Trigger Warning: this article mentions sensitive subjects including eating disorders and calorie counting.
Over the last decade, there has been an increase in mental health problems. This includes the rapid increase of eating disorders, which is diagnosed predominantly among young women. Although these illnesses have both psychological and physical factors that can cause their development, social and cultural factors can also have a significant influence.
The current mode of advertisement and media can be described as a way of normalising and spreading unrealistic beauty ideals. Both ads and media play vital roles in formulating what is popular, ‘trending’ and what is attractive in society. Social media, for example, most popular amongst younger people, showcases ‘influencers’ promoting the ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ life. A lot of the success of these influencers is caused by the popularisation of thin and muscular ideals.
Many women aspire to obtain this mostly unattainable societal construct of beauty. These ideals can affect the way young people perceive themselves, and from this, how they value their own self-worth. Studies within theories of social comparison, like Fredrickson and Roberts’ Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks (1997), have shown that these comparisons with real people through social media have led to a distortion of body image, and in many ways, lead younger people to favour disorderly eating. In other words, this unrealistic standard of beauty that is portrayed throughout the media has resulted in body image issues and affects mental illness, to the extent that some people develop eating disorders.
All of this may sound extreme, but the idealistic values emphasised and favoured in the media can be dangerous and seriously harmful to someone’s mental health.
For example, last year, celebrity and singer Lizzo, who often advocates body positivity on her social media channels, accused TikTok of body shaming her after it had deleted multiple videos of her in a bathing suit. She wrote in response,
“Taking down my videos with me in my bathing suits… but allows other videos with girls in bathing suits. I wonder why?”
– (@lizzobeeating, Instagram)
The app, to this day, continues to claim that her videos went against ‘community guidelines’ but has failed to display how she has done that. Tiktok removes videos of Lizzo for no obvious reason but continues to allow people to promote weight-loss content, “pro-ana” content (i.e., anorexia) as well as promoting different ways to calorie count. Arguably, such content is allowed to be posted because it promotes the popular ideal of thinness. Looking back to summer 2020, as lockdown was starting to be lifted, and people were obsessing over the ‘Chloe Ting Hourglass Challenge,’ in order to be “beautiful again.”
In her documentary ‘Miss Americana’, released on Netflix in 2020, Taylor Swift discusses her life from a young age, detailing how her fame led to mental health issues, especially from social media platforms such as Instagram. It is difficult to scroll through Instagram or Snapchat stories without seeing a weight-loss advertisement, whether this is a ‘workout routine’, ‘diet plan’ or even ‘weight-loss supplements’. A quote from the documentary that has stuck with me since the documentary’s release is:
“There’s always some Standard of Beauty that you’re not meeting…because if you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass that everybody wants, but if you have enough weight on you to have an ass, then your stomach isn’t flat enough. It’s all just […] impossible”
– (‘Miss Americana’, Netflix, 2020)
The media has shamed people for the way they look which encourages others to leave hateful comments and body shame people online, which Swift explains. But why? Is everyone supposed to have this plastic, Barbie doll-like figure? This ideal is not realistic and does not reflect real life.
Beauty ideals, of course, affect both men and women. It can be argued that this is more emphasised on women, especially in the media, however mental health, in any sort of way, affects every human being. Singer and songwriter Sam Smith has made comments on his challenges with notions of body image, telling BBC Newsbeat,
“I tried hard to lose weight and I was making awful music. It was only until I started being myself did the music start to flow and people start to listen”
– (Sam Smith, interview with BBC Newsbeat)
For men, this standard beauty ideal of being built to be seen as attractive of course affects many just as Smith talks about.
Accepting that you are not happy, or that you are not okay, is difficult to come to terms with. But that is the best place to start. Once you have accepted this you can reach out to the people you trust the most and contact helplines or professional help. This battle you are facing, at any capacity, won’t last forever, and we have to hope that the media can portray a more accepting ideal of body positivity, so that we can stop being so harsh on ourselves.
Helplines and Weblinks:
Charity providing support if you have been diagnosed with an anxiety condition.
Phone: 03444 775 774 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5.30pm)
Men’s Health Forum
24/7 stress support for men by text, chat and email.
Promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems.
Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm)
Confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair.
Phone: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)
Phone: 0808 801 0677 (adults) or 0808 801 0711 (for under-18s)
(Featured Image Credit: @styleanthropy from Unsplash)