Friday, 5 August 2011

Images of Perfection...

Doesn't Julia Roberts look beautiful? Can you believe she's approaching her mid-40's? I didn't even look that good at 20!
And yet... Okay, we're all aware that something's not quite right with this picture. We've all heard the debate about airbrushing a dozen times before. We know it happens and we know it'll continue to happen once the furore over this latest advert (now banned) dies down. Just as we watch adverts for mascara and coo over how beautifully thick the model's lashes are, whilst quietly ignoring the teensy tiny writing in the corner: "Model is styled with lash inserts for an even lash line," we'll go back to thinking: "Wow, that skin cream looks AMAZING!"
But is it unfair for companies to ruthlessly airbrush and perfect their models and celebrities, when all we have at home is a make up box and a mirror? Worse still, could it be dangerous?
According to research carried out in April by the University College of London's Institute of Child Health, 1.5 out of every 200,000 British children under the age of 10 suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia. Even more recently, a report by the health & fitness charity, Central YMCA and the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England in Bristol, discovered that 1 in 10 children would take a diet pill to make themselves look more attractive. Why are Britain's children so obsessed with their looks? Why are they worrying about being too fat, or not pretty enough, when they should be enjoying their youth and leaving adult concerns to the adults?
The answer may lie with a rather uniform approach to beauty, taken not only by Britain, but an alarming proportion of the modern world. Beauty is, so often, skin-deep. We're force-fed images of busty blondes, who, in spite of their comedy breasts, somehow have the waist of a twelve year old to go with them. Walk down any city street on a Saturday night and you'll see group after group of clones - teenagers and girls in their early twenties. All with the same haircut, all dyed the same colour, all with the same style of make up and the same fashion sense. Why? Because that's what's considered "beautiful." And who doesn't want to look beautiful? We are so afraid of not meeting the standards of attractiveness drip-fed to us via magazines and TV shows, that many of us abandon what makes us unique in order to try to attain an impossible ideal.
And it starts affecting children before they're even out of primary school. I've witnessed girls as young as 7, saying they "don't feel pretty enough." I've heard boys of 8 say they don't want to get undressed for PE in front of anyone because "I'm not as muscly as the others, I'm just fat." It's heartbreaking and it seems so easily avoidable if we just focus on real people and encouraging our children, friends and family members to embrace what makes them them, regardless of whether they conform to any stereotypes. After all, true beauty comes from within - isn't that one of the most important lessons we can teach our youngsters? Surely, by praising physical beauty to the point where we'll invent it (Julia Roberts is indeed a pretty woman - if you excuse the pun - did she need to be improved?!), we're ignoring the many more important factors worthy of praising a person for.
Look at that photo again. Julia Roberts is a woman in her 40's. She has three children. Nowhere on that picture can you see a wrinkle. Nowhere can you make out the tired eyes that go along with getting up in the night to see to your kids, or being woken up early during the school holidays. Yes, of course, she's a movie star and she may very well have an entire entourage of helpers, but by airbrushing away any tell-tale signs of age, the producers of the now infamous advert have also hidden any signs of life.
We are presented with an image of a person who conforms to society's ideal of perfection. Blemish-free skin, not a line on her face, no grey hairs, no dark circles... No humanity?
A person once said to me: "I can't wait to have wrinkles and grey hair. It'll show I've made it to old age, in spite of all the crap life has thrown at me so far." It was one of the most refreshing things I've heard in years. And it got me thinking...
I'm not perfect. My hair is unruly, my skin is plagued with eczema and the odd spot, I have a big, Greek nose, a tummy that will be nice and flat and toned one day and wobbly the next (I like cake, what can I say?!) and dimply thighs. I have lines around my mouth and beneath my eyes. I get dark circles. I can safely say that if society's view of beauty is anything to go by, I'm quite far away from winning any pageants. But should that define me? I'm also a passable writer, a good friend who enjoys making people laugh and I make a bloody good lasagne. Surely that's all much more important than whether or not my hair is glossy enough, or my teeth are white enough? After all, my big, Greek nose is a sign that I'm part Cypriot and reminds me of my late Paps, who was incredibly proud of his heritage. My tummy goes wobbly because I'm passionate about food and adore cooking. I have lines around my mouth from all the laughing I've done at comedy gigs, all the nights I've stayed up chatting with friends (they're probably responsible for the dark circles, too!) and the tears I've cried over lost loves. In other words, all of the things our beauty-obsessed media would view as "imperfections," are actually visual, permanent reminders of the things I've done so far in my life. The memories I've made and the lessons I've learnt.
Lets think for a second about all of those Hollywood films, in which the "ugly" girl becomes beautiful in order to ensnare her man, or win her dream job. Think about the "before" image. Stereotypically, she'll have had frizzy hair, glasses and a dowdy outfit. By the end of the film, she'll have discovered contact lenses, hair products and a whole new wardrobe. But what lesson does that teach young viewers? What about the girl of 13 or 14, watching that film, whose hair is unmanageable (I was that girl - NOTHING worked to tame my hair when I was that age), whose eyesight is so poor that contact lenses won't work and who doesn't have the cash to splurge on a row of cutesy little dresses. What are we teaching her? That only by changing the way she looks will she be successful? That to gain love and be truly happy, she has to become more socially acceptable?
I know you could quite easily argue that I'm taking these things far too seriously and that there's nothing wrong with a modern spin on the Cinderella tale, in which a girl is transformed. Indeed, there's a massive market for TV shows that do just that - you only have to glance at the schedules to see Gok's Fashion Fix and the like, offering to improve people. And if that makes them feel better about themselves, then who am I - and indeed who is anyone - to judge the people who go on those shows? In fact, I've watched it myself and said aloud: "I'd love to get Gok-ed."
But when we reach the point where we're airbrushing away the slightest flaw or imperfection, I do think we've gone too far. When I read that pictures of celebrities have been airbrushed to make them appear thinner, I wonder just how far our obsession with looks will go before someone puts their foot down and says "enough is enough."
After all, with children openly admitting that they feel fat or unattractive, we can surely no longer ignore the potential damage society's obsession with beauty is doing. When they turn on the television and see super-skinny popstars, with overdone make up, or when they go into shops and see magazines with airbrushed images plastered across the front pages, what message are they receiving?
Certainly not that it's okay to be who you are. Or that others may very well admire you because you do stand out from the crowd. Or even, crucially, that beauty alone may not bring happiness, because that has to come from within.
Lets give the children of the future a new message. Lets tell them to remember they ARE beautiful. No matter what's on the outside. And lets all lead by example.