Body Real vs. Body Ideal

Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect (2012)

A few months ago, I visited my doctor and told them about a recurring problem I’ve been experiencing for several years. I was booked to undergo a battery of tests to find out the cause while ruling out others — these included blood tests, an ECG, and an ultrasound scan. They show that my body, overall, is in good physical health and my condition is not serious.

Despite being told by medical professionals that I’m fit and in good shape I’m not happy with my body. I’m flabby around the waist and my chest lacks definition. Being 6ft and 204lb (93kg) my Body Mass Index classifies me as being overweight, but thankfully without any ill effects.

Why am I not happy with my body? I have medical proof that I’m healthy, but I don’t have a body that reflects it. Why do so many of us long to attain slender, athletic, or muscular frames?

People and culture are locked in a repeating cycle obsessed with body image. With each new year there are new diets and lifestyles that are being plugged through advertising, celebrities and supposed health gurus. They promise to change our lives with varying degrees of dedication and expense, the ultimate result being not only a physically healthier person but also an aesthetically better looking person. The unspoken truth is that culture is less concerned with health as it is with a narrow vision of beauty and desire. People are growing increasingly insecure about their physical appearance and how it corresponds to society’s expectations, driven by cultural influence.

The majority of the people in countries like the US and the UK are overweight or obese. Mainstream film and television flaunts body types that are not representative of the real world, and people who don’t meet the high standards of what popular culture regards as beautiful are sidelined, hidden or vilified. Men and women are subject to different standards of what is considered desirable in popular media, but both can cause harmful emotional impact in everyday life.

The images of beauty we are presented are an invention. The model of desire has changed throughout history and varies greatly between cultures outside the realm of popular media. There is no universal vision of human perfection. We need to condition ourselves to this truth, rather than subscribing to an exclusionary ideal of who and what is beautiful.

(Note: the terms I have used to describe people are embraced by some and rejected by others. If you are upset or offended by my choice of words please know that is not my intention. As much as possible I aim to be respectful and considerate of others.)

Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence (2016)

Men

Action and romantic movies alike have a strongly defined image of the perfect male body. Tall, broad shoulders, large biceps, prominent pectorals, washboard abs, minimal body hair. Think of Chris Hemworth as Thor, or Chris Evans as Captain America, or Chris Pratt as Starlord. Think of Aiden Turner in Poldark or Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Popular culture equates physical prowess with greater masculinity. Men without the physical attributes of someone like Dwayne Johnson are the subject of mockery and pity. Physical superiority is a display of male bravado, which overrules all other aspects of a man’s identity. Being short, skinny or overweight is presented as undesirable when compared to a ‘real man’.

But the ‘real man’ is a construct. Actors known for their physiques train tirelessly to acquire and maintain the shape and definition of the fantasy male. Strict regiments to drastically reduce body fat (and maximize a six pack) are not considered healthy, nor or is it recommended by doctors — the fantasy male body perpetuated in film and television is aesthetic only.

The effect of depicting such chiselled forms so commonly in film and television is the increased dissatisfaction of men with their own bodies. Feeling themselves under pressure some men have taken extreme measures, including cosmetic surgery, to shape themselves into the unreal figures on our screens. Physical health becomes secondary to cultural objectification, and people willingly accept it.

Women

Popular media places greater emphasis on women to conform with certain figures and sizes than men. Women who are curvy or “fat” are seldom seen in film and television outside of comedic roles — think of Rebel Wilson or Melissa McCarthy. In the era of social media the objectification of women extends to larger actresses, whose identity is frequently reduced to their physical appearance — they become the target of online hostility based on their appearance alone.

The vast majority of women on screen are slender and athletic. Some actresses are so skinny as to be considered by medical professionals unhealthy or malnourished, but their shape is viewed as desirable. Similar to the ‘fantasy male’ the entertainment industry portrays the fashion model physique as normal and aspirational. The cultural pressure to be stick thin can lead women to cosmetic and plastic surgery, and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Being underweight, depriving oneself of a healthy lifestyle, poses risks which are downplayed or ignored in popular culture.

Charlize Theron in Patty Jenkins’ Monster (2003)

The physical transformation of actors including Christian Bale and Robert De Niro is viewed with admiration and commitment to the craft. Actresses are less likely to be given the same opportunity to change their body shape if it means appearing larger or ‘ugly’. Renee Zellweger gained weight to play Bridget Jones, a character the majority of Britons view as ‘normal sized’, before shedding the pounds and returning to Hollywood’s norms. Charlize Theron was celebrated for her portrayal of Eileen Wournos in Monster, but she and other actresses are offered roles that are far more likely to reinforce mainstream culture’s construct of the perfectly-shaped woman.

An accepted double standard exists where actors with average or fat bodies can be partnered with svelte, model-like actresses without contention (Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler), but the opposite isn’t considered believable. Men can be given a ‘pass’ to be imperfect that is rarely afforded women. Sizeism and sexism are very much intertwined.

I’m Guilty

Despite my belief that the depictions of male and female bodies in popular culture are flawed I cannot shake myself free from them. The constructed ideals of what is socially acceptable and aesthetically desirable are deeply ingrained in us, and I find myself drawn to them. I would like to see myself with visible abs, even though I know it would only serve a superficial purpose. I find myself attracted to women who are not representative of society — they are fantasies I have been, to some extent, groomed into finding attractive because of what culture has told me is attractive.

How much of our attraction is based on what we perceive, versus what films, television, advertising and fashion tells us is desirable? Can attitudes to beauty be modified and expanded? I believe they can.

Whether it is a change in popular media or a change in myself I am seeing people who are bucking the trend against the rigid views of who and what is normal. The narrow models of beauty, masculinity, femininity and sexuality are being reassessed. This reassessment needs us to question the standards that have led so many to suffer with insecurity and depression, and act in desperation.

By no means am I advocating lifestyles that are unhealthy, nor am I saying that being body conscious is entirely a bad thing. What I am saying is that our image-obsessed culture should take a step back to examine the toll it’s having on peoples’ lives. From the outside: undeserved scrutiny, shaming and personal attacks. On the inside: self doubt, self loathing and internalized prejudice.

For the sake of our emotional health and happiness the cultural pressuring for physical perfection needs to be turned down. Popular media needs to redress its fantasy ideals and allow people to feel comfortable with who they are, how they live and what they choose to do with their bodies.

We need to see more bodies. Different bodies. People happy with their bodies.

Coming soon: One and Done, Come and Gone

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