The comparison trap

“I could never look like that.” –A million teen aged girls

A dangerous reality in Western civilization is the temptation of young girls to compare themselves to the sexualized airbrushed images of models, singers and actors. The “new normal” has a brutal effect on the average girl who does not have a troop of stylists focusing solely on her for hours each morning.

Even tempered viewing of commercials finds immodestly dressed women in dreams (KIA), in grocery stores (beer), in courtrooms (GoDaddy), as cars (Fiat), eating burgers (Hardee’s) and–GASP–as angels (Victoria’s Secret…is out).

Eileen Zurbriggen, former chair of the American Psychiatric Association, said in 2007:

The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development. We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development.

I’m no psychiatrist, but I think her use of “likely” deserves an award for understatement.

Former Olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, recently endured tabloid abuse after a weight gain. Admitting she had long battled image issues, Johnson said:

I was at the Olympic Games winning medals and I still doubted my image. I doubted what I looked like. That’s sad. Girls should be taught different than that.

One Canadian mom, while assisting her son on a research project, noticed all the changes, touch-ups and “improvements” made on ads. She said:

In a typical retouched photo faces are slimmed, eyes and teeth whitened, all lines, freckles, blemishes, veins, and I might add character, are removed from the visible skin. It is then darkened or lightened and often given a more often glow or sheen. Bodies are reshaped, usually to be slimmer, sometimes to be curvier, and in the case of men, to add muscle definition. Hair can be made longer, thicker shinier and of course the colour can be changed, as with the colour of eyes and skin tone. Noses can be thinned, eyes spaced wider apart, necks elongated. We don’t see most celebrities portrayed as they really look.

As soon as photo editing software is used no longer are we looking at photography but manipulation. The finished products are not pictures; they are artists’ renderings. The “models” are no longer models. They are barely caricatures; more like cartoons.

The concerns have become so prevalent at least one group is pushing to have photos labelled if they have been Photoshopped or altered.

I remember as a young adult seeing a magazine article with a bunch of “without make-up” pictures. On one side would be a certain celeb as she appeared on a cd cover or in a movie or ad. On the other side would be the picture without make-up, or after a long day in the yard or their mugshot. Whichever, the point was to be unflattering…and thoroughly realistic. To say it was revealing would not begin to cover it. My initial reaction (toward a now unremembered super model) was, “Good grief! She’s ugly!” It was then I realized how much was done to make a normal–or even unattractive–person conform to the societal expectation of beauty.Bathroom with no mirror

We need here to avoid two problematic cliches (“Beauty is only skin deep.” and “She’s beautiful on the inside.”) as they provide no help to the issue. The first insinuates there is no inner beauty while the second insinuates some girls or women have no outer beauty. Both of these are shallow and wrong. There is outer beauty, and every girl possesses some strand of it. There is inner beauty, and some girls possess little if any of it. There are those, as a former co-worker once said, who are “Vogue on the outside and vague on the inside.”

While Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 10:12 do not address the issue of “industrialized beauty,” a helpful principle can be gleaned from his words:

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. (NIV)

God makes it clear He personally has a hand in our development giving us a reason for gratitude and wonder.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Ps. 139:14-16, ESV)

Those who are Christ followers have been redeemed from the need of comparison. Scripture teaches that we are “in Christ” and “accepted in the beloved” (Jesus). If God has accepted me because of Jesus Christ, why should I despair if someone else has straighter teeth, thicker hair or bigger biceps than me?

I would encourage any pre-teen or teen girl (or adult woman) to reject both the idealization and objectification of the female image. There is no perfect woman (either in looks or substance), nor is there an ideal woman toward which you all should strive. And, rather than falling for that trap, Christ following women should speak against the expectation that enough botox, foundation, mousse, helium or fake butt-cheeks can make one beautiful. Take care lest you end up a Frankenstein’s monster due to beauty blindness.

(The idea of the Proverbs 31 woman being “the ideal woman,” though popular, is not biblical. The Bible says she is virtuous rather than ideal, a word meaning strong, able, and efficient. I am not sure where ideal worked its way into usage, but I suspect a Bible translator who was thinking on his future wife. ;^)

What follows are two projects from Unilever acting on behalf of the Dove Self Esteem Fund. (Another term used is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty which “celebrate[s] the natural physical variation embodied by all women and inspire them to have the confidence to be comfortable with themselves.”) Following its 2006 release, the first video garnered an award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Evolution is a 2006 ad featuring cartoonist and producer Stephanie Betts. (She is pictured at right from a news story at Youth Media Alliance.)

stephanie betts dove evolution

Stephanie Betts

As she enters the frame it is apparent she is a normal looking woman who is not wearing make-up and who has not arranged her hair. This is intentional as the remaining 60 or so seconds vividly highlight “processed beauty.” It is at once illuminating and sickening.

Warning: Contains numerous sexualized, objectifying, degrading images commonly used in advertising. It is necessarily shocking. Parents be aware: the more your child watches TV, movies and accesses the internet, the more of these unfiltered images she (and he) will see.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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