Physically Photoshopping Ourselves Out of Reality

When the digital world of female faces and bodies looks nothing like the natural world, is it any wonder that women have turned to physical alteration to meet the unreal standards? The possibility of achieving unnatural ideals through enhancements, procedures and products is a game-changer for what women today are capable of looking like. But what about their daughters, students and coworkers? What will their own  “flawed” forms look like in comparison to that manipulated reality? With our own game-changing suggestions, we see an opportunity for a much more beautiful future.

You’ve heard about the epidemic of digital manipulation across media. Photoshopping, or other forms of image manipulation, is now an all-out media industry standard according to the likes of women’s magazine editors across the country (one of the most dangerous offenders). Plus, more than 60 percent of girls today admit to Photoshopping their OWN photos on their social networks. But this isn’t just a problem with print images.  This is a problem with our own self-images and our own actual appearances. Henry Farid, a Dartmouth Professor who specializes in digital forensics, put it quite succinctly: “The more and more we use this editing, the higher and higher the bar goes. They’re creating things that are physically impossible. We’re seeing really radical digital plastic surgery…big breasts, tiny waist, ridiculously long legs, elongated neck. All the body fat is removed, all the wrinkles are removed, the skin is smoothed out.” But you don’t have to be a professor to see this impossibly high bar being raised higher by the minute.

These billions of images of women in media far outnumber the females we could ever see eye to eye, and that reinforces a distorted idea of what we should like. Not even just what it takes to be the most desirable or beautiful – but what a regular, normal, average woman looks like. And we act out these distorted ideals of normal and attainable in very real ways – in our daily beauty endeavors and our beauty plans. Some of these examples may seem like a bit of a stretch, but consider them as strategies we use to take the unreal ideals we see in a lifetime of media use and impose them upon our own bodies to try to attain the reality we see mediated to us. Some of these examples may be part of your life or your plans for your life and others may not, but all of them represent the ways we quite literally physically “Photoshop” ourselves out of reality:

  • Cosmetic surgery: breast augmentation, liposuction, body contouring, lifts, tucks
  • Botox
  • Diet Pills
  • Tanning or skin lightening
  • Collagen facial fillers and lip injections
  • Lash extensions and prescriptions
  • Pore minimizing makeup and skin care
  • Anti-aging creams, lotions, gels
  • Laser hair removal
  • Tattooed makeup
  • Anti-cellulite procedures
  • Teeth whitening

We can’t help but imagine how different our world looked just a decade or two ago – not just in terms of what women in media looked like when digital manipulation was only science fiction – but what women in real life looked like. Cosmetic surgery was nearly non-existent. In just the last decade, there was a 446 percent increase in cosmetic procedures (namely liposuction and breast enhancement) in the U.S., which raked in $12 billion in 2010 alone. Tanning beds were hard to find and extra pricey when found. Laser hair removal was non-existent. Tattooed makeup like eyeliner and lip liner was unheard of. Collagen lip injections and facial fillers hadn’t yet seen the light of day. Lash lengthening prescriptions weren’t conceived of, anti-cellulite procedures and gels weren’t on the market, teeth whitening wasn’t an everyday activity, pore-minimizing and anti-aging products were marketed by very few. Armpit beautifying lotion would have been laughable, as would butt-shaping shoes (especially for 8-year-old girls, but thankfully Skechers has filled that hole in the industry!).

Women inevitably looked different back then. Today, we see women presented to us all hours of the day in every form of media that do not look like women 20 years ago OR women you see face to face. And yet, over time, many of us come to hold ourselves to that unattainable standard that appears so normal and unquestioned as we physically Photoshop ourselves out of reality.

What does our world look like for little girls growing up today? What about for women growing older in a world that looks radically different than it did when they grew up? And how much pain, energy and time will they have to put into physically Photoshopping themselves out of reality? To be sure, it doesn’t come naturally. Each year, women put hundreds of billions of dollars into the latest procedures, products and prescriptions to try to reach that “bar” the wide world of media is raising.

But we raise that bar for ourselves and our daughters when we take part in our own physical Photoshopping. We raise that bar for females everywhere when we physically manipulate ourselves in attempts to meet a profit-driven standard that is inherently unattainable.

The line is different for every woman, and no woman should be shamed or blamed for how she chooses to enact “beauty.” We’re in this fight together! These messages telling us we are not worthy of love, happiness or success unless we are unattainably beautiful, thin, and sexually desirable are lies, but they are powerful. To the girls and women reading this: If beauty hurts, we’re doing it wrong. (In the U.S., we got this statement on billboards as a much-needed reminder!) We grasp the reality of our beauty when we begin to see ourselves for what our beauty really entails, and not what industries would have us believe: scars from years of playing, freckles from the sun, wrinkles from smiling and laughing and living, cheerfulness in spite of trials, selflessness
when there are so many reasons to turn inward, musical gifts, the ability to solve math problems with ease, the ways we join together with other women instead of gossip and judge, the time and care we offer our families and friends, and the list goes on and on and on.

We are in the midst of a beautiful reality that is ours once we recognize it and grasp hold of it. And studies show that when we can learn to love ourselves – despite the beauty ideals we are surrounded by and cannot obtain – it shows! Recent studies show us that girls who don’t like their bodies or appreciate them – regardless of their actual appearance – become more sedentary over time and pay less attention to having a healthy diet. And that makes sense. If you think you’re gross and worthless, why would you take care of yourself?

On the flipside of that study, research has found that girls who feel good about themselves and respect their bodies – regardless of what they look like – are more likely to be physically active and eat healthy. They are less likely to gain unnecessary weight and they make healthy lifestyle choices far into the future. How we think about our bodies and our beauty has everything to do with how we treat ourselves. When we can learn to love and respect ourselves, regardless of how our bodies appear, it shows! We must learn this now and we must begin to teach the little girls in our lives how beautiful their realities are and can always be.

Here’s an outrageous idea: What would happen if confident, happy, beautiful women decided to forego painful and expensive anti-aging procedures, breast lifts and enhancements, liposuction, all over hair removal or tanning regimens? How could that change the way their daughters, students, friends, nieces and coworkers perceived themselves and their own “flawed,” lined, real faces? Their own varied-looking and perfectly functional breasts, behinds, thighs, arms and abs? How could simply owning and (treating kindly and speaking nicely about) our so-called “imperfect” bodies affect not only our own lives, but those over whom we have influence? Is it possible to slowly but deliberately change the perception of these “flaws” as something to shame, hide and fix at any cost to something acceptable and embraceable in all their human, womanly real-ness? We say yes.

What if we stopped Photoshopping or altering our own photos to fit unreal ideals, including family portraits and even kids’ school photos, which are now sold in packages that include blemish removal and teeth whitening, among other manipulations of reality? What if we stopped imposing our current perceptions of beauty and flawlessness on our own families in this small way, and allowed pictures to capture what we really look like — even in those awkward adolescent years? Don’t we want our posterity to see our reality, instead of a manipulated version of what we thought we or our children should look like in order to be acceptable?

Yes, maybe all the other girls at school are getting the Photoshopped school photo package. And yes, maybe every 55-year-old woman on TV or movies has a wrinkle-free, perfectly injected and lifted face that appears ageless. But when I look at my own mom, who I’ve never doubted is incredibly beautiful, and I see her very real face with very natural smile lines, it makes me feel OK about the newly appearing creases around my own eyes. My first thought isn’t how unnatural and unacceptable those lines are and how quick I can start my first round of Botox. It’s that they’re OK. They’re normal. They don’t detract from me. They make me ME. 

My mom doesn’t need injections in her face to fix anything or make her more beautiful, and I don’t either. But if she ever decides to, I would understand. The pressure to Photoshop ourselves into hopeful conformity with beauty ideals is intense, and backlash against female aging is unbelievable. At 28, I frankly don’t yet grasp the real pain and anxiety that undoubtedly accompanies aging and its effects on female faces and bodies that become invisible and worthless in some ways to a society that prizes youthful beauty over all else.

But if my mom doesn’t succumb to the pressure to change her physical reality and, in turn, my own reality of what women’s faces and bodies can look like and should look like, I will be forever grateful. My own smile lines will show it. In turn, I will proudly show my future children, nieces, nephews, or students my un-altered middle school photos, bushy eyebrows and all. Let’s preserve our beautiful reality for ourselves and for the future generations (inlcuding those growing up today) who deserve to see what’s real, rather than the ideals we chose to embrace digitally and physically.

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

Pageants, Dance, Cheerleading, and Sexual Objectification: It’s Nothing to Cheer About.

If you are female or care about anyone who is, here are a few fun facts we all need to know now:

  • Sexual objectification takes place when girls and women are viewed primarily as objects to be used and looked at.  
  • Environments where women are required, often by a uniform, to reveal and emphasize their bodies are sexually objectifying.
  • Sexually objectifying environments and activities often result in the participants experiencing high levels of self-objectification.
  • Self-objectification happens when females evaluate and control their bodies more in terms of their sexual desirability to others than in terms of their own desires, health, or competence. They live to be looked at.
  • Self-objectification is REALLY bad. It stunts female progress and happiness in every way.  It leads to disordered eating, diminished mental and athletic performance, anxiety, depression, body hatred, etc., and these negative consequences occur among girls and women of all ethnicities.*

So what does all this have to do with the title of the post?! Well here’s the thing.

Miss World Greece 2012

Sexual objectification appears normal and natural when we believe our looks and sex appeal are the best/only thing we can bring to the table. Beauty Redefined is all about fighting for girls and women everywhere to recognize we are capable of much more than looking hot in a profit-driven world begging us to believe our bodies are all we’ve got to offer.  So it’s time we called out a couple very normal parts of our culture that might be holding us back from real power, health, and happiness, and keeping us battling epidemic levels of self-objectification. Let’s talk about sexually objectifying activities that often include beauty pageants, cheerleading, and competitive dance teams. Moms sign daughters up for these activities and participants opt into these them for fun, empowerment, and to show off their awesome skills. But research confirms the sexually objectifying nature of some of these activities is not empowering and triggers the negative consequences of self-objectification in too many participants. 

Before you get mad at bR for dissing your activity of choice, please know this:

We aren’t here to shame or blame anyone for what they participate in. We are trying to shed light on activities in which many girls and women take part that may be sexually objectifying, triggering of self-objectification, and thus, harmful to the health and well being of those participants. We’re fighting FOR your happiness – not against it!

Your pageant, cheerleading or dance team might not be sexually objectifying. You can decide whether it is or not by answering three simple questions:

Is the sport or activity pretty much a ladies-only deal with spectators of either gender? If girls and women are the vast majority of participants and/or you can’t imagine men doing the same thing, your answer is “yes.” If so, simply move on to the next question. If you answer “no,” try the next question just to make sure.

Does the sport or activity require female participants to wear uniforms that reveal and emphasize their bodies because the way their bodies look is the main focus?  If your answer is “no,” you’re good to go! This activity is not, at surface level, sexually objectifying. If your answer is “it depends on what you mean by ‘revealing and emphasizing,’” or “yes,” proceed to the next question.

If male participants are/were allowed, would their uniforms require the same amount of revealing attire that emphasizes the body?

For cheerleading teams, if you’ve got a co-ed team but the guys are wearing baggy pants and shirts while the girls are wearing bra tops, skirts, and a whole lot of bloomers, it might be sexually objectifying. It’s OK to come back with the argument “We need to have a lot of give in our uniforms when doing high kicks and splits!” But it doesn’t change the fact that there are lots of things to wear to do kicks and splits and guys would never be required to wear that to do the same job. Karate, MMA, and kickboxing participants kick a lot and they get pants!!

For beauty pageants, that answer is usually pretty clear. If the pageant requires a “fitness” competition that demands you strut your stuff in heels and a bikini or one-piece suit, men would never, ever be required to do that with a straight face. Even just wearing those painful heels alone is a crazy thing to ask of them. As Elizabeth Plank put it, “Why is that in 2013, the largest benefactor of scholarships to women judges its recipients based on how hot they look in a bikini? It would be ludicrous to televise men strutting their stuff on stage in speedos for college money, right?”

For competitive dance teams, again, the answer is pretty evident. If guys are on your team or were allowed to join, are they/would they be required to wear a uniform that resembles yours? If you laugh at the thought, it just might be a sexually objectifying activity.

So if there’s a chance the sport or activity you have in mind might be sexually objectifying, the rest of this information will be super helpful to you.  It turns out that our research and that of other awesome scholars reveal that situations that accentuate women’s bodies and encourage them to be viewed by spectators like beauty pageants, cheerleading, ballet, and competitive dance often lead to high levels of self-objectification and distorted body image.** While physical activity and sports in general actually HELP us break FREE from that constant preoccupation with our looks, the sad truth is that too often, aesthetically-focused activities like the ones we’re highlighting today can sometimes do a real disservice to their participants. This may not have been the case in your life or the lives of those you know, but in too many cases, self-objectification is the coping mechanism and outcome of pageants, cheerleading, and dance teams. We share this information so that we can all begin critically reflecting on the messages these activities might be sending about the value of girls and women, the harmful effects of participation in these activities for some females, and how we can limit their negative consequences. 

One obvious reason these very female-centered activities are sexually objectifying and lead to self-objectification is because tight or revealing clothing is required for participation, often in front of spectators. Prichard and Tiggemann (2005) found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants). Strelan and colleagues (2003) found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers (ads, mirrors surrounding them in gym classes, etc.) leads women to self-objectify more. Fredrickson and colleagues (1998) had women try on a swimsuit or a sweater in front of a mirror – alone – and then complete various tests. Swimsuit-wearing women expressed more body shame and performed worse on a math test than did sweater-wearing women. As a follow-up, Fredrickson and Harrison (2005) explored these effects on athletic performance, and found that girls with higher levels of self-objectification performed worse than did those with lower levels, regardless of their actual athletic experience.

No wonder the uniforms required for participation in these events lead to self-objectification and actually HURT our performance! It is 2014 and we are still asking girls and women to wear bikinis and heels in front of judges and an audience to determine their “fitness” levels, which we should all know could NEVER be measured by looking at someone. Ever. We are still requiring that basically the ONLY way will see a woman participate in a college football, basketball, or professional football or basketball game is by wearing knee-high boots, a sparkly bra top, and a little skirt to jump and kick for entertainment when the men – the stars of the show – are using their bodies as something waaaaay more than objects to be looked at. We even require female volleyball players to wear tiny spandex bottoms for no purpose while men get full length, baggy shorts. (We won’t even start on beach volleyball!) What message does that send to little girls in the audience about what it means to be female?

One participant in Lexie’s dissertation research spent years in scholarship pageants: “From ages 17-20, I competed in scholarship pageants. The neat part was that I did win a few and received money for college. The pitfall was that self-objectification became my life. I constantly compared myself to women in media and the pageant. The comparisons became very harmful. I was so paranoid to eat even a piece of candy for fear that my swimsuit competition would be threatened. I didn’t feel well, I wasn’t happy, I didn’t have a normal menstrual period for months, and I constantly told myself ‘I’m not enough.’ I wasn’t diagnosed as anorexic, but it’s scary to realize I was on that track…Even though I did pageants, I would be hesitant to let my own daughter do them unless things change.”

In Lindsay’s dissertation research, study participants overwhelmingly reported physical activities as a way out of body shame. When they talked about physical activity, it was extremely positive and empowering. However, more aesthetically focused activities like cheerleading and dance were associated with negative feelings among participants. The women tended to connect memories of involvement in those activities with instances of body shame and a heightened awareness of body ideals. One brave woman shared her story as follows:

“I grew up dancing and cheerleading.  These are two sports where your body image gets seriously distorted.  I lost a lot of weight in high school.. I did it mostly in a healthy way but was obsessed with exercising.  I would run a few miles before going to dance practice for three hours and then run home. I remember when I started at a new cheerleading club in 8th grade and my mom told me that we should make some changes if I wanted to look like the other girls … I’ve always been very aware of my own body and other people’s bodies… I would say I probably think about it more than average. I don’t know if this is because of media, being in dance and cheer when I was young, or what. I’m just very aware.”

So what do we do?! What if you LOVE dancing or your daughter wants to compete in pageants or you are planning on trying out for a local cheer squad? Here are five options that can help you break free from the halting place of self-objectification and major self-consciousness:

  • Whatever it is you are doing, please remember your reflection does not define your worth, you are capable of much more than looking hot, and you deserve to love and care for yourself. Girls and women who feel OK about their bodies — meaning they aren’t “disgusted” with them like more than half of women today – take better care of themselves. With self-objectification and body shame at epidemic levels, this point is crucial! (van den Berg & Neumark-Sztainer, 2007). We know that encouraging women to love and care for their bodies – whether or not they match media beauty ideals — is one way to help women regain their power in a world that needs them.
  • Choose an activity and/or team with a focus on how your body WORKS instead of just how it LOOKS. Research and real-life experience make clear that sports like soccer, basketball, softball, competitive swimming, and track and field are excellent ways to experience our bodies as instruments instead of just objects. If you are prone to self-objectification or all around self-consciousness about your body, these types of physical activities will help you break free from that bodily prison so you can actually experience life instead of monitor what you look like at all times. 
  • Many companies or schools of dance require their students to participate in mandatory weigh-ins. Ugh. As you can imagine, researchers find this practice creates problems that may contribute to eating disorders and body hatred (i.e., Hamilton, 2002). If you are a coach, please consider removing this harmful and degrading practice from your requirements. If you are a dancer who is subjected to these rules, send your coach this post and ask them to consider their influence on the health and well being of their dancers.
  • If the pageant you are interested in requires participants to strut in a swimsuit so they can be judged on their “fitness,” consider opting out. This type of judgment leads to the opposite of fitness – instead, girls and women starve for months in preparation, they over-exercise to an unhealthy degree, and obsess over the look of their bodies. There are other ways to earn scholarship money, and if you aren’t self-objectifying to such a large degree, you’ll score higher on academic tests, perform better in sports, and feel happier. 
  • The smaller and tighter the uniforms, the more likely you are to get caught up in self-objectification that can negatively affect your performance, your mood, and your health choices. If you are in charge of choosing uniforms, consider the positive effects of something a bit less revealing and emphasizing of your body. Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) suggest that wearing baggy clothing may be a strategy used by women to avoid self-objectification because it allows them to focus on what their bodies can DO instead of just what they look like doing it – ESPECIALLY if you practice in front of a mirror. Self-objectification is the worst. Do whatever it takes to avoid it.

Girls, we love you. It’s time to reject the sexually objectifying situations that appear so normal to us and break free of the self-objectification that kills our happiness, sense of worth, and performance in all sorts of areas. You are capable of much more than looking hot! Go live that truth. It’ll change everything. Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

*Calogero et. al, 2010; Fredrickson, Noll, Roberts, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998; Fredrickson & Harrison, 2005; Fredrickson et. al, 2008; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003; Hebl, King, & Lin, 2004; Impett, Schooler, and Tolman, 2006; Simmons, Rosenberg, & Rosenberg, 1973; Steinberg, 1999; Tiggemann & Lynch, 2001; Quinn, Kallen, Twenge, & Fredrickson, 2006.

** Dotti et al., 2002; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Pierce and Daleng, 1998; Syzmansky, Moffit, & Carr, 2011; Tiggemann & Slater, 2001

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