, from the well-documented eating disorders of prominent celebrities to the numerous health problems that arise from both overeating and dramatic dieting.

Strange that this issue maintains its prevalence in a society where a majority of the population is overweight (and weight loss programs constitute a $30 billion per year industry in the United States alone). Popular perceptions of beauty change over generations, and it would seem logical for advertising to mirror the shifting physique of the American public, but such images always seem to contrast sharply with the appearance of the average citizen. This debate did not arise in the new century or the late nineties, when the "heroin chic" look drew condemnation from then-President Clinton and people across the cultural spectrum. Fashion models have, in fact, long paraded impossible figures to sell clothing and cosmetics.

Since the advent of advertising and motion pictures, millions of people have suffered from a perceived pressure to sport more fashionable figures and wardrobes. Though public concern tends to focus on women and their struggles to stay thin, men are in no way exempt from the same trends. Due to the gradual lifting of societal stigma surrounding the pursuit of male beauty, advertising for men increasingly utilizes the body-image insecurities of its customers to sell cosmetics, exercise plans and grooming products.

Our voyeuristic obsession with celebrity also provides countless instances of health and lifestyle compromises designed to help maintain a desired appearance. In one of the first publicized cases of a crippling eating disorder, singer Karen Carpenter died of heart failure brought on by long-term anorexia nervosa. After her death in 1983, prominent stars like Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Vanessa Redgrave went public with their own weight-maintenance battles. Recent tabloid controversies involve the fluctuating body mass and increasingly alarming appearance of stars like Victoria Beckham, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and Mary-Kate Olsen. Some speculate that exhaustion brought on by Lohan's questionable dietary habits and excessive drinking may contribute to the often unprofessional behavior that led veteran actor William H. Macy to opinine that her conduct implies a lack of respect for all involved. In an occupation that lends itself so readily to public scrutiny, it is no wonder that many young actresses fall victim to the same problems.

Another disturbing weight-related dustup followed a decision by CBS editors to photoshop a promotional photo of anchor Katie Couric in order to make her look thinner. The fact that a major network used elective editing to alter the appearance of a popular personality only serves to confirm the media's obsession with unrealistical images of physical beauty. Some companies report ongoing success in advertising efforts designed to appeal to women with "real" figures and men who are not muscle-bound fitness models, but the majority of ads still feature such false representations.

An estimated 8 million or more Americans suffer from eating disorders, and most mainstream media outlets do not encourage their recovery. Support groups and sites devoted to overcoming anorexia and bulimia (like offer help to this mostly female demographic, and news reports concerning widespread weight problems are common, but one may be dismayed by watching health-oriented programming between ads for weight loss products and reduced-fat junk foods. The fact is that, in addition to an obesity epidemic and declining standards of nutrition, we suffer under an agressive, omnipresent media that continues to emphasize unrealistic physical ideals. Not only do most people look nothing like the models and actors they see on tv and in magazines, but increasing numbers sacrifice their health in pursuit of this fantastic perfection. Our culture conditions us to expect as much from our entertainment icons as well as ourselves, and until we make sweeping changes to these destructive tendencies, millions will continue to suffer from the stresses brought on by both real and imagined imperfections. Our advertising and glamour industries run on low self-esteem, and the battle for more responsible representations of beauty is a work in progress, but any improvement in the current, destructive state of mind comes as a welcome change. The changes made to Madrid's fall fashion program are a small but important step in the right direction.

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