Female Pulchritude: Too Perfect to be Real

One recent hot-as-the-hinges morning, I was beating it out on an air-conditioned gym’s treadmill and switching among the several TV offerings on my headset. As you might suspect, I am far from an ardent fan of Fox News, but a story Fox aired early that particular morning did catch my attention. It was taking a look at what the “virtually” perfect images, of what my father would have called “feminine pulchritude,” now pervading our popular culture are doing to very real teenaged girls and young women.

07-27-11-margaret.jpgTranslated, that asks what the ubiquitous Photoshop-perfect images of various celebrities and models are making us think about ourselves.

I have a business acquaintance who proudly displays a lovely and glamorous photograph of his wife in his office. It looks like her, only much better as all bumps, variations in skin tone, wayward hairs and the red in her eyes have been digitally handled, leaving only the good and only a little of the real.

My friend’s wife, though, is — shall we say? — a woman of a certain age, and her photograph, however improved, is not likely to have any effect on teen07-27-11-margaret-2.jpgagers or young women.

That is not the case, of course, in our broader celebrity-obsessed culture in which girls and young women see and compare themselves to images of others which have been airbrushed and highlighted and whose body parts have been made smaller or larger depending on which is culturally more desirable. Slender arms, legs and rumps but big eyes and breasts are the picture of perfect, whether the real person actually possesses those attributes or not.

Maybe a few real women do meet these ideals naturally, but most women do not and never will, even though thousands now try to do so by every means they can think of and afford, including surgery. The thinking seems to be that “if my fi ll-in-the-blank is too big or too little, too lumpy or too white, I will just buy this product or service, eat less and exercise more until I look just like that gorgeous movie star fill-in-the-blank.”

American women, you say, have always loved and emulated celebrities, which seems true enough to me, so what is the big deal? The danger here is not so much our young women feeling good about these other women as feeling bad — really bad — about themselves by comparison. The message many young people get from looking at perfected images is that they are not good enough as they are and that they must do all they can to “correct” themselves. The saddest manifestation of this I ever saw was a girl who graduated from a local high school several years ago. She had been a good student, and as a graduation present her parents gave her breast enhancement surgery.

Would you send your high achieving daughter that message?

I came home from the gym and did a little searching and found a good bit of Internet activity on this topic, including a Photoshop demonstration which took an obese woman in lacy undies down to a slender woman in the same, though much smaller, undies. If I had not seen the video, I would not have known it was the same person.

This is what happens in magazine photographs that look too perfect to be real. They are.

I also learned that I am far from the only person worried about this.The venerable Girl Scouts of the USA, an outfit that has the best interest of young women at heart if ever there were one, partnered with Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis and other notable women including North Carolina’s own Senator Kay Hagan. Earlier this year, they formed Healthy Media: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls. The idea is to encourage national discussion around this issue, to recommend positive changes to policy makers, and to back media, which are focusing on balanced images of women and girls.

The Fox news personnel discussing this issue that morning as I slogged along on the treadmill included two women and two men. The women wore sleeveless dresses displaying toned arms and hemlines at mid-thigh displaying tanned legs in stiletto heels. Both sat ramrod straight occasionally crossing and uncrossing their lovely legs. The men wore dark business suits and slouched on the set sofa as they discussed women’s body images.

My Internet search revealed that the two women are among a group known as the “Fox babes.” There are entire Websites devoted to them, including one in which the babes on the news set speak mutely while the thumping strains of “New York, New York” pound on and one which conducts a weekly poll on who is the “sexiest Fox News Babe.”

I am not kidding you.

I also think this is exactly the sort of thing Healthy Media is worried about.

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