In the video for Bonnie McKee's song "American Girl," McKee bats her false eyelashes and minces about idyllic neighborhoods in hot pants like any other young (generic) 20-something pop star, lips puckered and tongue lolling as she sings. We'd be tempted to critique it -- "How predictable! How tasteless!" -- and sure, McKee's hit is pure bubblegum pop, but it's secretly as scathing as it is saccharine. One lyric from the chorus comes straight to mind: "I was raised by a television/Every day is a competition." Oh, girl, way to hit the nail on the head.
I'm not an American girl, but I am a Millennial -- and I think we can probably agree that's who the song is really focusing on here. Born in the '80s and early '90s, the millennial generation were, indeed, "raised" in a sense by the media that permeates our everyday lives. We have been sucked in by one-dimensional storylines and misogynistic advertising hooks for years, taking the word of teen magazines as law, forever expecting cookie-cutter happy endings for cookie-cutter characters.
We have grown up in a world where the media filters down into every nook and cranny of our lives. Not only have we accepted this to be normal, but we've naturalized the cultural myths that the media sells us. So it's no wonder that we have learned -- by implication -- to hate ourselves so much. Every single day in our lives is, and has always been, a competition -- just as McKee drives home in her strangely sardonic hit.
Having to strive for an unattainable pinnacle of Western perfection is not something that has been an issue for women of all ages throughout time. At this level, it is exclusive to the Millennial generation. Beauty has always been sought after, of course, and women have gone to many (often dangerous) lengths to achieve smaller waists, smaller feet and whiter skin. But only relatively recently has this mentality been stamped into our minds through a system that has all the force of a Soviet propaganda campaign.
As a generation, our obsession with our bodies has a very, very clear culprit: the media. The trouble is, with an exponentially more expansive media than ever before, this has become a blanket term that encompasses advertising, television, film, news, magazines, webzines -- et cetera, et cetera. Our generation is pelted with images from all angles, so it's no wonder that many of us crack under the pressure to look, act and live "a certain way." The truth is, the standard that is set for us is impossible for 95 percent of the human race to achieve. We must be thin and youthful -- in other words, we must fight against our bodies.
This ideal is so ingrained into our culture that to insert a person who fails to meet the box-fresh Barbie doll standard has become shocking. Women can deviate from this standard in many ways, but perhaps the most prominently is in size; "fat" women have long been stigmatized as aberrant sexual beings. When the media does show a "fat" female on screen, it tends to either hyper-sexualize or completely desexualize her. There are pitifully few examples of women on television, in films and in advertising who have "normal" sexual appetites and a "normal" propensity for romantic relationships -- and even then these images are often still problematic because of obvious connections with food or diets, self-hatred or depression, unrealistic representations, and so on.
As such, to be labelled "fat" has become a slur, an insult -- whereas thinness has become desirable. In fact, so potent is the myth of a woman's size in popular culture that it filters down to prepubescent children: in a recent research project run in London, it was found that by the age of 10, around a third of all girls -- and 22 percent of boys -- say how their bodies look is their No. 1 worry. Ten is also the average age that children start dieting. Even at this age, children are astutely aware of the importance placed on one's appearance, and are unwilling -- or unable -- to deviate from the Western "ideal" -- they are just unable to decipher the origin of this standard.
But we are not all sheep -- or, at least, not just yet. While many people have naturalized the myth of female "perfection," there are many who see that our culture has merely painted over the truth of the matter -- moreover, realizing that the paint is not yet dry.
Some companies have begun to capitalize on the "shock factor" of portraying "ordinary" women. It began with Dove in 2004, a brand which, until the "Real Beauty Campaign," had been most notable for a signature plain white bar of soap. The goal was to celebrate the diversity of the female body in every color and size and at every age; the first famous images of the campaign, shot by Annie Leibowitz, featured "ordinary" women with captions asking passers-by to comment on whether the model was "fat" or "fab," "wrinkled" or "wonderful."
Since then, many companies have followed this trend; recently, Aerie launched "Aerie Real," featuring completely un-airbrushed lingerie models. Tattoos, freckles and marks that we would never normally see in such campaigns took centre-stage -- sort of. The campaign has been criticized for still using conventionally appealing models, but the implications of rejecting Photoshop for a global campaign are huge. Millions of women are being steadily drawn to the realization that it is possible to discard the notion of the young, thin, flawless model as the only standard of beauty.
The big guns of the fashion and beauty industry are not the only ones pioneering the movement to reverse the media perpetuation of "perfection." All over the world, ordinary women are making the case for body acceptance on Internet forums and social networking sites. There is a vast amount of discussion on sites like Tumblr -- which has long been a breeding ground for eating disorder triggers and a slew of negative images -- that is beginning to fight back, to change the conversation. The murmurs from the underground and excitement among the scores of women who advocate body positivity suggests a revolution is at least possible, if not imminent. While the lithe, "idyllic" model is still the go-to editorial darling, and there are still thousands of young girls who yearn to achieve this unattainable look, it can at least be said that real headway is being made. The conversation is opening up; the game is changing.
While the advent of technology has been the prime cause of the media's indoctrination, it is also going to be the greatest strength for spreading body-positive messages. On the Internet, in magazines and on television, we see the effects of eating disorders in high-definition, without romanticism, seeing conditions like anorexia and bulimia for the hell they really are. We publish selfies and, in doing so, we celebrate our uniqueness, making our own marks on the great colossus of the age of information. We tell our friends they are beautiful when they post new Facebook photos and we mean it. For all the harm that the media and the Internet can bring, there is a flipside which we are utilizing to a great advantage.
Moreover, having these tools and engaging with this wave of conversation in the media is pre-empting the battle that the next generation will have with self-image if the media were to continue allowing us to believe that our uniqueness is worth nothing. No one was quite able to foresee quite how out-of-hand the situation would become for us Millennials, but we have lived through it and we know that, without a rebellion, we will live in a world of very unhappy young women. We are aware that by acting now, we can help ourselves and our children to enjoy a cultural environment where difference is celebrated. Let's raise our children with love and compassion, not television -- furthermore, let's create a kinder atmosphere among media sources so that if they must watch television, they can enjoy it without the implication that they are not 'good enough.'
To deviate from the standard of beauty that is celebrated by the media is not rebellion, it is nature -- but to accept and embrace our own natural individuality has been deemed nothing less than a thought crime. Don't let the media become Big Brother; let's make it known that we are watching it closely and critiquing every step of the way.