“As a woman, I’m always thinking if only my ass was a little tighter or my nose was a little smaller my whole life would be different” - international sex symbol, Emily Ratajkowski For both men and women everywhere, the sensation of not looking good enough feels as common to the human experience as breathing and sleeping.  You would think for sex symbols like Ratajkowski this wouldn’t be true, but as she writes in her 2021 memoir My Body, we learn this simply isn’t the case. Particularly in the social media age, these types of insecurities have only grown to be more widespread. Statistics are all over the place on body image issues, which makes sense due to the various sample sizes of studies and surveys. However, studies have revealed that 90% of both men AND women express at least some dissatisfaction with their body.  Even if those figures are too high, with the skyrocketing influence of the modern beauty standard insecurity has become like an infectious disease.  From an early age, we're conditioned into believing what we should look like. The athletic and v-shaped physique has provoked struggles for men with physical appearance, weight, muscle tone and size. And for women, the supermodel look and hourglass figure have created intense self-criticism over facial features, body shape, boob size and butt shape. With dollar signs in their eyes, companies and marketers often capitalize off our insecurities, further perpetuating body image issues. As a result, the plastic surgery industry is now valued at $50 billion, the weight loss industry at $72 billion and personal care/beauty at $558 billion. But we must ask, where did body image issues originate from? Whether subtle or not-so-subtle, how can we be aware of the creative ways that these toxic narratives influence us? 


Before we discuss any particular medium that influences body image issues, it’s important to be aware of the underlying science at play. First identified in a study done by Villanova University in 1977, the illusory truth effect describes how when we hear the same false information repeated again and again, we often come to believe it is true. One cognitive research journal explains, “Repeated information is often perceived as more truthful than new information...and it helps explain why advertisements and propaganda work, and also why people believe fake news to be true.” As we talked about in our feature on the cultural beauty standard, the illusory truth effect has been at work for decades as it relates to body image. Like fake news, it has subtly molded us into believing how our bodies should look and the type of bodies we should want to be with. Even when it comes to what we find to be sexually attractive, this too is learned. Renowned sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski, who has taught at Harvard on human sexuality, gives us the scoop in her book Come As You Are “The process of learning what is sexually relevant…works sort of like learning a language. We’re all born with the innate capacity to learn any human language, but we don’t learn a random language, right?”

Our body image issues might lead us to believe that this person or that person would never be attracted to us, but this would be a scientific falsehood. Humans aren’t programmed to be attracted to the athletic, v-shaped physique or the hourglass figure.

Our culture taught us this. When we are repetitively shown a particular body type, with the underlying message this is what sexy looks like, over time that will condition the masses into being attracted to those bodies. Nagoski adds: “You learn the sexual language you’re surrounded by. Just as there are no innate words, there appear to be almost no innate sexual stimuli. What turns us on (or off) is learned from culture.” In fact, we can look back on previous points in history to see the truth in this. During the 15th and 16th century Italian Renaissance, the same fat bodies that are often mocked through modern-day media were actually viewed as the most sexually attractive. Yes, you read that right. As hard as it might be at the moment, these are important truths to keep in mind when painful self-criticism ensues. 


Like many things, the original culprit behind body image issues was advertising. Nicknamed the father of modern-day advertising, here are Edward Bernays’s words in the now-infamous book Propaganda. “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country... We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… in almost every act of our daily lives… we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who pull the wires which control the public mind.” An advertising movement that started in the 1950s with Playboy, print ads, Marilyn Monroe and the Barbie Doll, has now extended through every medium possible.  Look no further than Kinobody, which serves up repetitive ads on YouTube marketing the “superhero” and “movie-star body” looks to men. Or the heavily-documented effect of the billion dollar empire created by Victoria’s Secret and their marketing campaigns. Our individualistic culture teaches us that we are autonomous and have the power to make our own decisions. But Harvard says this isn’t true, stating “people often claim to ignore advertisements, but the messages are getting through on a subconscious level”. When a celebrity (who meets the manufactured beauty ideals) partners with a brand, it can often have double the effect. Author Ben Parr explains the science of this in Captivology “There’s a term for this unique interaction between public figures and the public: the parasocial relationship… a relationship in which one person knows a lot about another person, but the other doesn’t know anything about the first person…we love – or hate – certain figures, especially celebrities, and use them as placeholders for who we are or who we want to be… [we] aspire to be as successful or beautiful as these figures.” Images immediately flood to mind of a young Mark Wahlberg in Calvin Klein underwear ads. Or the highly-sexualized duet between Joe Jonas and Charlotte McKinney for GUESS in 2017. Reality stars and celebrities often take this to another level by capitalizing on their status as beautiful people to launch clothing and beauty brands. As your social media feed is bombarded with images, it further entices you to want to look like them by buying their products. Emily Ratajkowski, quoted at the beginning of this blog, has leveraged her status to successfully promote her lifestyle brand Inamorata since 2017.  In a 2020 interview with Forbes, Ratajowski explains, “We really are able to tailor our launches, categories and the general messaging of the brand to our followers and our customers. What's great about having followers, and people signing up for our email is that we get a lot of data on those customers and their shopping tendencies.” Perhaps there’s no greater example of this than Kylie Jenner, the celeb sex symbol turned businesswoman. The launch of Kylie Cosmetics caused such a craze amongst young women, that some went to great lengths just to buy knock-off versions of the lipstick. In 2019 Netflix covered this phenomenon through the investigative docu-series Broken. In episode 1, consumer Khue Nong remarked, “you see that look and you think, that’s what I have to use. So if you can buy something that says Kylie Lip Kit, it’s a status point. It says something about you. It says that you can afford it and you take your look seriously.” The showrunners add that Kylie often employs scarcity marketing tactics to create an “intense and immediate” feeling amongst consumers. A 2007 Harvard Business Review article explains, “marketers understand that… by using the illusion of scarcity, they can accelerate demand. This false scarcity encourages us to buy sooner and perhaps to buy more than normal.” So how can we successfully defend ourselves against the advertising tactics that only fuel body image issues? Author John Mark Comer says it best, “recognize advertising for what it is – propaganda. Call out the lie.” Every time you see an ad, put your critical thinking cap on and acknowledge what it’s really  trying to communicate to you. This could simply be the shredded dude on the wall at SoulCycle or it could be the swimwear ad that pops up on your Instagram feed. “See that ad for a new Volvo? The model couple driving off into the Norwegian fjord? Ha Good one. As if buying that car will make us look like models. The truth is…” Comer adds. This will take practice initially, but over time will become second nature.


The underlying messaging employed by the TV and film industries can be even more subliminal than advertising, if only because of the narrative structure. In chapter 6 of her book What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat, author Aubrey Gordon covers this extensively. “For my whole, short life, bodies like mine have been presented on camera with disdain, disgust, lurid curiosity. Bodies like mine had been used to elicit laughter, revulsion, pity and inspiration. Whether on the evening news or a late-night infomercial, in a family drama or rollicking comedy, bodies like mine were rarely full people.” Gordon’s comments might come across as extreme, but they’re 100% spot-on. The way that bigger folks are portrayed on-screen is often predictable and one-dimensional, with their weight such an integral part of the narrative.

“Scripted television and movies frequently present fat bodies as punchlines. Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson have made careers out of their strong comedic acting skill, yes, and also out of the scripts that overwhelmingly call for slapstick humiliation.”

With example after example after example, Gordon masterfully deconstructs how countless films and TV shows not only contribute to body image issues, but to fat stigma. Five subliminal narratives often being communicated are:
    1. Fat people aren’t worthy of lead roles, at least not lead roles that at some point don’t address their fatness.
    2. Becoming thin is the goal and the only way to start living a real, full, human life.
    3. All fatness is shameful moral failing and fat people who stay fat deserve to be mocked.
    4. All attraction to fat people must be a fetish, otherwise it’s categorically inconceivable. 
    5. Fat people’s bodies determine their story, not their character, experiences or complexities of being human.
 Of course, not every TV show and film communicates each one of these things simultaneously, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice these underlying themes. On the flipside, the way the beauty standard is subliminally communicated to the wider audience is just as influential. You see it in plot lines, such as the 2010 romcom She's Out of My League, where the tagline is literally, “How can a 10 go for a 5?” You see it in the choices for the lead roles of Marvel superheroes, namely Chris Evans as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. The cameras only rolled once they both possessed the v-shape physique we discussed earlier, put on display with now infamous shirtless scenes. Even when Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd were cast in lead roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they did not maintain their previous body types, as they too worked vigorously to build out the v-shape physique. Superheroes must always be shredded. The scenes in which stars of these movies strip are often conveniently placed and unassuming. Take Alice Eve in the 2013 film Star Trek Into The Darkness for instance. She randomly appears in her underwear in front of Chris Pine’s character, in a scene that had nothing to do with the plot. Eve said she “worked with a trainer to be fit for” the scene.  Screenwriter Damon Lindelof later acknowledged on social media that, “I copped to the fact that we should have done a better job of not being gratuitous in our representation of a barely clothed actress.” Like the dysfunctional fat narratives that play out through TV and film, there is an endless amount of subliminal messaging when it comes to portraying what beauty looks like. But in other instances, the messaging is not so subliminal. Despite the rise of the body positivity movement, there is no shortage of TV shows like Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle or ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. To be contestants on these shows, it is assumed that you have to look a particular way. The very premise of Too Hot to Handle assumes that some body types are so sexually irresistible, that contestants would be willing to forgo hundreds of thousands of dollars to have sex with those body types.  When these types of narratives are baked into the plot, often in such addicting ways, it communicates to us that this is how life is. It can often create an immediate sense of insecurity, perpetuating body image issues, as we think I don't look like that or I'll never look like that As we defend ourselves against film and television, it’s not a matter of simply calling out the lie like with advertising. This would be a mental marathon that is prolonged for an hour or two as we watch the show, effectively taking any enjoyment out of watching it. To avoid further inciting body image issues, we’ll have to put guardrails in place and deliberately choose not to watch certain TV shows or films. Even in good fun, we must resist the temptation. In our highly indulgent culture, this might sound restricting, but it actually brings freedom. It actually helps restore a positive sense of body image. One of Jesus’s original followers, Paul, says: “Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.” In other words, you certainly could watch anything and everything, but that doesn’t mean those shows will bring you any sort of benefit.


The next medium up on our list creates body image issues through what we hear (in lyrics) and what we see (through music videos).  In 2017, Ed Sheeran put out “Shape of You”, which is Spotify’s no. 1 streamed song of all-time, with over 3.5 billion listens. Here’s part of the hook: I'm in love with your bodyEvery day discovering something brand newI'm in love with the shape of you The music video has been watched over 5 billion times, which features the slender dancer and model Jennie Pegouskie. Writer Amanda Brooks said of the song: “Young girls are taught that they will only be worthy if their looks match the extremely high and specific standards portrayed in [the] media. It is an insidious process, but it becomes so ingrained in girls’ heads that when they grow up, they don’t realize why they feel the need to look pretty and have a toned body; it becomes the norm.” In the lyrics and music videos of hip-hop stars, the manufactured beauty standard has been fully on display for decades. In nearly every one of Drake’s music videos, there is at least one model.  His number one hit in the fall of 2021, “Way 2 Sexy”, featured models Stephanie Hikaru and Gallienne Nabila. “Hotline Bling”, Drake’s 2015 classic, features models Portia Jenkins, Ravie Loso, Damaris Lopez and Winny Munoz. The music video has nearly 2 billion views. What’s unique about music videos as opposed to many of the subliminal messaging in TV and film is the glorification of men who surround themselves with models. As we reflect back on the illusory truth effect, decades of music videos have conditioned women to believe they should look a certain way, but have also coached men on the women they should pursue.  It’s a modern-day expose on the Hugh Hefner playbook we discussed in our feature on the cultural beauty standard. In fact, Ratajkowski’s rise to fame actually came as the result of being a barely clothed woman in Robin Thicke’s 2013 music video “Blurred Lines”.  In her memoir My Body, she revealed:  “I had several clients who booked me regularly for what my body did for their products. I remember coming out of a dressing room in a lingerie set and one female client remarking that it was “hard to find girls that are so skinny and can also fill out a bra.” My cup size was a valuable and rare asset, one that translated directly to higher paying jobs.” This ugly reality not only creates more body image issues, but helps facilitate a power dynamic between men and women. Here, it’s not hard to see how movements like #MeToo develop.  As with film and television, the primary way we can fight against the body image issues here is by not supporting certain music. You may think that it doesn’t make much of an impact to not watch a music video or listen to a song, but movements start in the margins. Lasting change is created when we collectively join forces together, one-by-one and pull the rug out from systems that are continuing to create body image issues.


Perhaps the most talked about offender of body image issues is social media. By our estimation, social media is problematic for body image in more ways than one. Firstly, social media has made it easy for anyone to become an influencer. 100 years ago, parasocial relationships were extremely limited. Television, film and music then created a select few who became the fascination of many. But now, relative unknowns are gaining fame as influencers, if for no other reason than posting semi-nude images of themselves. People click and follow these accounts, which then floods their feed with more sexually explicit content (see: Instagram algorithm), thereby stoking the flames of their culturally conditioned sexual stimuli.  This creates what renowned sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski calls, “an unconscious goal to confirm to the expected ideal.” It increases insecurity and self-criticism, fueling body image issues. There are now thousands of sexually-explicit accounts on Instagram that have upwards of a million followers.  And it’s not just women doing this. Men are also starting to utilize their v-shaped physiques for a similar effect. Harry Jowsey, one of the stars of Too Hot to Handle, went from virtually no followers to 4.4 million in just two years.  This, of course, isn’t intended to be a judgment on the people behind these accounts. They too are products of their environment. Like us, they are simply playing into a system that teaches them how to leverage their looks to increase social status.  Social media has also made it possible for the Hugh Hefner lifestyle to be glorified. Look no further than social media influencer Dan Bilzerian. Surrounded by half-naked women, he promotes the same type of status-building lifestyle that Hefner made popular in the 1950s. As men look on in envy, Bilzerian’s following has skyrocketed to 32.6 million followers and his Instagram account ranks among the top 130 in the world.  At this point in the conversation, it’s important to circle back to the comments from Harvard, in which we learned that merely seeing these images and advertising has an effect on a subconscious level. This creates the nasty side effects of comparison culture, in which we are constantly judging ourselves against ideals that are manufactured products of our society. The primary way we can protect ourselves is to start unfollowing all of the influencer accounts that are flooding our feeds with product advertisements and half-naked photos. That includes models, famous people and reality TV stars.  Every time you see a post from them, more body image issues are created. Even if we don’t feel it at the moment. Even if it’s on a subconscious level. And every time we interact with those posts, social media algorithms then serve us more posts like them. You could refer to this process as sanitizing your social media accounts. But you might also want to consider fasting from social media for periods of time. Maybe that’s a day. Or a few days. Or a week. Or a month. As hard as that might be initially, you’ll find it to be incredibly refreshing.


The last offender is heavily dependent upon the first four. And it only ranks on this list because of the 24/7 accessibility it gives you to mediums that create body image issues. 100 years ago, it was relatively difficult to come across any sort of medium frequently that would cause body image issues. 70 years ago, you’d have to flip open a magazine, turn on your analog television and go to the theater. Much easier access, but still requires effort. Now, we can be exposed everywhere and anywhere. Just with a simple tap, TikTok or Instagram can be opened up and we’re flooded with a cascade of images that would have been unimaginable at any other point in human history. That’s not to say that all of the things we access on our smartphones are problematic, of course. But this is a blog about body image and the ease-of-access is undoubtedly one of the reasons our culture has body image issues at large.


So what are we to do then? Never watch another movie or television show? Be done with music? Buy a dumbphone and get off social media? The mind naturally runs to extremes, but we don’t have to throw away some of the things we love just to get away from the narratives that are negatively influencing us. We just need to get smarter about putting boundaries in place. None of these mediums are inherently bad. Television, film and music are beautiful art forms. Smartphones and social media can be helpful tools, in the right context. The issue is that all of these highly influential mediums have been hijacked to push certain beauty standards and it’s caused widespread body image issues within many of us.  To get started on your healing journey, go back and read some of the action points we put at the end of each section. Additionally, we’ve created a battleplan for you to start building healthy boundaries. For more on body image, click here to visit our Body Image Hub.


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