I was talking to Stephanie Pedersen Saturday morning on her Your Big Life radio show. The topic of media representations of women came up -- not too surprising, really, if you follow my blog. Stephanie was lamenting that while many of her clients know that they shouldn't compare themselves to what they see in the media, they do it anyway for fear of what other people will think if they don't live up to a certain "ideal."
This brought up two important points for me that many people may not realize:
1) What you see is not real. Every magazine cover, ad and billboard you see has been photo shopped to a T. Just last night my husband was laughing over a wrinkle cream commercial on TV that featured one of his favorite TV show characters. He remarked that on the TV show this particular celebrity had lots of wrinkles, but on the commercial for the wrinkle product, her wrinkles were gone (and so were her pores, but that's a different story). Although I am sure the makers of the wrinkle cream want you to think that if you use that product, your wrinkles will disappear overnight, the likely story is more along the lines of the miracle of Photoshop rather than the miracle of the wrinkle cream.
2) Western standards of beauty are not universal standards of beauty. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, and each one of us has a different standard of what is beautiful. There is a wonderful documentary called THE HUMAN BODY: Appearance, Shape and Self-Image that I like to show in my classes. One of my, and my student's, favorite parts is when a man from the Ivory Coast is discussing standards of beauty. He said that he did not know thin was beautiful until he visited the United States. In his native country, the bigger, the better, as body fat represents health and wealth. The most common comment I get from my female students when I show this video is, "I want to move to the Ivory Coast!"
I don't blame them. Social pressures to look a certain way are pervasive in our society, and women -- and men -- have every right to be concerned. Study after study has shown that appearance matters - in job decisions, in salary, in perceptions of social and intellectual competence. So it's no wonder people have a hard time not comparing themselves to the images they see in the media.
While I, and my friend Stephanie Pedersen, advocate media bans for all of our media susceptible clients, that's really only part of the problem. What we need are realistic representations of men and women presented in the media. A few manufacturers have taken notice and have started using "real" people in all their un -photoshopped glory to advertise their products. Dove's Real Beauty campaign comes to mind as one example.
But it needs to be broader than that. We as a society need to start recognizing and demanding to see images of real people portrayed in the media, in art, on TV. That's why I am so grateful to my friend, photographer Glen Graves. In the summer of 1999, Glen found himself a single parent raising a 12-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. "The most important thing I have ever done in my life is to raise my children and this project is a very close second." Left at sea with two teenagers to raise, he turned to the mothers of his children's friends. Through their eyes, he learned valuable lessons about how to parent. "What these mothers did was to help me with my daughter's transformation from being a girl to a young woman." Glen also learned something he wasn't expecting -- he began to understand what it means to be an aging woman in American society. Wanting to present a more realistic view of women to his daughter, he started photographing these women. "These moms became the role model that she needed on what it means to be a responsible caring mother." And by watching and learning from these women, his daughter learned what a real woman looked and acted like -- something very different from what is portrayed in the media. 12 years in the making, Glen's "Women of Spirit: Photographs of Women over 40" exhibit made its debut last month. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised. But it's well worth a look. Glen's images represent the female form as it is, as it should be. It's a refreshing change compared to most images we see of women these days. For those of us who don't live in San Raphael, he promises an e-book of his work will be out this summer. In the meantime, if you want to learn more or become involved with his wonderful project, you can learn more here.
For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.
For more on body image, click here.