August 2015: This media environment perpetuates a lack of self-esteem and feelings of envy in all aspects of your life, from beauty to romance, money and lifestyle. Is your self-perception in need of a shot of positivity?
Beautiful. Rich. Thin. Famous. Happy. Loved. Holidaying. Everyone is—going by the sparkly adverts on TV and in the glossies, the fairy-tale lives of stars and socialites in the gossip columns and on Page 3, and the Facebook posts of that detested school prefect. Everyone but you, that is. Or so it seems.
The ‘Perfect’ Myth
With advances in the internet, photography, advertising and technology, we’re consuming more media and advertising than ever before. Unrealistically stunning models sell impossible dreams—some tea in high towers, others bottles of creams.
And then, unwittingly or not, you’re in. We internalise these ‘idealised’ standards and are impacted by them. We are sucked into the vortex of this vicious cycle in our own thoughts and actions, at once victims and perpetuators of this myth.
Are You a Victim?
We’ve started to undervalue the beauty in ourselves and our lives, and some of us find it hard to see the beauty in ourselves at all. It’s time to evaluate if your self-perception is, indeed, skewed.
* Do you find the need to live up to the Jones’s, unable to count your blessings?
* Do you feel everyone’s doing better than you?
* Do you compare your post-baby body to Malaika Arora’s or your cellulite-ridden thighs to the gap between Kate Moss’s? Or, worse, a friend on Facebook?
* Do you evaluate your acne and aging on the basis of celebrities’ flawless skins?
* And, on social media, do you compare the likes and comments on your page to the number on others’?
* Do you suffer from Social Media Anxiety Disorder?
Don’t worry, you are not alone.
What is SMAD?
Coined by cyber-relations expert Julia Spira in her book The Rules of Netiquette, it explores the guidelines of interacting in the digital world. Here’s part of her checklist to know if you've got SMAD.
1. You’re addicted to your cell phone
2. You become anxious if you send a tweet to someone and they don't @reply to you within six hours
3. You keeping checking for likes and shares on a photo you uploaded on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram or other photo-sharing sites, even if no one is liking or sharing it
4. You get upset if the number of your Twitter followers drops
But Wait a Minute…
This, despite knowing, as we all do, that all that glitters ain’t really diamond-crusted gold?! Here are some things for you to remember:
* Photoshop! Photoshop! Photoshop!
Let’s put it this way—unless you’re in the media, it’s safe to assume that image manipulation, popularly known as Photoshop, is more widespread than you think, however wide you think it is. As people in the media, we are used to assuming that everyone knows the models in advertisements are unrealistically stunning because, well, they aren’t real—everyone looks great with makeup, studio lights, a great photographer and that insidious little monster called Photoshop. Agrees celebrity dermatologist Dr Rashmi Shetty, “We think image manipulation is common knowledge, but it isn’t.” And this is in cities with literate people consuming mainstream English media that contains articles like this one from time to time.
First of all, let the name not fool you, it’s not only still images that are manipulated, even videos are. Yup, that’s how Angelina Jolie manages plays all sorts of roles despite her tattoos in real life.
Increasingly, it is applied to more images and videos than you know. From apps that allow you to edit camera-phone pictures and video on the spot, to high-end retouching agencies working on every single advertising and editorial image and video you see. And it can do more things than you’d imagined. If they could create Harvey Dent without actually burning off half of actor Aaron Eckart’s face, what’s a little leg elongation and bust enhancement?
“Most people have never met a star face-to-face, so assume that’s what they look like in real life. Naturally this will impact the way women look at themselves,” says Dr Shetty. So the next time you compare your butt to Nicki ‘Anaconda’ Minage’s, remember to chant ‘Photoshop! Photoshop! Photoshop!’
* You’re Being Made to Feel This Way
Consumerism thrives in the chasm between have and want, am and should be. It breeds in insecurity, seeking to define your happiness through that next bag, that perfect body, that luxury holiday, that next dream.
Multinational corporations’ dollars influence social standards and fan your insecurities, and so it is bloody hard to “keep your head when those around you are losing theirs”, to quote that famous poem. You’d have to a sanyasi in a cave to not to get affected by standards of beauty, wealth, body type, success, happiness and lifestyle all around.
* There’s No Such Thing as a Fairy Tale
Just as we’ve grown up dreaming of happily-ever-afters in a romantic sense, we’ve also dreamt of a ‘perfect’ life. It isn’t, neither yours nor anyone else’s.
Notice how some friends on social media get active only while on European holidays, tagging this and Instagramming that, nary mentioning the mundanity of their daily office jobs, or the many late nights, stress, heartbreak and missed Sports’ Days it took to save up for those trips. Notice how mother-baby pictures always reflect only the joy, the knee-length under-eye circles, sleepless nights, post-baby weight and other challenges of real-life motherhood all glossed over. And happy couple pictures show no hint of either the farting or the fighting!
It is no wonder that we, women in particular but also people in general, are comparing and contrasting ourselves with an artificial idea of ‘normal’, to the perpetually perfect persona that most of us formulate online. Not that I’m recommending you or your friends all become social-media whiners and bores instead. But, realise that, just as you don’t always post your private troubles and have a propensity towards only taking pictures in happy moments, everyone else is doing so too.
And, let’s not forget that we’re all mostly photo-chronicling the moments where we look our best—made-up for parties or weddings. Just as your out-of-bed look isn’t as great as your party one, your friends don’t always look that good!
As long as you’re aware if this big increase-envy, reduce-self-esteem downside of social media, you’ll be able to better enjoy its many positives.
On social media, we all perpetuate the myth of the perpetually perfect persona.
More Help at Hand!
Many art and media projects have been addressing the effects of photography, advertising, media and social media on culture and women. Beyond seeing pictorial comparisons before-and-after makeup and Photoshop, and uncensored celebrities’ candids (wrinkles, et al), these projects will help you feel better about your looks and life…
Must read: The Beauty Myth
Long before the media exploded like it has today, American feminist author Naomi Wolf, in her iconic 1991 work The Beauty Myth, wrote about the damaging effects of the obsession with physical perfection. Modern women’s insecurities are heightened by unrealistic images and the corresponding societal and internal expectations, then exploited by the diet, cosmetic and plastic surgery industries, trapping them in an endless spiral of self-consciousness, hope and self-hatred. It impacts all areas of life—work, religion, sex, violence and hunger.
Although the book is almost a quarter century old and based in America, it nevertheless rings deep and true for the Indian woman of today. A true eye-opener, it will never leave you.
Must watch: What's On Your Mind?
“Facebook can be depressing because everyone else's lives are better than yours... But are they really?” reads the introduction to this short video that’s been viewed over a million times since it was uploaded a year ago. Created by the HigtonBros, it compares a man’s real life and his parallel one on Facebook, and his friends’ responses to them.
What’s On Your Mind? strikes a universal cord, and is two and a half minutes very well spent.
Must watch: Killing Us Softly
Jean Killbourne’s Killing Us Softly series focuses on the impact advertising has on the way women view ourselves, and the way men view us. She explores how the concept of ideal female beauty, absolute flawlessness achieved through make-up and Photoshop, impacts women’s self esteem. And since women’s body language in ads is usually passive and vulnerable, it propagates an unhealthy idea of ‘normal’. It changes the way men feel about the very real women in their lives, and the objectification and dismemberment of women’s bodies and passive body language creates an increasingly “toxic cultural environment” that propagates violence.
You will find yourself nodding along with Killbourne as she explains her ideas with relevant pictures in a series of presentations, and will come away with a deeper understanding of the world around you.
Must see: BeautyFull
Concerned about the impact of the photography and media eruption has on society, culture and women in India, photographer Sahil Mane started his art-ivism project BeautyFull in 2013, inspired by the writings of his wife, yours truly.
“The steady diet of images creates a homogenous ‘normal’ and idealised (and fake) ‘beauty’,” he says. Though the show, he seeks to dispel the idea of an ideal beauty, and hopes to “empower men and women with the realisation that there are as many beautifuls as there are people.” While the project will eventually lead to a photo-art show, it has so far involved public performances in various places including the Kala Ghoda Arts Fest this year. Here, Sahil and I invited people to participate in a few photo and video performance art pieces, spanning skin tone, beauty treatments, image manipulation and ‘The Tootsie Experiment’, where men confronted the standards of female beauty they subconsciously carried.
Some Things to Think About
As with all things, balance and self-awareness are key to beating the negative impacts of the images and messaging we’re all always consuming today.
As with everything from plastic surgery to fashion, the balance one has to strike is between whether you’re doing it to improve yourself, be the best you can be, or because you’re doing it for or trying to look like someone else. Does the urge originate from comparison or from within?
Dr Shetty observes that those who don’t go overboard or have unrealistic aesthetic expectations are those who seek treatments for themselves—“These people tend to treat a wrinkle or a blemish as any other problem that needs solving.” And why not, she asks. “Like you keep your house clean, wear certain clothes… if you want to look good, great. Do it for yourself.”
And about the envy-inducing lives of others, ponder on the word ‘sonder’, from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: ‘the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’
An edited version of this article appeared in Good Housekeeping in August 2015.