What is the impact of entertainment and media on perceptions of beauty?

Different types of entertainment—what we see, listen or experience—often reflect what different societies idealize in terms of beauty, success and appeal. Therefore, what we are surrounded by affects our own perceptions of what we should be.

Television, movies, music—entertainment is everywhere. Often without any of us realizing it, our entertainment culture often pervades our daily lives and impacts our personal perceptions and attitudes. From clothing style to political beliefs, there is no doubt that the entertainment and mass media that we encounter each day on our television screens or on our radio influences how we behave or act in a certain way. But one aspect of ourselves, above all, seems to be especially susceptible to this influence: our perceptions of beauty.

The portrayal of beauty ideals within the entertainment industry has often been a source of controversy, triggering debates on the potential negative impacts of mass media upon societal beauty standards. According to an online article in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the media plays a crucial role in the formation of body image, often creating “unrealistic expectations and body dissatisfaction.” Numerous studies have showed that adolescent girls who are regular readers of fashion and beauty magazines are more likely to have a distorted body image during their teenage years, and that the prevalence of eating disorders are often linked to television programs showcasing excessively thin female lead characters.

“[The entertainment media] is pushing certain beauty norms onto people about what you should look like, how you should act—what’s ideal,” said Victoria Velding, a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology at Wayne State University.

Velding points to low self-esteem, negative body image, and comparing oneself to the ideals depicted in media as examples of the negative impacts that entertainment can have upon individuals. Similarly, Laura Brandt, AP Psychology teacher, highlights the fact that the entertainment industry often presents stereotypically “beautiful” people, contributing to a beauty culture that is permeated with celebrity idolatry and cosmetic surgery.

“Models, actors, actresses and other individuals who meet society’s standards for beauty are idolized and held up as the epitome of beauty,” Brandt said. “In many cases, plastic surgery or extreme dieting, facial or lip injections and other artificial products are used in creating this image of beauty that is unrealistic and unobtainable for most individuals.”

But why are we so susceptible to the influences of mass media in the first place? In detecting the reasons as to why we are so consumed by entertainment, Christina Anker, Media Analysis teacher, specifically points to the fact that viewers are often not critical or analytical of what they encounter daily on the their TV screens or in their music, instead engaging in a passive activity devoid of any active, analytical judgement.

“I think the very nature of entertainment suspends our critical judgement as viewers,” Anker said. “And because entertainment can so easily consume us, I think we believe [its messages] because we like it, whether that’s movies, or music, or a video on Youtube.”

From a psychological perspective, it also seems that conformity and the need for approval may be important factors in our tendency to be so consumed by mass media. According to Brandt, the images and messages we see in our daily entertainment are often reminders of the idealistic beauty standards that we may feel pressured to adhere to in order to “fit in.”

“Modeling, conformity and the need for approval are strong motivating factors; we all want acceptance and external looks is the first outward sign we give to others,” Brandt said. “We are inundated with images from the media hundreds of times per day—and these are constant reminders of how beauty is defined.”

Also noting the pervasive role of media in our daily lives, Anker specifically highlights the gossip culture that is often prevalent in celebrity tabloids and magazines. Pointing to popular magazine spreads such as the ‘who wore it better’ contests, Anker notes that such messages can often fuel negative competition between women over their beauty and appearance.

“[Celebrity tabloids and gossip magazines] give the message to women that fashion and beauty is a competition,” Anker said. “And what message does that send, then, to females trying to emulate those stars? Well, it’s not building collaboration, it’s not building sisterhood, and it’s not building bonds between women.”

Recent attempts by the media to have more positive influences, however, have suggested that sending the correct, appropriate message is often more challenging than it seems. In attempting to empower one type of body shape or appearance, often what occurs on the flipside is the shaming or neglection of all the other “types” that don’t look that certain way, Velding said. Pointing to recent pop music such as Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” as an example, Velding indicates that while the song intends to celebrate “curvier” girls, it also may unintentionally shame other body types in the process.

“I think we’re definitely better [with positive messages of beauty] than we have in the past, but I don’t think we’re completely there yet,” Velding said. “They’re still enforcing some sort of standard while trying to say, ‘be yourself.’”

Certainly, there seems to be more noticeable efforts today to send positive messages about beauty and appearance—and not just in music. Many advertising campaigns, such as Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, have garnered much attention over the past decade in their efforts to reject unattainable beauty standards in order to widen the definition of “real” beauty. While these attempts at positive influences are certainly well-intentioned and perhaps effective in some cases, Anker also points out that they often still impose some sort of beauty standard or ideal.

“Often times, with those kinds of campaigns, [the images of beauty are] equally as photoshopped, equally as constructed. It’s adhering to all the same beauty standards—white teeth, long hair—but just subverting it slightly,” Anker said.

Brandt points to the culture of fashion models and beauty contests—such as the Miss America pageant—as examples of the fact that despite recent efforts, some beauty ideals are still becoming increasingly unrealistic. Models have become thinner and thinner overtime, Brandt said. In fact, according to Rehabs.com, the difference between models’ weights and the weight of the average American woman has grown from 8 percent in 1975 to over 23 percent today. Such statistics show that the gap between the body sizes of idealized women and those of everyday people is gradually widening, ultimately contributing to the increasingly unrealistic nature of societal beauty standards.

“There are so many other influences to overcome that it is quite difficult to negate the other messages,” Brandt said.

In terms of what we, as viewers, can do to overcome such negative effects of the media? According to Velding and Anker, being knowledgeable and raising awareness about the issues of media’s impacts is often the best way the public can decrease the negative influences of entertainment. It’s up to the viewers to educate themselves and be aware of the fact that we can’t always believe what we see or hear in our entertainment media, Velding said.

“I think we need to, at some point, become more critical viewers of media,” Anker said. “We’re so seduced by media because it entertains us, but it’s very important to be aware that some of our values have been shaped by media. It’s important to really be cognizant of that whole process.”

However, even if viewers become more media literate, the core of the problem still lies in the fact that many entertainment media such as television, film and music still ingrain these beauty standards and appearance ideals within their messages. Although recent efforts to celebrate various other body types and empower “natural” and “real” beauty show that we are attempting to go in the right direction, there definitely seems to be a need, in order to  impose a truly positive influence, to expand such messages to include all different kinds of beauty.

“I think it is possible [for media to have a positive message for everyone],” Velding said. “We just have to end the conversation at ‘accept you for who you are,’ and just leave it at that.”