The pursuit of beauty is an ancient phenomenon among women. History is full of folklore regarding the extent women were willing to go to become more beautiful. Even women rulers such as Cleopatra of Egypt became famous not just for their leadership, but also for their beauty. In this sense, there is nothing new when advertisers and the society in general impose standards relating to the beauty of women. However, there is need for concern when those standards lead to perverse behavior. More so, when girls lose their self-esteem and their sense of self worth because of pervasive beauty images, everyone needs to be concerned. This paper explores the impact that pervasive beauty images have on the self-concept of girls.
Nature of Pervasive Beauty Images
The notion of perversity in images brings two possible meanings to the surface. On one end, it connotes exaggeration. This meaning emanates from the use of exaggerated images to hold people to a standard that is idealistic and subjective. The second meaning carries a sense of immorality, impropriety, and indecency (Wolf 2003). In this sense, pervasive images are immoral, and indecent. The meaning of the word pervasive as used in this paper carries elements of both sides of the divide. It refers to images that are exaggerated to meet certain goals, and are immoral in their presentation.
By images, the paper refers to both print and electronic media. It is not limited to still photos and videos. Rather, it includes mental images created by articles and writings that seek to define the acceptable standards of beauty (Holmes 2005).
What is Self-Concept?
Self-concept is a composite expression of a person’s view of himself (Flannes & Levin 2005). It consists of various attributes such as physical appearance, clothes and grooming, and personality characteristics (Wylie 1989). In addition to these, self-concept also consists of an individual’s perception of his social standing (Johns 2009). In this sense, self-concept is an individual’s summative view of himself.
Self-concept is acquired by interaction with other people (Pollard 2002). Teachers have a very strong influence on the self-perception of their students. Alongside teachers, authority figures and idols play an important role in the development of an individual’s self-concept (Pollard 2002). Subsequently, the media plays in important role in the development of an individual’s self-concept because the media provides the avenue that links people to their authority figures. Just as many sources of positive influence in relation to the development of self-concept exist, negative sources also abound.
The media plays a vital role in the propagation of messages that influence the self-concept of viewers. Girls are very vulnerable to these messages. However, it is inaccurate to say that the media plays no role in the development of self-concept of boys. Nevertheless, the veracity of this influence is more pronounced in girls than in boys (Grogan 1999). Boys tend to have lesser attachment to their images as compared to girls. The use of women as sex symbols in the media and other sectors of the society play a big role in this issue (Miller & Webb 2011). Every girl grows up with the pressure to become a beautiful woman.
However, the definition of this beauty usually borders on waistlines, body weight, and other bodily features that girls have little or no control over (Mandell 2007). These traits are determined genetically. Therefore, many girls tend to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources trying to achieve an elusive beauty that only exist in magazine covers. The three main expressions of this phenomenon are social comparisons, reflected appraisals, and the mass media.
Social comparison occurs when a person uses the people around him as a reference scale to measure a personal attribute. The social comparison theory explains how this process works. According to the theory, an individual desires an accurate view of his abilities, and attitudes (Grogan 1999). However, it is impossible to find a means of measuring some abilities and attitudes. For instance, there is no objective way of knowing how difficult an exam question was without asking others how they found the question after the exam. Whenever a person uses social comparison to determine that he is better than others are, the result is termed as a downward comparison (Grogan 1999). In other words, the person is worth looking up to. However, whenever the result shows that an individual is worse than other people are, the result is called an upward comparison (Grogan 1999).
It is not always possible to find familiar people with whom to make social comparisons. This creates an avenue for the influence of the media in the development of self-concept. The media provides many people with the input for social comparison. This is why some people decide to buy certain cars, or to wear certain types of clothes. It is an attempt to compare positively with their role models or media personalities.
When it comes to girls, social comparison plays a very important role in two areas. The first one is a girl’s wardrobe. Whenever a girl watches television, it is likely that one of the things she will be looking at is the fashion statements made by actors and other media personalities. She will do everything in her power to ensure that her wardrobe compares favorably with what she perceives as the fashionable clothes to wear. This activity receives further reinforcement from her social network when she discusses the show with her peers.
The second area is a girl’s body. Since the advent of electronic and print media, the standard for beauty is a slim and tall body. The media reinforces this message so much that the entire society looks at slim and tall women as the most beautiful ones. Certain parts of the world do not subscribe to this view. For instance, West Africans tend to associate full-bodied women with beauty, unlike the west. In any society, a girl who does not fit in the prevailing social definition of beauty finds herself in the quest to become more beautiful. This leads to a skewed self-concept.
The main question under social comparison is “what do I think of myself in relation to others?” On the other hand, the main question under reflected appraisals is “what do others think in relation to me? Reflected appraisals are by their nature subjective. They are conclusions an individual makes in regards to his perception of what other people think of him (Bartos & Wehr 2002). Reflected appraisals depend on three things. They depend on the identity of the people whose views an individual needs, the specific aspect of a person’s identity under consideration, and the individual’s motivation to accept or reject these views (Rosenberg & Turner 2004).
Reflected appraisals are not unique to girls. However, the impact of the conclusions girls make from reflected appraisals tend to be more pronounced. Just as girls use social comparisons to determine how well they are doing socially, they also use reflected appraisals to make decisions regarding their social activities (Wilson et al. 2011). Girls tend to be more sensitive to the perceived perception they receive from other people. This also explains why girls tend to like people who affirm them. Affirmation seems to prove that a person holds positive views about the other regardless of the real position (Wylie 1989).
In the issue of pervasive beauty images, girls ask themselves whether the people they see on TV and in print media would approve of them. They look for evidence from other places such as the kind of friends the other person keeps. For instance, a girl may decide that Oprah is friendly if Oprah treats another girl who has similar circumstances kindly. She would make conclusions such as “since Oprah hugged her, Oprah would hug me too. Therefore, I am a likeable person”. In most cases, the media uses full-bodied women as symbols of low self-esteem, and slimmer and lighter women as symbols of beauty and self-confidence (Laster 2001). A girl may end up concluding that since some people do not like a certain woman who resemble to her, those people do not like her too.
The mass media is an interesting participant in the development of girl’s self-concept. The media participates in this process in several ways. The first way that the medial participates in the process of the development of a girl’s self-concept is stereotyping (Rogers & Braunack-Mayer 2004). A stereotype is a false image of a person, a group, or a community based on an unverified perception. Usually stereotyping results from the need to find a means of identifying a person or a group of people. Most stereotypes are negative. When the media pushes forward a stereotypical image of beautiful blonde girls as daft, it makes girls who are naturally blonde guilty of their looks. This kind of stereotype may make a girl feel unwanted and unappreciated in intellectual environments.
The second role that the media plays in influencing the self-concept of many girls is idolization of certain figures. The pop culture is one of the defining characteristics of this generation (Chapin 2010). When the media discovers that someone is popular, the media keeps finding information about the person to put on air to retain his or her followers as their viewers. The result is that the media idolizes some people. When it comes to women, the media usually exploits their sex appeal to retain the attention of their audiences. Therefore, girls who view these women as their role models find themselves in a losing battle to match the sexualized images of their idols.
The third role the media plays is by developing narratives around the idols they create and perpetuating the narratives. The media usually takes on a view and them perpetuates it in all subsequent press activity. This process of characterization ends up making some people appear superhuman or fatally flawed. For instance, the media always potrays obese people as gluttons. This is not always the case. Sometimes, obesity is hereditary. In this case, an obese girl would walk around in shame because of the image portrayed in the media. The media helps to develop and perpetuate narratives that lead to the destruction of healthy self –concepts among girls.
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