Proof that the ‘Ideal Body’ is NOT REAL: My Experience

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The comment most frequently made by people upon meeting me for the first time is, ‘I thought you’d be taller.’ Having only seen images of my physique in stage shots and promotional material, many are surprised that I measure a petite 5’2”. Creating the appearance of height, however, is just one of countless illusions that can be produced using the art of photography.

The week before a competition is when most athletes choose to immortalise their bikini bodies in a professional photoshoot. The resulting images then serve as a disheartening reminder of their lean, muscular figures when, post-competition, they begin to witness the tragic, yet inevitable, softening of their stage ready bodies.

Weeks in advance, competitors begin to taper calories and manipulate levels of sodium and carbohydrates. Preparations become more extreme on the day prior to the shoot, often involving the severe restriction of liquids and the consumption of diuretics. Having starved and dehydrated the body, attention is then turned towards its physical exterior: spraying deep tan; vigorously backcombing hair; and applying heavy make up. After having squeezed into a pair of tiny hot pants and a padded sports bra, the model then pumps up her muscles to create optimum definition and vascularity.

Once the lighting and backdrop have been ideally positioned, all that remains is to tense the quads, suck in the stomach, and smile.

After the photographer has captured sufficient material, the competitor is free to slump over the wash basin, where she attempts to rid herself of both her stage make up, and the blinding headache brought on by lack of food and water.

As the model’s face and body are returned to normal at the sink, her image is becoming increasingly abnormal as the photographer works on digitally enhancing the raw shots. Photoshop masks and blends imperfections and homogenizes skin tone. Abdominal muscles become more defined as contrast is increased and shadows are deepened. Morphing alters the body’s silhouette by tightening the waist and enlarging desirable bikini body features, such as the chest and glutes.

By the time the final images are released, the competitor will have persuaded herself that she did look that way; she will have forgotten that the body in the picture upon which she now gazes with such envy was never real.

The perfect body is an illusion.

–  Victoria Stockwell (Pro Bikini Competitor)

Representations of the ‘perfect’ body are prevalent throughout Western society, consolidated and perpetuated by an omnipresent mass media. Psychology professor Michael Levine outlines the nature of the modern world in which ‘we are inundated with instant communications, 24-hour programming, digital blurring of fantasy, reality, and possibility, and sophisticated, targeted marketing.’[3] In today’s hyper-saturated image culture, the aesthetic ideal is extremely powerful.

 

The prolific distribution of this ideal reinforces society’s absorption in the appearance of women’s bodies. Discourses that prescribe female body shape range from tiny-framed shop mannequins, to image-laden websites such as Tumblr and Instagram. Millions of representations of culturally desirable bodies are portrayed by these sites that, thanks to tablets and smartphones, can be viewed at any time, anywhere.

 

Yet, the 2,000 to 5,000 weekly images that we receive from this round the clock media onslaught are far from real.[4] Physical perfection is created through airbrushing and digital enhancement. The potential harm lies not in the enhancement itself, however, but in the presentation of the image. Despite being overly styled and technologically manipulated, women’s physiques are portrayed in such a way that they appear normalised.

 

Epidemiologic data strongly suggests that the online distribution of these unrealistic ideals is putting women, particularly adolescent females, at risk of developing a negative body image. This chapter explores how the blemish-free, cellulite-free bodies that have become the industry standard cause dissatisfaction and encourage weight preoccupation amongst female onlookers who compare themselves with the fabricated images. According to a recent study, 95% of teens aged 12-17 use the internet; and of these, 81% use social media.[5] These high percentages suggest that the triggers for body dissatisfaction are ubiquitous amongst the young adult population: dissatisfaction that may in turn lead to subsequent patterns of disorderly eating as adolescent females attempt to replicate the body ideal.

[1] https://www.pinterest.com/pin/279575089343738332/ [accessed 05/04/15]

[2] https://www.pinterest.com/pin/279575089343738332/ [accessed 05/04/15]

[3] By Michael Levine, PhD, Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review , November/December 2009 Volume 20, Number 6, ©2009 Gürze Books, Combating the negative impact of mass media, http://eatingdisordersreview.com/nl/nl_edr_20_6_1.html [accessed 13/01/15]

[4] Statistics from Susie Orbach, Bodies (Profile Books: London, 2009), p.89

[5] Katie Lepi ‘How Teens Are Really Using Social Media’, July 28, 2014 http://www.edudemic.com/teens-are-really-using-social-media/ [accessed 09/01/15]

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