• Susannah Hart

Body Image in a Digital Age

Updated: Jul 8, 2018

We have all heard the old cliché ‘a photo never lies’, but in this digital age nothing could be further from the truth; especially when it comes to physical appearance. You only have to look at the cover of any glossy women’s magazine. Not a pound of flesh, blemish or muffin top in sight! It just isn’t real, but sadly this is what we are faced with everyday. The advent of photo editing software allows even the most amateur photographer to enhance and embellish an image beyond plausibility – yet we see, we absorb and we covet.

Beauty is a fickle concept. That which constitutes beauty has changed over the centuries. Throughout the ages particular ‘looks’ have been considered the ‘ideal’ but only permeated the levels of society that could afford the time to consider such things. Today with the media being able to invade all aspects of our lives these ‘looks’ are not just there, but everywhere.

Occasionally, an individual may well achieve flawless skin and an androgynous size 0 without effort, but for the majority, aspiring to such physical ‘perfection’ is not just unrealistic, it is downright dangerous.

Approximately 50% of the content of an average women’s lifestyle magazine is advertising. Adverts try to spur us into action to buy their product by making us feel dissatisfied with our life and appearance. The artwork used in beauty and fashion advertising will have been professionally posed, well lit and digitally manipulated to produce the commissioned shot.

This bombardment of images of perceived beauty and sexual attractiveness can cause girls and women to become preoccupied and dissatisfied with the way they look. But it is not just females that have a distorted view of their body. A 2016 study by the YMCA* revealed that 34% of teenage boys, as well as 49% of teenage girls, had been on a diet in an effort to change their body shape.

Unchecked, this unhealthy obsession and dissatisfaction with appearance can lead to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) which is a serious mental illness and can lead to other mental health problems, such as depression and self harm, and can also cause severe physical illness through anorexia and bulimia.

It isn’t just us mere mortals that are affected by the ubiquitous, digitally altered, streams of aspirational images. Actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley spoke candidly in a recent interview in Glamour magazine; “I worry about young girls out there who are feeling insecure…and they see this image of a supermodel looking amazing, reclining on the beach in a completely unrealistic pose or environment. I can see how that would make people not feel good about themselves. I can’t say that I’m immune to that’.”

If women, such as Huntingdon-Whiteley, who have the advantages that come with fame such as make up artists and personal trainers are still vulnerable, what chance does a schoolgirl have?

What can be done to counter the effects of the misrepresentative images projected in the media and combat poor body image before this negativity spirals out of control?

Positive body image is an important part of someone’s overall sense of self esteem; negative thoughts about how you look can have a life long impact, which is why it is so important to tackle this issue at an early age.

Media Smart, a not-for-profit company, has recognised this and creates free educational materials for schools to help young people think critically about media advertising. These teaching resources are designed help pupils become more media savvy, tackling sensitive issues related to body image.

Mattel, famous for the Barbie doll, in a bid to broaden their representation of the female form, has released a new range of doll that comes in different shapes, sizes and with varying skin and hair colours. A small step in the right direction, but surely real life role models are what people need?

Many stories in the media are focused on so called ‘celebrities’. Tales of their nocturnal exploits and body enhancing surgery are splashed across the cover of magazines as if it is something to which we should aspire.

More coverage needs to be given to truly inspirational women for young people to emulate. We need more Jessica Ennis-Hills! Olympic Gold Medalist and mother, not only is she a beacon for having a strong work ethic, she is humble, engaging and looks amazing, muscles and all!

Photos are going to continue to lie! This is not going to change, but how we let them influence our body image can change. We need to focus on life’s positives, focus on how we feel, focus on our achievements and then the next time we see a portrayal of digitally enhanced ‘beauty’ we can take it, literally, at face value. Physical beauty is only skin deep, inside is where the true beauty resides.


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