The Quest for Perfection (Essay)

The Quest for Perfection

The media surrounding the Beauty industry is directly effecting our society, young adults and children.

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Where did beauty start?

As far as we know, the history of cosmetics spans at least 6000 years back into our recorded history, beginning around 4000 BC in Ancient Egypt where women would use Red Ochre ground in water as a natural pigment for the lips and cheeks. Both men and women of this age ground kohl to use as an eye-liner of sorts as black lined eyes were considered desirable, amongst other natural beauty regimes ranging from skin softening to hair removal.

Many would argue however ,that the earliest form of cosmetics was in fact used over 100,000 years ago by the native African tribes who’s rituals included painting the body with markings and symbols. This again, was considered attractive.

No matter how far back into human history we search, where there was civilisation and a hierarchy in society (meaning the fight for survival was somewhat diminished compared to earlier homo sapiens), how one looked became a defining quality of everyday life.

Whether it be Ancient Roman bath houses, European women draining their blood to be paler or massaging your face with a Jade stone, one fact is clear: Humans love to be groomed. This behaviour is similar to that of many from the animal kingdom, take Apes for example, they groom themselves and each other for hygiene and social reasons.

Beauty is not the same around the world, but the foundations remain set that, if you don’t look a certain way (for example, wear makeup or have big eyes), you are not considered beautiful within the society you are present. This can be seen throughout many cultures, such as within the small South Pacific island of Tonga, where beauty is marked by one’s physical size, the larger the better. This is a direct contrast to the majority of our Western world, which has influenced other countries in it’s wake, Fiji for example was once a place that embraced it’s food, health and happiness. However since the arrival of electricity on the island and with it, Western TV, there has been a dramatic rise in eating disorders, displacing the traditions that used to encompass food. Though the Beauty Industry denies it’s roll in these events, only so much can be blamed on group thinking and ‘a change of heart’.

Throughout the 19th Century, there has been an astonishing growth in the seller to consumer ratio, and with it, the beauty industry has grown particularly prevalent in developed regions of the world. Some may attribute this to the release of television in the 1920’s and with it, the ability to spread information, news and advertisements faster and more efficiently than ever before.

As the population rises, so does the demand for food, clothing, housing and also for more menial possessions such as beauty products that are not a necessity, but are wanted for equally nonetheless. This leads to the conclusion that we, as a more privileged society value looking presentable and acceptable when in public (speaking for the majority of people, though not all of course).

Based on this conclusion, we can assume that the Beauty industry are using these factors of modern day society and social behaviour to their full advantage, both to grow and improve the industry, as well as the media surrounding it, proceeding to stem this media outbreak to a wider audience across the world.

This leaves us with the following questions: Who is the beauty industry aimed at and is it effecting others outside of their target audience?  What is in fact their aim? And why do us citizens, female in particularly rely so heavily on this vastly expanding industry as our source of ‘beauty’? That being said, do any of us even know the definition of true beauty.

Humans, by nature, automatically conclude that if an individual has a certain characteristic then they also possess another characteristic, this is based entirely off of assumptions, not a fact known to the observer but it is something that we do on a daily basis, whether we realise it or not. This is also similar to stereotyping, a word that was originally acquired from it’s use within the printing industry where a printing mould would be nigh impossible to change once cast.

Stereotyping is something that seems to plague our population, particularly for those who dress a certain way, or wear daring makeup as an example. But how would the implication of this subject benefit the Beauty industry? Simple. This industry thrives off of the idea that if one looks a certain way, people will perceive them as such. This is known as a ripple effect that branches its way throughout consumers, and thus, an ideology of how a person should look is born. If the fear of being subject to dogma for not fitting into a certain stereotype lingers in the back of ones mind when getting ready in the morning, then what is reinforcing this feeling in our daily lives? Whether it be the need to blend in or to stand out, without realising we are automatically setting ourselves up for stereotype, making the fear that lead us as a nation to hide our true selves in the first place, the new source of conviction and ideology. “Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self.” – B.R. Ambedkar. This statement captures the truth of our instinctive behaviour, showing our reluctance to ‘join the crowd’, yet when it comes to beauty, we are unconsciously conforming to the mould the industry has set out for us.

As we walk down the street of a shopping district we are bombarded by billboards of beautiful women, baring their artificially airbrushed skin and surgically carved cheekbones at us – this unnatural portrayal of women is constantly before us, and yes, women do exist who have ‘won the genetic lottery’ per se, but parading this level of standards before the 99% of our population who are considered ‘regular’ really isn’t fair in some people’s eyes. The media is great at sending indirect subliminal messages, hinting that this crème makes your skin as flawless as the women you see before you, whilst this lipstick will give you the lips of this lady who’s spent thousands on cosmetic fillers, all the while reinforcing that something about you isn’t good enough, and they can help you change. Our views as consumers are warped by the very media that is selling us the products we value, using unrealistic beauty standards that a very slim portion of the population actually possess to feed us ideas that it is possible to obtain perfection. But on one condition. We must keep buying their products.

Some say that money makes the world go around, this is true in some instances. Instances that involve vastly growing companies who not only manipulate but rely on the social identities of their customers to trick their way to success, using the same subduing techniques to toy with their customer’s inner desires and emotions.

The media surrounding the Beauty industry is vast. Their goal, as with any media: entice potential buyers. This is understandable. Money is their key goal and it’s not that which is shocking in the slightest, it is the method in which they use their media.

The target audience of 99% of everyday cosmetic and makeup companies is women. Why? Because women want to look younger, they want to be pretty and will follow examples set by others they deem as ‘beautiful’ to reach this goal. An example set by the trend of Coco Chanel’s 1930 accidental sun-burning session in the French Riviera – tanning oils were first created as a means of women achieving the same, burnt look as the fashion icon. This collective behaviour is referred to as conformity, “yielding to group pressure” – Crutchfield 1955 and can come in many forms – whether it be persuasion, bullying, criticism or simply the desire to be like someone you admire or look up to. This term is often used to specify an agreement of thoughts via a social majority, be it for acceptance, a desire to be liked or to fit in and feel what the majority consider ‘normal’ or even ‘special’ or ‘different’. Though these are broad terms, everybody puts their own meaning and representations to the words and thus, we all have ideals of what we want to portray ourselves as. This is applied throughout our daily lives, surprisingly or not by the ones we love and who are closest to us who point out our flaws ‘lovingly’ in obedience to their belief of normality which has unbeknownst to them, been influenced by the media surrounding them.

For now we are compiling feelings of imperfection with advertisements and media of women deemed as ‘perfect’, this amounts to optimal influence over a large section of the population as 54% of women between the ages of 18 and 40 are unhappy with themselves, a further 80% admitting that the mirror makes them feel further distaste towards themselves (www.dailymail.co.uk – Most women ‘unhappy with their bodies’). Shocking, no? Either way, the Beauty industry knows the numbers and uses this as marketing information. If 54% of women are uncomfortable with how they look, that’s a market of 17.38 million potential buyers in the UK alone, not counting the women who are confident with themselves but who still want to ‘enhance’ the way they look. The media in charge of getting these companies the business they know is out there only reinforces the the feeling of insecurity by marketing unobtainable beauty standards to the already wounded public.

Some say the Beauty Industry has changed for the better over the past decade. An example of this is the use of models with ‘flaws’ in being signed to high-end agencies and used in prevalent campaigns. These are models with apparent ‘flaws’ such as: “Diandra Forrest – the first albino model to be signed to an elite agency”, “Brunette Moffy – A girl with crossed eyes represented by Storm Management who also represent Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss” and “Winnie Harlow – A model with a rare skin disease named Vitiligo making parts of her skin milky white, whilst other areas remain her natural colour.” (www.bustle.com). There have been mixed responses from the use of these ‘imperfect’ models, some react positively, saying that it’s great that a wider variety of women are being included in mainstream campaigns, whilst some react the opposite way, feeling that their appearance is just a facade by the industry to promote a sense of multitude and hide their strict requirements.

By doing this, they are already setting a standard for what are considered as ‘imperfections’,  It’s almost the same as saying, ‘Hey, you have crossed eyes, they are a flaw. Your Vitiligo is a flaw. Your freckles, a flaw. Your wide hips, a flaw. But we have to represent a wider variety of people, so one in a 7,475,112,438 people with your flaw is going to be represented by us.’ (www.worldometers.info) By pointing people’s unique characteristics out as fault or a blemish, they are creating grounds for more insecurity and standardisation… or empowerment, depending on the individual.

Beauty hasn’t always been the same, and based on our nation of conformity, we have seen many trends come in and out of being throughout our past. The aim of all trends are to improve one’s social identity and physical appearance because we as humans want to be better. But why? The answer to such behaviour is within our DNA. We desire acceptance, compatibility and the ability to ultimately bare a child for a potential mate, but first of all to attract said mate – one of the beauty standards that exposed this concept to the general public in it’s rawest form was the mid 1900’s ideology of women’s beauty. Taking the controversial ideal of raising the population via sexual appeal and introducing it to their audience is a scary prospect, but they did it in a way only the beauty industry knows how – parading women of a certain, healthy (optimum for birthing) body in front of them, announcing it as the ‘new beautiful’. Us as the conforming society we are, caught on within weeks. Using marketing techniques such as the the tag-line ‘don’t let them call you skinny!’ and ‘If you want to be popular… you can’t afford to be SKINNY!’ to assure women this was the way to go, while shaming all of those who possessed a certain, more slender body type. Beauty of post-wartime was arguably directly sexual, flaunting women’s curved hips, pinched waistlines and voluptuous breasts in swimsuits. As expected, the trend was approved and so, women young and old adopted this new ‘attractive body type’ and rosy makeup to entice their potential mates – particularly after the war when the population had dropped some – only to be revived by the resulting baby boom after the soldier’s return. This too could be attributed to the healthy, plumper appearance of women upon their return in comparison to their previous, post famine bodies from rationed food, which is not what one would call the optimal birthing body, or ‘motherly measurements’ as described in a few vintage articles.

A dramatic turn of events occurred when wartimes were over and all had healed, with the arrival of stick thin models such as Twiggy in the Sixties, the look to go for was then dramatically shifted to super skinny, inducing an epidemic of mental illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia to achieve these standards. This reinforces how easily humanity is swayed.

Ashmore, R. D., & Tumia, M. – Sex stereotypes and implicit personality theory

Feminism began post-wartime when women had proved they can work hard, being more than housewives, firmly kicking off in 1963 with the release of Betty Friedan’s best-seller, The Feminine Mystique. From then on everything Beauty was controversial, including the rapid rise of borderline starved models. This period kicked off the foundations of the modern era, things were changing rapidly and from there on, beauty had become a formidable authority of sorts, perhaps governing more effectively over females in our modern era than most authoritarian figures. This brings the question many feminists argue is true – are advertisements indirectly sexual, just as they were over 50 years ago? Even more so, are they sexualising and objectifying and women? Because if this was the case, women would have surely acted upon this by now, rebelling against this concrete cast of beauty expectations. For some, beauty in the form of cosmetics, treatments, surgery and supplements is the only beauty they know – because they have been told their wrinkles are bad, that their skin shouldn’t be ageing, the beauty industry has such a grasp on people that this is the belief. But why do women want to look young?

It seems a reverse psychology attached to youth has developed, the contrast between old and young differs tremendously with age, all in all young girls (between the ages of 11 and 17) want to look older and women between the ages of 25 and onwards want to look younger. Whilst the internet is practically swimming with tips on how to get younger skin (any number of them being potentially dangerous quick fixes or home remedies), only in the recent decade or so has there been a dramatic increase in the amount of videos and how-to’s on how young girls (particularly teenagers) can look older be it for the benefit of getting into a club, buying cigarettes or alcohol, or simply to enhance their own features and blend seamlessly into the adult world. There is even a WikiHow article titled “How to Look Older – Teenage Girls” in which it suggests young girls “Upgrade your hairstyle”, “Try some makeup”, ‘Get your eyebrows done” or “If you are used to covering up, wear slightly more revealing or figure-flattering clothes” All the while claiming things like: “stabbing pieces of metal through your earlobes will do wonders for your apparent age” (www.wikihow.com). I can’t help but notice that most, if not all of these suggestions are shallow, skin deep and quite frankly, not what I’d want my daughter doing at 13. The fact that these things are even out there is a direct link to how both adults and children are effected by the media around them, wanting to look certain ways and change themselves and even their physical bodies in the process.

Who really sees and is influenced by the beauty industry? Though the industry is aiming at the vulnerabilities of young women and adults, like horror movies, children can’t help but happen upon them and thus, be affected by it’s consequence. Due to the media surrounding this industry and complete overexposure of commercials and the like, children cannot hope to be shielded by this stigma carried both by it’s audience and the thing itself.

Children are at the heart of a lot of media effects debates and looking into the angle of beauty from a child’s perspective, it begins very young. So young in fact, that you probably don’t remember the first time you watched a your mother put on her lipstick, played with a Barbie or groomed the hair of your first life-sized doll head. Little do parents realise, their young girls are idealising the unrealistic plastic perfection that is their Moxie Doll, their Bratz Doll or simply their favourite slender, makeup wearing princess from a Disney movie at an extremely young age, exposing them to things that were only made for adult comprehension. As a child it may seem like nothing to them, just harmless fun and games, but the minute they want to start wearing makeup like their mother, pluck their eyebrows like their sister, or wear eye shadow like Elsa from Frozen it can become somewhat of a dangerous ideal to have planted in your head whilst growing up. Children have ever evolving social identities, they are not yet the version of themselves that they will become later in life, and everything they do and experience in life could have an effect on their growth as a human, Implicit personality theory strengthens this once more. Just like a child’s mind cannot comprehend certain meanings or situations, they are also hyper sensitive to external stimuli and will follow examples set by those they idolise and look up to, for example their parents. Common misconceptions and false words can accidentally (or intentionally) become gospel for these undeveloped minds, for example:

. Bulging eyes are a sign of extroversion

. Thick lips means gluttony

. Intellectuals have bigger skulls

. Stretch marks mean your fat, or have once been fat

These are the menial myths us as adults can dismiss easily, creating our judgements in relation to how true each statement is. Children on the other hand, lack the capacity to compare and evaluate truth and fiction, they may tackle one of these statements by asking an adult if this is true, or simply believing it.

This can be translated to the following beauty standards:

. Long eyelashes

. Plump, symmetrical lips

. Straight, white teeth

. Perfect, blemish free skin

If children believe these are the standards of beauty, whether they’ve passively received these messages from the actions of others, or being exposed to media and beauty influenced products, this could potentially create a ripple effect, influencing many of their decisions in later life, especially when it comes to defining their social appearance.

So does the media see their audience as an undifferentiated mass? Why has nothing been done about who sees their campaigns and how it effects viewers? The answer is simple – if you censor it from one social group, you have to censor it from all social groups. This includes children too – if the advertisements are aimed at adults, there would be no point in having these adds in the first place if they don’t reach their target audience, which they wouldn’t be able to if they decided to protect children from the media. There is always the question of whether children are passive viewers or not, but they are learning, evolving and soaking up the world around them, therefore soaking up what the media has to offer too. To start exploring what children make of these advertisements/images and how it may effect their development and innocence would take years. Is the real issue here the parents or the media itself? Have parents abandoned their responsibilities in an age where technology seems to complete many jobs for us? Or are they protecting their child from being “too innocent”, warding off the danger that somebody else’s child will be more up to date than their own? For example, some parents see TV as a bad influence for others apart from themselves, therefore stating their immunity to media effects, though this is not entirely true. They are effected just as much, the only difference is that they possess intellectual capacity to distinguish between reality and the reality the TV offers to them, when the child they are responsible for may only see what they wish to believe as accurate which in turn, effects their behavioural and emotional state.

Be it passive or direct, the beauty industry has influence upon many platforms, even in children’s marketing, but even this widely recognised and well established industry has an ugly side, and when it bares it’s teeth at the unsuspecting consumer, things can get far from beautiful. There was a time where popular media sought to lift our spirits, though this has worn away over time, replaced by the manipulative content we see today that aids in the art of stereotyping. But this can be argued as a normal cognitive process because we, as intelligent Homo sapiens, make assumptions based on instinct much like our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism in our brains.

According to Bruner and Tagiuri (1954), our perception of others is not based on what those others are really like, but our own general theory or expectations about them. We essentially ‘fill in the gaps’ of what we don’t know, based on what we know.

Within the mix of who sees beauty related media, young and developing teenagers who define part of their social identities via the media’s influence are within this category. They have their developing judgements on social media & the media every day through conversation and their own experiences with their personal experimentation with products (Asch, S. E. Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1946). This will soon become a vital part of their social role and identity. Pubescents are often triggered and mentally wounded by the opinions of others, often feeling the group pressure to be ‘approved’ by others and to fit in, the feeling of being different makes some thrive, though for others it only aids in the easy transition from being confident to being insecure. “it may take different forms and be based on motives other than group pressure” – Mann 1969. The idea that something about them must be changed is the basis of this, the fact that they are not adequate is constantly around them and this can be a lot to bear as a teen, and suddenly looking a certain way or altering their appearance becomes the solution they resort to, hiding their discomfort.

Why are children becoming adults faster? They seem to look older and act older, as I’ve covered previously, the rise of ‘beauty gurus’ on sites such as Youtube may be partially the answer as they preach their findings and techniques, all the while hidden behind their own mask of makeup. If putting on makeup eyelashes to keep up your good looks is so much of a hassle, the pros must outweigh the cons, for most this is the feeling of confidence and worthiness to face the world’s assessing gaze but are looks addictive? Whether it be the short burst of dopamine released in the brain upon receiving a compliment connected to one’s appearance, or the feeling of completion while staring at finished makeup in the mirror, this makeup becomes the one thing that’s easily accessible and gives the wearer a sense of superiority or accomplishment.

“our perception is determined by the ecological context in which we exist our religious beliefs, political and social ideologies, ideas about right and wrong, and scientific theories are for the most part defined by the social context in which they occur.” – this is true to a certain extent. For adults, that is. For children and developing teens however, not so much. Having such a heavily influenced upbringing from the beauty industry, to the rise in social media all piles up to ultimately make children want to grow up faster, and as consequence, want adult things too. This pretty much answers the question of ‘is beauty sexualising children?’ Yes, yes it is. In some ways directly, for example the use of 9 year old supermodel Kristina Pimenova in overly sexualised campaigns has been a topic of dispute, quote: “The attention – both positive and negative- is likely to wreak havoc on a child’s psyche” – Mark Shryber Jezebel. In some ways, indirect sexualisation is occurring more frequently, something as simple as wearing makeup can make girls look years older, exposing them to scenes and sexual attention (particularly from older guys thinking they are not their real age) that young, developing women really shouldn’t be exposed to under any circumstances. This side of beauty is seen as inappropriate or even child pornography – but the beauty industry is worth 17 billion and employs 1 million nationwide, so it seems even the more obvious cases of child sexualisation are ignored. The issue here is that industry itself is far too broad and formidable, and the media are unfortunately seen as either enormously powerful or effectively powerless, by some – the grey area in between is what blinds people to the obvious truth. In my opinion humans are impressionable creatures – our minds are easily wavered to think a certain way by external stimuli – take Hitler for example, he brought a nation to it’s knees based on a simple jealousy that resulted in the unlawful slaughter of millions of people. Little do we, as a society realise, but this iron grip already has us, and social media is only propelling it further into our views.

All in all, children and young adults impressionable, they are victims of manipulation, lead by their role models into a society where standards end expectations are already laid out for them, a world far to intricate for them to interpret correctly. The influence of variables such as age, gender and social class undermines any generalisations about children as a homogeneous social group, and therefore overlooks the naivety of their cognitive ability to process meanings and information, leaving them vulnerable to their own subjectivity. Adults and Elderly are no exception to these effects.

So where does beauty end? Where did it begin? What in fact is beauty? In my opinion, nothing is perfect yet everything somehow is in it’s own way, and allowing oneself to become swayed by the imaginary laws of a single industry will do only harm.

Love yourself unconditionally and be happy with the life you are so lucky to have and remember, beauty is subjective. You are not what society has made you. You are you, so treasure the feeling that your one of a kind… a limited edition.

 

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