“Insecurity sells” in the beauty industry, and I’m tired of buying

I think it’s safe for me to say that I don’t look like a lot of girls. You see, I stand at about six feet tall, have ginger hair and have a little extra packaging around my belly and hips. When I think of an ideal female body in accordance with western beauty standards, I usually think of a petite blonde girl with a big bust, a big butt and a skinny waist. So naturally sometimes it has been hard for me because I literally look nothing like that.

I’ve had my fair share of insecurities and unsolicited opinions about my appearance — from the time a classmate called me fat on the school bus as a child, to my senior year when I had my worst acne breakout ever, to now at work when customers who know nothing about me as a person feel compelled to remind me time and time again about how tall I am. Dude, sorry I’m threatening your masculinity by being taller than you, do you want that hot or iced?

My sister and I are both about 6'3" in these heels

The media often says women should look like this

but absolutely NOT this.

And it says men should strive for this

but obviously NOT this.

Research done by Heather R. Gallivan, a psychologist specializing in eating disorder therapy, says that we start to compare ourselves to others at as early as 4 years old, and that the age of 6 is “when sociocultural factors seem to start influencing body dissatisfaction.”

The study concluded that of the surveyed people, “34% of men and 80% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies and over 50% of teen girls and 30% of teen boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors.” Along with that, “90% of girls ages 13–17 feel pressure by fashion and media industries to be skinny.”

A lot of these images we are comparing ourselves to are misleading; almost all photos in magazines are digitally retouched in some way.

Candice Huffine with a thinner midsection and legs
Justin Bieber with enlarged biceps and abs

“The more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible,” says Henry Farid, a Dartmouth professor of computer science.

Filippa Hamilton on two different Ralph Lauren magazine covers

After all, how are we supposed to feel confident all the time when models get to have their belly rolls taken out or their biceps made to look more muscular?

I asked a few friends about their ideas about western beauty standards and how it affects them.

Here’s what the guys said:

  • “I fall for it as well but instead of ‘looking good’ as is the case for women, guys are pressured to having material (shoes, cars, etc…) and that’s what determines their worth. So for women it’s more of how attractive you look, for guys (the way I see it) it’s more of how many things you have that make you ‘cool.’”
  • “I think standards are pretty unrealistic for both sexes. The media portrays people like gods and goddesses but no one actually looks like that because all that is mostly done on the computer. And it makes people feel pressured to look that way and it lowers self esteem if you don’t.”
  • “Media and society as a whole depict beauty to be only real when females have skinny waists and big hips and males have muscular bodies. But that’s not the case. I’ve never been swayed by those thoughts that media and society portray so I guess you could say it doesn’t affect me. Although it does sound tempting to have such a muscular body, the expectations and standards set forth by society and media are sometimes unrealistic.”
  • “I think western beauty standards are pretty unrealistic and unhealthy. They limit beauty to an unrealistic standard and in such impact body image and beauty perception in individuals and as a society. The media’s representation of beauty hasn’t affected me very bad personally but I’ve been affected by it in the way that a lot of my friends have really bad self esteem due to their self image perception and it not lining up exactly with society’s.”

Here’s what the girls said:

  • “Even though most ads don’t say ‘you’re fat if you don’t look like these models,’ they definitely make us feel lesser because most of our bodies are God given and natural. Women spend thousands on looking like someone completely different than how they were born because they feel like they have to be better than other women. And why, for a boy? How are little girls supposed to grow up confident in themselves if they’re told they’re too tall too curvy or too skinny for their age? That they need to start wearing makeup in middle school when they’re 12 years old? When you’re younger and teachers are like ‘your shorts are too short,’ to 11 year olds, they’re teaching you to look at each other in that way. Dress codes and stuff, it’s like sexualizing middle schoolers.”
  • “For a while when the ideal image of a thigh gap was really present in the media, I definitely looked in the mirror and tried to imagine myself with a thigh gap. Picturing myself with skinnier legs and a thigh gap just made no sense. I realized that this is the body I have and it’s completely lovable. Another thing is that in the media it’s all about women fixing things about their bodies, not changing their perspective on their bodies. It’s almost like when a woman is confident about her body in an alternative way, it doesn’t mean as much. If someone is proud of being very thin and fit, then the media might praise her. If another woman is proud that she can lift a lot of weight then the media might be like ‘hmm well that’s not really a feminine thing to do.’”
  • “I think that western beauty standards definitely affect me as a bigger girl. It’s hard to feel pretty sometimes in a place where only certain body types are found pretty. I was bullied a lot and I grew up thinking skinny was pretty.”
  • “Growing up I was really into fashion and I was mainly interested in the clothes instead of what the models looked like, until I was bullied in elementary school about my weight. I really began noticing how I was heavier than the models and instead of looking at the clothing, I would be looking at the models. It really changed my attitude on how the media perceives beauty, and what is considered beautiful.”
  • “As I got older and figured out myself more, I was sexualized constantly. I would work at the pool, and older men would hit on me and make comments about my body; at first I was flattered because I felt like finally I fit into some kind of beauty standard. My sophomore year I starved myself for a whole summer and lost 20 pounds. I eventually gained some of the weight back, and I felt like I had lost all my beauty. It sent me into a spiral of eating disorders that I still struggle with today.”

The Illusionists, a documentary about advertising and consumerism in the beauty industry, is attempting to spread their “body image revolution” campaign by exploring topics like photoshop, cosmetic surgery, hyper masculinity, and obsession with skinniness. I was required to watch it for a class and I strongly recommend it — below is the trailer, take some time to check it out!

“Through advertising and mass media, multibillion-dollar industries (most notably cosmetics, fashion, dieting, and cosmetic surgery) saturate our lives with images of idealized, unattainable beauty, of an ‘Official Body’ that does not really exist in nature and that can be obtained only through cosmetic surgery… or digital retouching.” — The Illusionists synopsis

For those of you that work to maintain your bodies or those that feel like you fit into this category of a beautiful body, keep doing you. You’re gorgeous — so keep showing off what you’ve worked hard for!

I guess what I’m trying to say is be active but don’t feel bad about having a lazy day every once and awhile, and eat healthy but don’t hate yourself for falling victim to a late night ice cream craving sometimes.

This is how I look sitting comfortably in a swimsuit.

And you know what? It doesn’t make me any less deserving of respect or love.

Special thanks to Anna, Mihretabe, Dominick, Maddy, Luis, Abby, Brandon, Ashli, Tito, Maddie, Grace, Chloe and Sophia for your participation in this piece!