As you flip through channels on the television, look through a magazine, or search the Internet, it is impossible to escape the images of beautiful, perfectly sculpted, and most importantly, thin models. According to Chatterjeee (2014), the models that we see in the media are taking advantage of all of the features that we find most attractive. We find attractive faces to be those that are symmetrical, statistically averaged, and sexual dimorphic (or containing physical features that are different based on gender).
For dolls like Barbie and Ken, we look at them and see all three of these features. Barbie has a symmetric face and it contains all of the features we expect to see in a beautiful woman: large eyes, thin eyebrows, big forehead, full lips, small nose and chin, high cheekbones, and then of course, there’s here perfectly sculpted body. She has symmetric, firm, up-tilting breasts, and an hourglass waist, all of which imply fertility. While Ken is just as symmetric as Barbie, he displays all of the attractive male characteristics: a square jaw, thin cheeks, heavy brow, tall frame with a V-shaped torso involving broad shoulders and narrow hips. These features are even further emphasized in these dolls, as they are often emphasized in models through computer editing. This exaggeration is a good example of the “peak shift” effect, in which you would have a normal response to these exaggerated features often emphasized in models.
These models, who tend to have unattainable bodies, permeate all parts of our daily lives and often play into the way we view ourselves in comparison to those around us. For many individuals, this constant comparison with what we have come to view as beautiful, results in body dissatisfaction. Some people have more intense distortions than others, as they tend to fixate on a perceived flaw. This distorted view felt by people suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is due to an abnormal processing of visual details (Schmidt, 2007).
An estimated 2 percent of the population has BDD and within that, approximately 30 percent suffer from eating disorders. For these people, the left side of their brain, which is important for complex detail, is used more causing them to focus intently on small details and allowing them to imagine flaws or abnormalities in their appearance (Schmidt, 2007). In fact, BDD patients even use the left side of the brain to process photos that have been blurred to get rid of facial details including freckles, wrinkles, and scars (Schmidt, 2007). This attention to detail results in the desire to change things about their bodies through plastic surgery, or for those with eating disorders, through strongly regulating their diet or purging themselves following intake of foods.
For many people with eating disorders, regulating their diets is a way to control their lives. The fear of obesity has also been a big influence on the emergence of eating disorders. Since junk foods work on our opiod, cannabinoid, and dopamine receptors, its easy to become addicted to overeating these unhealthy foods (Chatterjee, 2014). As a way to avoid becoming overweight, kids can become obsessed with diets, which could ultimately lead to BDD and/or an eating disorder. As the number of children with eating disorders has increased 119% between 1999 and 2006, the impact of the media has become increasingly noticeable (Harb, 2012). According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 69% of American elementary school girls say the pictures in magazines influence their ideal body shape and 47% say those pictures make them want to lose weight. Therefore, the recent changes in French legislation have been monumental in the movement towards improving body image.
In December of this past year, the French passed a new law, which states that super-thin models require a doctor’s certificate to confirm that they are of a healthy weight. The law also states that in advertisements where the bodies of models are altered must be labeled as “photograph edited” (McKenzie, 2015). Although the bill cannot fix what goes on in a BDD patient’s brain, it can influence what we see as being attractive in the bodies around us. Therefore, the new bill will hopefully allow France to move towards more healthy and attainable body ideals while setting a better example for the rest of the world.
Chatterjee, A. (2014). The Aesthetic Brain, 6-23. New York: Oxford University Press.