How Much Reality are we Ready For?

Everyone’s talking about Photoshopped images of models and celebrities these days. And for good reason. There’s no question that seeing idealized, superhuman images over and over again is detrimental to our self-esteem. Especially the self-esteem of younger people—both male and female—who don’t even have a strong sense of who they are yet. A teenager can spend hours doing her hair, applying her makeup, and choosing the right outfit, but once glance at a copy of Glamour on her way out the door can be devastating. Because despite all her efforts, she still doesn’t look like the flawless cover model.

And, as many experts have pointed out, neither did the cover model when she posed for the picture. Almost every single image that makes its way into fashion magazines, TV commercials, or onto billboards these days has been digitally altered. So I did a Google search for “fashion magazines 1970s” to help me remember what magazines used to look like before digital enhancement. And despite the fact that yes, they looked a lot different—lots of “Charlie’s Angels” hair and dramatic makeup—it was still striking to see how much unreality those 70s photographers were able to achieve with just makeup and lighting. Granted, it took many, many more hours to get the “flawless” look they were going for, but it was still pretty impossible for a kid in high school to make herself look like the women in this photo:


Or this woman: (yes, that’s Christie Brinkley)


Or this woman:


So what’s my point? Well, for starters, the fashion and beauty industry has been giving us unachievable standards of beauty since its creation. Take a look at this woman in 1922, for example:


But here’s the other side of it: do we, as consumers, want to see unachievable beauty and sexuality in our stars and fashion models? Everyone has heard the phrase “sex sells” but think about that for a minute. Why do we buy more of a product—perfume, blue jeans, cars, etc.—when they’re sold in conjunction with beautiful, sexy humans? And since we do, can we completely blame advertisers who sell to us that way? After all, they’re trying to make a buck too, and if they can’t sell perfume with average looking people in their ads, why wouldn’t they decide to sex it up a little?

Then there’s the issue of celebrities. There’s no question that in America, our celebrities are larger than life. These days, the word icon gets tossed around more casually than beach balls at jam band concerts. But what happens when our celebs gain weight, like Jessica Simpson and Lady Gaga both recently did? Were we, as a nation, kind to these women, or were they ridiculed and shamed in the press? You know the answer. And come on, how many people reading this blog haven’t made some sort of negative comment about a star’s appearance? (And I’m not just talking about wardrobe choices here.) How many people haven’t said, at least once or twice, “Oh she’s looking old,” or “He’s so fat now, and his is hair is all gray!” But do we think those kinds of comments aren’t making it back to the celebrities? People, who, by nature, are often emotionally fragile? Is is any wonder that many of them opt for plastic surgery and allow their pictures to be Photoshopped?

Then there’s the fact that many of us don’t like seeing celebrities looking older, or not at their best. We have expectations of our stars–unnatural expectations, a lot of the time. Especially the stars who were initially introduced to us as young, beautiful people. I believe it’s because we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of these people we respect and, in some cases, worship. And it’s no fun watching ourselves age along with them. It was lovely to see Diane Keaton at the Golden Globe Awards recently. She was so beautiful up there on stage, talking about her friend Woody Allen and looking very age appropriate. If she’s had any corrective surgery, it’s been minimal, and I felt proud of her, proud of her bravery. Standing up and showing yourself as you really are–a beautiful, natural woman–in a sea of plasticized faces can’t be easy. But did I feel a little sadness too? I’m not sure, but if I did, it was because Diane Keaton—the unforgettably youthful, insecure Annie Hall—is now sixty-eight years old. Which means that I’m also thirty-seven years older than I was when I first saw Annie Hall. Ouch.

And here’s the kicker. When Keaton’s speech ended, the next thing to hit the TV screen was a L’Oreal advertisement for skin care, featuring none other than Diane Keaton, heavily Photoshopped and lit in such a way that zero wrinkles were visible. It was an odd coincidence, and somewhat disturbing. But I wonder how many viewers felt more comfortable watching the commercial. I wonder how many people relaxed when it came on, because, hey, that’s the way they like Diane to look.

The point of this post isn’t to come up with any answers, but rather to ponder this phenomenon that’s become so much a part of our lives. If it’s a chicken/egg thing, then what came first: the industry that insists on its celebrities and models being perfect, or the masses who insist on perfection in our icons?

Things are changing, yes. I was pleased to see the new Aerie ads that feature real women with real bodies, and it’s great to know that some stores are using realistically-sized mannequins for displaying clothes, rather than anorexic ones. Also, the rise of the careers of some plus-sized models is heartening. But we’ve got a long way to go if we’re really ready to embrace change. Are we ready? I’d love to hear your feedback.

About Mary Rowen

My three published novels, LEAVING THE BEACH (a 2016 IPPY Award winner), LIVING BY EAR, and IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY focus on women figuring out who they are and what they want from life. Music and musicians have a way of finding their way into the stories. I live in the Boston area with my family and pets.
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2 Responses to How Much Reality are we Ready For?

  1. Colm Herron says:

    Didn’t Mae West say ‘I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing’?


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