Many a media critic has contended the role which media industries and marketing forces play in the formation of identity. The most persistent manifestation of this phenomenon is within the domain of childhood and adolescence. For example, young boys are taught to aspire towards masculine ideals beginning with active involvement in sports while young girls are encouraged to cultivate pre-sexual notions of femininity such as rehearsing domestic rituals. It is easy to criticize this bifurcation of ideals as a kind of gender stereotyping, for the simple reason that it places discouraging limitations on the range of behaviors permissible to both genders.
However, this does a disservice to the influence which parenting plays on the formation of the self and it also denies a sense of agency and autonomy that even the youngest of children possess. Cook maintains that the recipients of media messages are not completely passive to the images presented to them. Rather, they are capable of fashioning meanings in ways that express their individual ability to interpret and transform.
What is problematic then about media’s ability to promote cultural and social standards of image and identity is, as Orenstein, notes the extent to which certain images maintain a hegemonic ubiquity over others. When a narrow range of images and ideals prevail over others, then the choices become limited. Therefore, even when individuals are able to express themselves freely, they are presented with a modern cultural language which, as Cook declares, programs meanings into the very materials they used in the formation of personal meaning.
In any case, media’s influence on cultural and social standards weighs heavily on the subject of body image. While Orenstein derives contention from the role of media on gender roles, others have contended on how media shapes the notion of beauty, not just in matters of aesthetics but in those of sexuality and self-worth as well. Because the 20th century is defined by the increasing ubiquity of mediated culture, media is not just an influence on culture but is culture to the extent that it has occupied the role of communicating and disseminating cultural and social norms, ideologies and myths and imbuing meaning into the world around us.
It is therefore unfair to dismiss the forces of media as a corrupting influence on culture and society. Rather, its ‘corrupting influence’ is due largely in part to its salient features: widely disseminated and relatively easy to reproduce. Therefore, media is able to reach a broader audience and impart its cultural worldview than say, a Renaissance painting which promotes a voluptuous incarnation of femininity or a sculpture which valorizes the sagely countenance of the elderly. Thus, homogeneity of body image ideals is far more problematic in the modern era when culture is shaped by a medium defined by mass production and wide distribution.
No reference need be made for anyone to recognize the kind of body image ideals that are promoted by the media. The ideal male is often portrayed with a chiseled physique and brawny vigor while the ideal female is exemplified by flaring hips and gravity free breasts. In the defense of the media industries, one possible reason behind the perpetuation of such images is that motion pictures and television programs demand that the performers possess photogenic qualities. This is because media tends to draw attention to physical imperfections even among those endowed with natural beauty.
However, this results in certain implicit messages. There are two ways to look at this. First is that, because of the media’s role as a cultural authority, the dissemination of well-endowed physiques and hyper-sexualized bodies normalizes them, making them average. In effect, any deviation from this bodily norm (or at the very least, aspiring towards it) is seen as an aberration despite the increasing tendency in developed nations towards obesity. The other way of looking at this is that media perpetuated body ideals create an implicit link between success and the bodily ideal.
While there is no shortage of ‘average bodies,’ such as those celebrated in the realm of current affairs and politics, in the media the images of successful individuals which most recur are those of the physically perfected: actors, models and athletes. Therefore, intentional or not, the telegenic/photogenic individual is equated with success.
This is not a trivial matter. The perpetuation of a homogenous body ideal is not problematic on its own, save for the notion that it does little to represent the diversity of body types which exist in reality. However, the above mentioned subliminal codes have a substantial psychological impact on the ways by which individuals measure their self-worth.
Orenstein worried that young girls subjected to the tyranny of the princess ideal would be under enormous pressure to fulfill this. Similarly, the perpetuation of a body ideal narrowly limits the range by which individuals are expected to be satisfied with their own bodily appearance. Furthermore, marketing images which codify sexuality often present these idealized bodies, effectively suggesting that sex appeal is derived primarily from this physical ideal.
While there is no point in denying the role which physical appearance plays in determining charisma and sex appeal, the problem is that by limiting the broad range of body types down to an ideal, the ability to measure self-worth becomes damaged. The motherboard of sexuality has been reprogrammed to such an extent that it requires the supermodel likenesses of celebrities to register attention, while teenage girls find themselves believing in a cultural law which mandates that they should be thinner, fairer and more buxom in order for them to feel a positive sense of self-esteem, rather than taking into account all the other variables that determine the value of the self.
Like the Disney princesses that trouble Orenstein, the problem with body image in the media is not that they are so physically perfect but that they make perfection ubiquitous to the point that which they are vastly out of line with reality, and that no room for bodily alternatives exist.
Cook, Dan. “Lunchbox Hegemony.” Consumers, Commodities & Consumption, Volume 5, Number 2. May 2004. Retrieved September 21, 2008 from: https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/dtcook/www/CCCnewsletter/5-2/Cook.htm
Orenstein, Peggy. “What’s Wrong with Cinderella?” The New York Times. 24 December 2006. Retrieved September 21, 2008 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin