Only 5% of American women naturally have the body type advertisements portray as ideal.

Finding Beauty Standards

Media surrounds us. We type away on our laptops, scrolling through Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and newspaper articles. But what affect—if any—do these images and messages have on how we view ourselves?

In a study conducted by Renee Engeln-Maddox at Northwestern University, 109 college women described how they believe their lives would change if their physical appearance mirrored those ideals presented in the media.

Here’s what the participants had to do:

  • describe culture’s ideal female looks
  • imagine they looked exactly like what they describe, then write how their life would change if they looked like that woman
  • rate the change according to if they believed it would occur from 1 (not likely) to 7 (extremely likely)
  • describe how often they felt satisfied/unsatisfied with body areas from 1 (always) to 6 (never)

The results:

  • the descriptions of a media ideal “all contained references to thinness or body shape”
  • participants associated increased confidence, success, self-esteem, and happiness with these ideal appearances

The media has us convinced that their standards are positive ones, ones we should strive to imitate. Although these stereotypes can be used in a constructive way—say, if it gave motivation for someone to improve her health—they do give people unrealistic expectations of themselves. As Engeln-Maddox found, “many women may seek to emulate their ideal because they seek the social, psychological, and practical rewards associated with this ideal.”

Only 5% of American women naturally have the body type advertisements portray as ideal.

What does this all mean?

The media gives us nearly unattainable images of beauty. We internalize these as positive and something to strive for. Even though this could be harmless at first, we might come to see ourselves as inferior.

Eating disorders result partly from feelings of imperfection. If we don’t act like that, or eat like that, or exercise like that, or look like that… we aren’t “good” enough.

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The study suggests media literacy as a solution. Rather than completely changing beauty images, we should recognize them for what they are: someone else’s views. Sure, we can still wish to have that model’s hair or arms or what-have-you, but we should not degrade ourselves in the process. We shouldn’t equate a certain physical appearance with success or happiness. These we can only get from our own accomplishments and talents.

It’s time to create our own standards for beauty.

When you think of “beauty,” what do you think of?

*SIDENOTE: This week (October 20-24) is Project Heal’s #FatTalkFree week. Head over to their website, Twitter, or Instagram and put an end to body-shaming and inspire changes about how we think of our bodies!

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