The Negative Effects of Unattainable Beauty Standards

Modern media of all forms is responsible for imposing unattainable beauty standards on women, causing distorted body image and immense harm to the physical and mental wellbeing of women. 69 percent of surveyed American girls under 18 who read magazines report that the photoshopped model images negatively affect their personal body image and often result in dieting behavior (“National Eating Disorders Association,” n.d.). Unrealistic beauty standards is only one layer of the misogyny onion that always has and still is oppressing women today. It seems as though messages of beauty are the last thing women should have to hear after dealing with the gender pay gap, lack of appropriate reproductive healthcare, and misogynistic government leaders. Yet these messages constantly make women feel as though they will never truly be beautiful.

In 1949, French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, an academic testament to female oppression throughout history. Beauvoir states “Every young girl carries in her all sorts of ridiculous fears that she barely dares to admit to herself. One would not believe how many young girls suffer from the obsession of being physically abnormal and torment themselves secretly because they cannot be sure of being normally constructed” (Beauvoir, 1949, p. 393). Media’s messages of feminine beauty have gone so far as to make women wonder if they were biologically misconstructed.

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More often that not, these feelings of dysphoria and dissatisfaction with appearance begin in girls before they’ve even left elementary school, and go on to infiltrate all areas of their lives. It is no surprise that morphed body image is strongly correlated to unease, fear, and guilt towards sexuality. In reference to the early awakening of female sexuality, Beauvoir states “Quite frequently, incidents that occur in childhood and youth provoke deep resistance in her, as has been seen; sometimes it is insurmountable; most often, the young girl tries to overcome it, but violent conflicts build up in her” (Beauvoir, 1949, p. 391). When Beauvoir speaks of “deep resistance” formed in early childhood she is referring to the immeasurable value placed on virginity, and the feelings of guilt that arise around this topic.

Though the culture of sexuality and virginity has greatly evolved since Beauvoir’s text, still in many cultures today women are expected to internalize their sexual desires and maintain virginity until marriage. Current sex education in America continues to exacerbate the issue by not providing adequate and inclusive sex education to children and teens. As of 2018, 27 US states still require abstinence only sex education (“Sex Education Across the States,” 2018). Additionally, as might be expected, current sex education is overwhelmingly heteronormative, non-intersectional, and not disability inclusive. When deprived of the appropriate resources by school or parents, young girls often look to the media to determine was is “normal” and “acceptable.” More often than not, this leads to the discovery of the pornogrpahy industry…which is also remarkably unrealistic and oppressive towards women. These statements depict the importance of the messages we feed to young girls, as they will likely stay with them for the rest of their lives.

On the contrary, the “sex positivity” revolution has introduced its own set of shortcomings. According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, those that identify as sex positive embrace the following beliefs; understanding the importance of safe sex betweening consenting adults, considering sex to be a healthy part of life, and being open and respectful towards sexual practices that are different than their own (“What does ‘sex positive’ mean?” n.d.). Without context, these all sound like moral and ethical beliefs. The problem lies in how media has used the sex positivity movement as a vehicle to hyper-sexualize women…the opposite issue as previously stated. Today’s young community does not have enough access to media that positively and enthusiastically promotes the acceptance of all body types and sexual preferences.

Young women have not been equipped to make informed, personal choices about their bodies, but are presented with all these conflicting messages. This can lead to unsafe dieting, eating disorders, physical self-harm, and psychological torment. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness (“Eating Disorder Statistics,” n.d.). Portrayal of the female body and sexuality has become a matter of life or death.

What must be done to combat the misogynistic and patriarchal environment that women often grow up in? First, American government should make comprehensive sex education mandatory in all schools and include information on consent, contraception, sex for the disabled and LGBTQIA+ friendly sex information. Additionally, America is in need of a radical media revolution to change the way we portray the female body. Moving from photoshopped, artificial pictures of models that represent less than the majority of women, to photos of real women of all shapes, sizes, colors, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc.

But just as the fight against racial discrimination can’t be fought by one race, the fight to abolish unrealistic female beauty standards can not be won by women alone. We must all join hands and stand for the changes necessary to save the wellbeing of all women. In the words of Ryunosuke Satoro, “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”

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