How the mass media contributes to negative body image.

By Raymond Onyango.

If I had a dollar for every time that a client has walked up to me in the gym, with a celebrity photo cutout from a glamour magazine and asked me to make them look like that, I would be a millionaire several times over. As a personal trainer, I would say that perhaps the most delicate aspect of my job involves helping my clients to manage their expectations, without diminishing their enthusiasm and motivation to stick it through a consistent exercise program. This can be especially difficult in the current media saturated environment in which we live, a world where Kim Kardashian’s butt routinely commands more media attention, than the millions of people suffering the ravages of war and starvation in several parts of the globe.

I dare say our preoccupation with celebrity and the lengths to which we are willing to go in order to achieve it, has reached what is arguably an unhealthy apex. For instance, even as obesity rates continue to soar around the world, dress sizes on the other hand have steadily shrunk from the 60’s to the present day. According to a 2006 article authored by Jennifer Freeze in the Southeast Missourian, clothing sizes have changed so much that a woman who wore a size 8 in 1950 would wear a size 00 today! She goes further to observe in the same article that in the 1940s, the smallest available size was a 10. By the 1950s the smallest available size was an 8 and today there’s a size 00 on the racks. Just to put that into perspective, consider this; even Marilyn Monroe, size 8-10 and perhaps the most iconic movie star of the 60’s would be considered a plus size in this day and age.

Celebrities As Normal People

The question is, ‘Does this obsession with physical perfection driven by the showbiz industry and perpetuated by the media, actually reflect the real image of your everyday woman on the street or even the starlets in Hollywood for that matter?’ The answer to that is an emphatic No!

Not only is the sort of physical perfection espoused in the mass media simply unattainable, it is also just plain downright fakery. A quick Google search with the key words, ‘photoshopped celebrities’ yields well over a million results in just 0.14 seconds for images of celebrities before and after they have been photoshopped. A closer look reveals that many, if not all of them are just regular folk like you and I, with moles, freckles, wrinkles, love handles and belly fat to boot. In a nutshell, they are not perfect  – just normal.

Striving For An Unattainable Ideal.

The saddest part of this story is that for many 14 and 16-year-old girls and beyond, flipping through these photoshopped magazines, the real truth is not immediately evident. As a direct result, there has been an explosion in the prevalence of eating disorders amongst this most vulnerable of groups.

Just recently, the artist who goes by the name Lady Gaga and is renowned for her outrageous wardrobe choices and often controversial media statements, found herself once more in the eye of the media storm – this time stemming from an article in the Daily Mail of London, ridiculing her for being ‘decidedly meaty around the hips and thighs’ during a recent concert in Amsterdam.  The ensuing feeding frenzy that followed that particular performance as media houses competed amongst themselves in speculating on the reasons behind her weight gain led to a candid admission on her part of a long concealed struggle with eating disorders including bulimia and anorexia.  She later released untouched photographs of herself posing in a bikini and looking very much like the girl next door, as part of a campaign she has dubbed – the body revolution. This is a campaign aimed at helping young women own up to their struggles with extreme dieting and eating disorders, in a bid to reclaim their bodies.

Naturally Lady Gaga is not the first public figure to catch some flak from the press for gaining weight, but her status as an ‘uber’ hip icon amongst the youth, with almost 30 million followers on twitter, served to reignite the debate about whether there in an unrealistic amount of pressure on public figures to look thin, a fact that maybe responsible for the huge prevalence of eating disorders amongst that demographic.

The Ultimate Price Of Extreme Diets 

Ultimately for many of these celebrities and the myriads of young girls they influence, there is a very steep price to pay for years of engaging in the sort of extreme dieting that now seems to be a staple in the upper echelons of the showbiz industry. A case in point, just a few short years ago Gwyneth Paltrow, the Hollywood actress, was diagnosed with the brittle bone disease – osteopenia, a precursor to arthritis that is usually found in much older women. Several experts have suggested that this may be a result of excessive dieting and an overly intense exercise regimen, both of which come with the territory in Hollywood. In the worst-case scenario, certain death is not a far-fetched possibility. On August 2nd 2006, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia reported the death of two sisters, both Uruguayan runway models who died of apparent heart attacks within months of each other. Luisel Ramos, died from a heart attack caused by anorexia nervosa, while participating in a fashion show during fashion week in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her father told the police that she had gone several days without eating and she was reported to have subsisted almost exclusively on a diet of lettuce and coke, for the three months prior to her death. On February 13th 2007, Luisel’s 18-year-old sister Eliana Ramos, also a model died at her grandparents home of an apparent heart attack believed to be related to malnutrition. In April 2007, Hila Emlich, an Israeli runway model also succumbed to anorexia related complications that led to her subsequent death.

The tragic deaths of these beautiful young women, played a huge part in a decision by Italian fashion designers to ban size zero models from walking down their catwalks and setting a minimum BMI of at least 18 for all models. Above all it should serve as a pertinent reminder to the rest of us that it is not worth sacrificing your life in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal. Love yourself and love the body you are in, because ultimately that is exactly how nature intended for you to be!

Celebrate your body this week, will you!