The concept of beauty in the media

How the media propagates unrealistic body images and beauty standards

Academic Paper, 2015

12 Pages


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Brief History of the Concept of Body

3. The Concept of Beauty

4. Body Shape Ideals
4.1 Body Shape Ideals among Men
4.2 Body Shape Ideals among Women

5. Media Exposure and Body Image Ideals

6. Media Causation and Body Image Perceptions

7. Impossible Standards

8. The Dove ‘Real Beauty Campaign’ and Perceptions of Beauty

9. Organs without Body

10. A Positive Body Image

11. Born Beautiful

12. Conclusion


Body has been understood as a gift, traditionally. Generally a gift is given and accepted and not demanded. Sure, gift once received one may do with it what one likes. In the case of the body-gift usually the tendency is to nurture it for its well-being. One may well not be happy with the shape and size of the gift. The dissatisfaction about the body-gift is caused partly by the images that are being bombarded through various media. As a result body shape ideals are formed both in men and women, nowadays from a very early age. Children in many countries (more so in developed ones) consume media for three to four hours daily on average. The so-called perfect body image standards set by the media are almost impossible to live upto. This can cause low self-esteem in many leading to depression ending up in psychological disorders. Contemporary media’s – especially advertisements – presentation of body almost amounts to “organs without body”. Faciality has become obsolete and a unified vision of body has disappeared. Some individuals (celebrities) and organizations have come forward to counter the unrealistic body-image and beauty standards propagated by the media. Ultimately, one needs to develop (or helped to develop) from childhood a positive body image. For, in fact all are born beautiful because of the substantial beauty flowing from the very beingness of everything.

Key words: Body, Body-image, Beauty, Faciality, Media

1. Introduction

Body is the physical frame of a person. The roots or genes of this frame – for instance, shortness, tallness, thinness, and fatness - are largely inherited. Body goes through various stages of development: from infant to child to adolescent to adult. The stage from infant to child is the most important in so far as this stage determines how body shapes up in the future. In third world countries malnourishment, undernourishment is common, which is a factor which gravely affects the future looks of the body.

On the other hand, some bodies are subjected to forced undernourishment in order to conform to a certain body image received mainly from the media, which percolates easily in the society at large. “Body image is how someone thinks and feels about his or her physical self. It is an important part of self-esteem, which is how you feel about yourself. If you have high self-esteem, you feel really good about yourself. If you have low self-esteem, you probably do not feel good about your body or looks.”1

In our contemporary world media has become the all-pervasive, omnipotent, omnipresent entity. Hence the supposedly perfect body image has been flashed everywhere: magazines, newspapers, television, videogames, laptops, tablets, phablets, smart phones and even smart watches. Both the digital natives and the digital immigrants are glued to some form of screen throughout the day. For instance, US kids spend approximately seven and half hours a day using computers, television, video games, and other media. Many of these children keep shuffling among many forms of media at a time.

Researchers have been curious to know how this constant use of media affects people. One very important focus in this research has been to find out if media influence how children feel about their bodies. Many studies till date have shown that the media do have some bad effects on young people’s body image. The studies conclude that it happens through the following ways: 1) People accept ideas about beauty that they see in the media. 2) They compare themselves to these ideas. 3) They try to change themselves to fit these ideas or they work hard to keep certain weight to look.2 Body image is not a simple issue. The media have an effect and in this paper we would like to delve deeper into ‘Body Image and the Media’.

2. Brief History of the Concept of Body

The limited scope of this paper does not allow us to present a detailed study. Therefore, we shall focus on the views of a few prominent thinkers. Throughout the history of humankind philosophers and anthropologists have been attempting to formulate a clear concept of the body. In his work devoted to the social construction of the body Anthony Synnott outlines major philosophic schools and their views on the subject.3 There have been many theories of the concept of the body; many of them date back to the ancient philosophers.

Plato believed that physical bodies are not true substances rather they are ephemeral, and imperfect copies of the eternal Forms. Plato considered body as a prison for the soul. Body was considered less important and therefore to be shunned in favour of the soul. The soul strives to leave the body in which it is imprisoned. Aristotle rejected Platonic body-soul dualism and spoke of the union of body and soul, the latter being the form of the body. St. Paul envisioned body primarily as a spiritual creation. St. Augustine followed the Platonic version of the concept of body. He sees the body as a manipulative force leading to sinful, irrational acts. St. Thomas Aquinas corrected the Platonic dualistic view of the body and presented an integral vision of human being composed of body and soul. For Aquinas both body and soul was equal in importance. The human being is not something that has a body; it is a body, a living body of a particular kind. Rene Descartes described body as a physical substance, i.e., a machine that functions similar to a clock.

With Renaissance the attitudes to the body underwent significant transformation. The topic of beauty and perfection of human body was given much attention. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Frederick Nietzsche contributed much to this discussion. Darwin said that the body is the constant locus of human evolution and “a person per se is equal to an animal from a biological point of view, just more developed. Marx challenged Darwin’s position, by arguing that it is capitalism that made proletariat into animals, a working machine. Freud believed in unity of body and mind”.4

One of Freud’s contemporaries, Otto Rank, in his book on the Double states that it is in the shadow that the human being sees for the first time his or her own body. According to Wegenstein “the body is at the same time mirror or screen for the images from the outside and the perceptive centre; the body is ‘what takes shape at the centre of perception’”5

In the Bergsonian (of Henry Bergson) notion of the body, the body (and not soul) provides equilibrium, and is therefore the complementary pole to the mind, without which orientation toward the action would never be possible.6

Both Psychoanalysis and Phenomenology “try to separate the subject of the body (the world as perceived through one’s body) from the objectified body (the body as it is perceived by the world) – a distinction between the subject of perception and the socially constructed body, between the psychoanalytical I and the Me”.7

In more recent times, social scientists such as Mary Douglas and Michel Foucault have begun to pay more attention to the body. For, they consider that the body is a social phenomenon and the perception of physical body is inevitably depends on the social body. In contemporary times body is no more regarded as divinely given, but something that can be artificially constructed by plastic surgeons and doctors.

3. The Concept of Beauty

It is through the body, the visible physical form, that beauty is shown forth/manifested. That body is beautiful which is pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘Beauty’ is defined as, ‘A combination of qualities such as shape, colour or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially sight and intellect’ or ‘Denoting something intended to make someone more attractive.’ Beauty has traditionally been counted as one of the ultimate values along with truth, goodness, and justice. It is said that the ancient Greeks were obsessed with the human body and how they could represent it – as a thing of beauty and bearer of meaning. According to a recent BBC video our contemporary idea of the perfect body is largely unchanged from that of the ancient Greeks.8 Ancient Greek thinkers Plato’s account in the Symposium and Plotinus’s in the Enneads connect beauty to a response of love and desire, but locate beauty itself in the realm of the Forms, and the beauty of particular objects in their participation in the Form. Indeed, Plotinus’s account in one of its moments makes beauty a matter of what we might term ‘formedness’: having the definite shape characteristic of the kind of thing the object is.9 Though Plato and Aristotle disagree on what beauty is as on so much else, they both regard it as objective in the sense that it does not depend on the response of the beholder.10 The classical conception treats beauty as a matter of having definite proportions or relations among parts.

St. Thomas Aquinas follows the Greek classical conception of beauty. And integral to St. Thomas’ holistic vision of a human person is his view of beauty. According to him three elements are important to term an object beautiful: Proportion, Integrity and Splendour. Of course, in Thomas’ metaphysical understanding of beauty he speaks about its transcendental nature: that is every being is beautiful in itself for every being possesses substantial beauty – a beauty flowing from its very existence.

4. Body Shape Ideals

“The ‘body image’ construct tends to comprise a mixture of self-perception, ideas and feelings about one’s physical attributes. It is linked to self-esteem and to the individual’s emotional stability.”11 Surveys conducted in the 1990s in the US indicated that both men’s and women’s body image perceptions have become more negative over time.12 While research has shown that women tend to regard themselves as bigger than they really are, for me the opposite is true. Men tend to perceive themselves as underweight and as thinner than they actually are and report a desire to be larger.13 According to Henwood, Gill and McLean, “Patterns of consumption, life-style choices and media representation of men now often focus upon men’s appearance and the male body. … Media advertising routinely depicts in positive ways youthful toned muscular male bodies or focuses on style in men’s clothing and physical appearance.”14 It has been suggested that men seek to embrace physical strength, hardness and power to reinforce the traditional masculine ideal – and at the same time to distinguish itself from ideas about feminity.15 There is a perception that most of today’s males are preoccupied with abdominal stomach muscles (the six-pack abs) in order to hold on to the traditional masculine ideal.

4.1Body Shape Ideals among Men

There are definite ideas about the shape of male body: handsome men are supposed to be tall and have slim waists and hips; they are muscular especially on their chests, arms, and shoulders. It is said that boys who are underweight are ashamed of their bodies. Many of them take to excessive exercises in the hope of toning up their muscles. They may end up using too much time working out, neglecting school and friends. Even boys who work out too much think their muscles are not big enough. They may start taking powders and pills that promise to build muscle. They seem to be affected by what psychologists call “Adonis Complex”.16

4.2Body Shape Ideals among Women

It is generally believed that women tend to think a lot about their bodies. A survey conducted in 2001 by Top Santé among 3000 women with an average age of 38 found: the great majority (85%) was unhappy with their shape and nine in ten (90%) said their appearance depressed them.17 Seven out of ten (73%) reportedly thought about their size and shape everyday and eight in ten (80%) felt that their lives would be considerably enhanced if they felt totally happy with their body.18 What would make them happier are physical attributes such as flatter stomach, firmer buttocks and breasts and shapelier legs.

To attain such attributes many young women deprive themselves of nutrition to the extent that they risk serious illness and even death.19 Epidemiological research has indicated that women’s preoccupation with food and body shape is widespread.20 Smoking, drug abuse, over-exercise, cosmetic surgery and self-harm may well also be part of the profound subjective dissatisfaction with their body image that is evident and prevalent among young women in particular.21 It is true that men too to carry out extreme weight control tactics but it has long been established that it is women who tend to exhibit more dissatisfaction with their bodies.

The core of body image dissatisfaction has been located within a discrepancy between the perceived self and ideal self. Perceived self is normally in terms of weight and the distribution of fat, which has an effect on one’s personality. “The ideal self-image may be considered as either an ‘internal ideal’ or a ‘societal ideal’ resulting from the dictates of the surrounding cultural and societal environment as to what constitutes the perfect body.”22

5. Media Exposure and Body Image Ideals

Surely, body images would exist without the media. It’s natural for societies to develop certain body image standards. Even in the absence of media we would still compare our bodies to those around us. However, contemporary media play a powerful role in setting and influencing certain body image standards. It is no exaggeration to say that media pressure people to live up to them. One way media influence body image ideals is by presenting role models – persons who set examples for others to copy. The role models can of course be positive or negative. When it comes to body image, a role model is someone who presents himself/herself in a certain way through dresses and looks. “A positive body image role model is someone who sets an example of self-acceptance. He or she encourages others to feel good about their appearance.”23 A model or an actress with a healthy weight could be a positive role model. “A negative body image role model is someone who sets an example of unhealthy behavior or attitudes about appearance.”24 An excessively thin model or actress is a negative body image role model for young girls. Similarly a body builder who uses steroids is a negative role model for young men.

Media’s use of role models is usually subtle and unconscious. Role models used in advertisements are prime examples: companies that produce beauty products choose attractive people to act in their commercials. The company isn’t exactly promising that if the audience use their products they will automatically become beautiful/handsome or fit. Reasonable people would not expect, for instance, a deodorant to make them more handsome or attractive. But an implied, subconscious message has already gotten to them and it sets them thinking. The implied message is that physical beauty is important to being successful, happy, and loved. “Beauty sells” is a persuasive technique used by the advertising industry. At the same time it must be added that any deliberate appeals to thinness in messages attempting to ‘sell’ the thin ideal among young women may meet with resistance. In a study of a campaign designed to promote exercise and fitness among teenage girls, messages were used that appealed to health (‘Fitness Today: For a Healthier Tomorrow’), activity (‘Fitness Today: For a More Active Tomorrow’) and slimness (‘Fitness Today, For a Slimmer Tomorrow’).25

However, not all media messages about body image are subtle/implicit. For example, a commercial for Jenny Craig weight loss products, actress Sara Rue talked about her 50-pound (22.7 kg) weight loss. She said, “When you feel good – really good – you can go anywhere, do anything … This is me, 50 pounds gone. Now I can do anything. And for me, that’s worth everything. You can do it too.”26 This is an explicit message that thinness leads to freedom and happiness. While there is an element of truth in this message, thinness does not automatically lead to happiness; a thin person can be just as depressed or lonely as anyone else.

6. Media Causation and Body Image Perceptions

One important factor in relation to potential influences of media body image representations is the extent to which girls make comparisons between themselves and role models featured in glossy magazines. Most advertisements in this context, especially one of skin care, personal care and apparel products, have models (both celebrity and non-celebrity) who endorse the product. The advertisements use them as they have the desired skin tone, hair and body structure that has defined the advertising realm’s requirement for beauty. This, in turn, has enforced stereotypes within the society with a biased view of beauty. Girls reported making comparisons between themselves and models seen in teen magazines and their initial dieting experiences were triggered by diets found in these magazines.27 The images of under-weight women make other women who are differently sized, feel insecure and unhappy with their self-image; print advertisements that are extensively enhanced by means of airbrushing and Photoshop, have also contributed to the lowering of self-esteem among women.28 It has seen a prevalent trend in body surveillance, internalisation, and body shame and appearance control beliefs among the consumers who have been constantly exposed to the beauty stereotypes. According to Wykes and Gunter “the discovery that perceptions of media effects upon body image can vary depending upon whether such effects are attributed to influence of self or others.”29 The ‘third-person effect’says that “people perceive stronger media effects upon others than upon themselves, where socially undesirable or negative effects are concerned”.30 Applying this to body image perception it is noted that “individuals with higher self-esteem are less likely than those with low self-esteem to compare their own body image with others, and to do so unfavourably.”31


1 Celeste Conway, Body Image and the Media (Minnesota: US: ABDO Publishing Company, 2013), 7-8.

2 Conway, 10-11.

3 <> (accessed on 05 July 2015)

4 <> (accessed on 05 July 2015)

5 Bernadette Wegenstein, Getting Under the Skin: The Body and Media Theory (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press), 28, 29.

6 Wegenstein, 29.

7 Wegenstein, 29.

8 <> shown on 6 & 7 June 2015 (accessed on 05 July 2015.

9 (accessed on 05 July 2015)

10 Further, objective beauty means beauty is a universal aesthetical ideal derived from reality external to the mind and validated by the mind via reason; it need not involve collective assent or disinterest. In the course of history (especially in the media) the objectivity of beauty was lost sight of. See Barry Vacker, Beauty and Beast (of Advertising), (Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 20, 1993).

11 Cash, T.F. and Szymanski, M.L., “The Development and Validation of the Body-Image Ideals Questionnaire,” .Journal of Personality Assessment, 50 (2) 1995: 290-301.

12 Maggie Wykes and Barrie Gunter, The Media & Body Image (London: Sage, 2005), 2.

13 Wykes and Gunter, 5.

14 Henwood, K., Gill, R. and Mclean, C., “The Changing Man,” The Psychologist, 15 (4), 2002: 183.

15 Wykes and Gunter, 5.

16 In Greek mythology, there was a beautiful young man named Adonis. Goddesses fought over him because of his dazzling looks. Adonis knew that he was a prize. Some boys and men today want to look perfect. They think about their bodies most of the time.

17 Wykes and Gunter, 3.

18 Daily Mail, 9 August 2001.

19 Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died from anorexia in 2006. See Celeste Conway, Body Image and the Media (Minnesota, US: ABDO Publishing Company, 2013), 33.

20 Wykes and Gunter, 1.

21 Wykes and Gunter, 1.

22 Wykes and Gunter, 4.

23 Barb Palser Selling Ourselves (North Mankato, US: Compass Point Books, 2012), 17.

24 Barb Palser, 17.

25 Wykes and Gunter, 151.

26 As cited in Barb Palser, 18-19.

27 Wykes and Gunter, 150.

28 Research has shown that when overweight women look at photographs of models, their self-esteem declines. Other research has shown that viewing magazine photos of women with thin, idealized bodies can improve body image for some women, but only for a short time.

29 Wykes and Gunter, 152.

30 Wykes and Gunter, 152.

31 Wykes and Gunter, 152.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The concept of beauty in the media
How the media propagates unrealistic body images and beauty standards
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ISBN (eBook)
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A paper that would be very helpful to students of advertising, communications, media studies, Aesthetics
Advertising, Body image, beauty, Communications, Media
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Francis Arackal Thummy (Author), 2015, The concept of beauty in the media, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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