How and what bodies are represented in the media today? Is the complexity and diversity of our bodies represented, or are there still taboos and non-representation?
The media representation of female bodies is still influenced by an ideal that is lean, toned, perpetually young, and able-bodied; in contrast, in terms of male media representation, the ideal body has broad shoulders, a slim waist, outlined and pronounced muscles, and is able-bodied.
But where are the unskilled, trans, non-white, fat...in short, bodies that don't conform to accepted standards?
Since ancient times, the beauty and value of females have been evaluated and measured based on an aesthetic model recognized by society in a given historical and cultural context, each historical era had a peculiar model of ideal beauty.
Today, the standard established in the nineties is still in force: the idea that "thin is beautiful" and that a slim and snappy body is attractive and sexually desirable; having it is a sign of self-confidence, determination and social self-assertion. Not only that, excessive thinness and strict weight control are exalted. Shapely and fat bodies are despised, avoided, considered unhealthy and ugly, associated with people who are listless and therefore guilty of having that body. This communication leads to adhere to that prototype, because it is believed that this is the only way to achieve success and social appreciation.
The ideal of extreme thinness, understood as a symbol of beauty, the search for a perfect body, without flaws and idolized, contribute to increase the risk of disorders related to the body and nutrition (anorexia and bulimia).
The so-called "body dysmorphism disorder" could arise. It is the obsessive preoccupation with a defect in physical appearance, often disproportionate to the actual severity of the same.
This disorder, with the new means of communication, has had a further evolution, so that another definition was born that refers to a recent phenomenon: the "Snapchat dysmorphic disorder". Definition that derives from the name of the social that first introduced the use of filters, now landed also on Instagram.
Looking frequently through the screen of a phone by applying these small distortions, you start to think you are more beautiful using the filter and you feel ugly looking in the mirror. In fact, you start to register the demand for surgeries to look like the self-image you get with the filters.
Beauty standards don't just exist for women, but also for men, and they can be just as unattainable and mortifying. Even men feel uncomfortable if they are too short or too tall, too thin or too fat, if they lose their hair or if they don't have a beard. To be strong, muscular, powerful and tall is to be virile and strong (a symbol of masculine and patriarchal power). Not only that, even the size of the penis continues to be a yardstick on the man, which goes to influence his self-esteem.
It is also true that today men are starting to take much better care of themselves than a few years ago, although it remains a taboo since they are ridiculed. However, data tells us that make-up and skin care lines for males are increasingly popular, 46% of them shave their bodies and those who resort to plastic surgery are also increasing. This data can tell us that men too are under greater pressure to run after and achieve a certain standard of beauty proposed by the mass media: muscular, tall, with a beard, with a structured jaw, performers.
The cognitive and behavioral consequences for men who suffer from high body dissatisfaction and pursuit of a muscular body can be: low self-esteem, exercise addiction, eating disorders, and anabolic-androgenic steroid abuse; these can even result in muscular dysmorphism, which is characterized by the persistent and pathological belief that one's body is not sufficiently lean and muscular.
In the media, disabled people are routinely infantilized, asexualized, proposed as objects of pity or inspiration, and their lives presented as a tragedy, accepted only through compassion.
Their bodies are seen as sick, wrong and therefore must be healed to make them fit into a standardized and therefore acceptable dimension.
The mass media and society present the lives and bodies of people with disabilities as a dramatic tragedy, for which the person must redeem himself by curing and defeating his "illness". This type of representation leads to the belief that people with disabilities are suffering and that their bodies are ugly, sexually undesirable, unattractive and therefore to be hidden. The consequence is that it passes an implied message that able-bodied people should consider themselves happy not "unfortunate" like people with disabilities.
So, disabled bodies do not want to be seen, they are scary, they evoke an idea of suffering and disgust, and the mass media mostly conform to this obscurantism.
Not only are the bodies of disabled people underrepresented, but also those of trans, non-binary, non-white and non-thin people.
TOWARDS NEW REPRESENTATIONS
It must be said that in recent years we are seeing a timid growth in the involvement of LGBTQ+ communities by large companies, who are trying to bring into the field other bodies, other people, other lives and narratives so far kept hidden and obscured, but that exist in everyday reality.
An example is Pantene's commercials:
H&M's new commercial:
The media are shaped by certain socio-cultural contexts, but at the same time they influence the environment in which they are immersed through the representation of reality. In this regard, the mass media has the task of disseminating the multiple variety of bodies that exist in reality: women, men, able-bodied, not able-bodied, skinny, fat, trans, white and non-white, young and not. Such representation would be more truthful and less discriminatory towards those bodies and people who do NOT fit the "thin, toned, young and beautiful" standard. The goal should be to break the belief that only certain bodies should be depicted and that only those bodies have value to exist.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Irene Ghirotto