The conversation around Body Image has always been a complicated one, but has become even more so with the ubiquity of social and mass media. With a screen in front of us 24/7—be it a computer, tablet, a phone, or even just an old-fashioned TV—it is easier than ever to be bombarded by images from the media. However, the advances in and increased access to technology have also given us, regular consumers, the power to put our own images into the world.
With apps like Instagram and Snapchat on the rise, social media has moved toward revolving around the sharing of photographs over any other medium. Younger generations are eschewing Facebook for Instagram as their main platform of social media—a social network that only allows photos are their medium of sharing. Thus, with this kind of shift, we are seeing less sharing of ideas through links and textposts and more images instead, whether from our favorite celebrities or from our friends and family. The information we share with the world has become primarily visual.
Therefore, it is no surprise that technology has also moved toward giving us the ability to control and profit off our images. A number of apps have been popping up all over the Internet nowadays with the same selling point: With a few swipes of your fingertips, you can edit your photos with the quality of perfection and none of the work. It’s Photoshop for non-Photoshop artists. A quick Google search pulls up a list of 13 apps1, each with a slightly different focus. One brightens your eyes, one makes you skin look “creamier,” one enlarges your breasts, and another lengthens your legs. However, despite the minor differences, they all promote the message that perfection is beauty. The manufacturers don’t even attempt to hide the message: Two out of the 13 apps have the word “perfect” in their name, and four out of the 13 have the word “beauty” in them.
Although the apps mentioned above are geared towards women, men are not exempt from the pressure to look perfect either. Apps like Manly2 allow men to realistically add six-pack abs, biceps, tattoos, and facial hair onto their photos. These features in particular promote the stereotypical masculine ideal of beauty: chiseled, tan, and buff. These expectations compound on the already existing pressure to look perfect, because not only do these features dictate how good looking a man is, but also whether he is truly “a man.”
Despite the rising, insurmountable pressures to look perfect, the idea of selling perfection through modification and editing has become so normal, it’s barely a cause for controversy anymore. So if this is the new normal, then what’s so bad about it.
Activist and writer Jean Kilbourne says, “It’s not just that we see these images once, or twice, or even a hundred times. They stay with us and we process them mostly subconsciously… [They create] an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy images and that constantly sacrifices our health and our sense of well-being for the sake of profit. Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy. To a great extent, they tell us who we are and who we should be.”3
While editing your photo in two minutes with a free app doesn’t seem like it’s doing much harm, the image of perfection you’re sending out into the world may make someone else feel as if they’re not doing enough to manage their image or to look good. Establishing modified perfection as the standard leaves everyone else who doesn’t want to conform behind, leaving their natural faces to be judged as abnormal.
Thus, while we should continue to criticize the mass media for pouring millions of dollars into creating shame to sell products, we also need to look at our role in promoting the appearance ideal. If we don’t want to continue to see false images and be held to an impossible standard, then we need to stop conforming to it.