The life of a celebrity is defined by a persona. It is the one thing the industry guarantees. This persona is fueled by their art, their appearance; but the label is bestowed by audiences. However much an artist tries, by virtue of being a public figure, their agency to create a story for themself is snatched away from them. Attempting to decode the mechanisms of this complex, and the often dehumanizing process is too futile to indulge in. Instead, let us explore why these unattainable standards came about and how they affect our mental health.
Beauty Standards, Celebrity Culture, Audience Expectation
Adele, an icon in the music industry, posted a picture of herself in May of 2020 revealing to the world a new, reformed Adele. Or so the headlines said. “Adele shows off stunning weight loss,” proclaimed one Yahoo! headline; many more such dramatic headlines followed suit. A diverse range of opinions was put forth, none of which was Adele’s. Why then did we feel the need to comment on a celebrity’s body when they chose not to?
While some commenters were delighted by Adele’s transformation, others felt betrayed. Adele, on account of being plus-sized, had garnered the reputation of being a “plus-sized singer”. Many in the body-positive movement felt like they’d lost a representative to the mainstream ideals of beauty.
“I’m not shocked or even fazed by it because my body has been objectified my entire career. I’m either too big or too small. I’m either hot or I’m not,” the singer said. She continued, “I was body positive then and I’m body positive now. It’s not my job to validate how people feel about their bodies. I feel bad that it’s made anyone feel horrible about themselves, but that’s not my job. I’m trying to sort my own life out. I can’t add another worry.”
We tend to reduce the unfathomable vastness of human beings to the way they look. This reductive, often punitive approach to celebrity facilitates the perfect body narrative, which is a fallacy in itself. A celebrity, rather than being someone we admire, becomes a puppet to our need for wish fulfillment. This complicates and interrogates the definition of what a celebrity is. Indian cinema is known for its almost fanatic idolizing of Bollywood celebrities. We have temples built in the name of mortals who are fallible and ever-evolving. Building a monument- a symbol of permanence, for an inherently impermanent image is where we go wrong.
Our society revolves around celebrity culture. We often tend to blame celebrities for the unattainable, unnaturally eurocentric beauty standards. In so doing, we conveniently ignore how we as an audience have contributed to a narrative we too detest. Actors like Aishwarya Rai, Arjun Kapoor, Deepika Padukone have been criticized for gaining weight, being darker-skinned, and more. Celebrities are often the most viciously attacked by those sheltered by anonymity. So too was the case with Adele. She has won 15 Grammys and holds the number-one spot on the Greatest of All Time Billboard 200 Albums list for 21. Her new album 30 has become the biggest selling album of 2021 in only three days. Yet, if we were to comb through the comments she has gotten over her career, a stark pattern begins taking shape. They are primarily about her weight or appearance; sending the message that appearance is paramount, all else is secondary.
Body Image Issues and Unattainable Standards
Beauty is an inherently subjective concept made to fit in a eurocentric mold. The ideal standard is having a defined jawline, slim face, big eyes, a thin nose, light skin, slim waist but wide hips, etc. Such is the face of the contemporary beauty ideal. Celebrities, since time immemorial, have been trend-setters. Imitation is a part of celebrity culture. By setting such unmeetable standards for celebrities, we as an audience, are setting ourselves up for failure. When we fail to look like celebrities who have access to plastic surgery and other means of beautification, we tend to feel inadequate. This could potentially take a great toll on our body image, self-concept, and self-esteem.
We as members of society develop a sense of self from the outside world. What we see is what we call ourselves. A child knows very early on that their outward appearance is what will define them. That definition is disproportionately negative owing to the white western lens with which beauty is viewed. Television is one such medium that reinforces this manufactured ideal, perpetuating a cycle of interdependent toxicity. To put it in terms simpler than is due, media fuels the audience’s idea of the unattainable ideal and vice-versa.
Such almost unnatural perceptions of beauty can lead to a negative body image and even eating disorders. A distorted body image can cause significant psychological turmoil and can affect multiple aspects of a person’s life. The colloquial definition of body image eliminates one crucial aspect of the term: it isn’t objective. In an article published by The New York Times, the ill-effects of a poor body image are crystal clear,
“Prior to this (western media being introduced in Fiji), Fijian men and women cherished fuller-figured, robust, well-muscled body-types. Fast-forward to 1998. Eating disorder symptoms skyrocketed. Nearly three-fourths (74%) of Fijian girls reported feeling that they were too big or too fat, and almost 12% of girls reported that they had used purge behavior to control their weight; by 2007, this number had increased to 45%.”
A divide between what is and a fabricated depiction of what could be leads to poor self-concept and self-esteem. Unnatural beauty ideals exacerbate the problems of those suffering from eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or even body dissatisfaction. Companies feed off of our many insecurities leaving us to grapple with the difficult psychological consequences all by ourselves. A study conducted in 2019 said that diet companies have become a 72 million dollar industry. The fairness industry is not far behind.
The Covid 19 pandemic forced us to interact with peers and colleagues online. An increase in usage also led to an increase in people scrutinizing their faces. Eye bags, wrinkles, asymmetries were exposed and imperfections became glaringly obvious. This phenomenon was termed the” lockdown face”. Due to the”Zoom boom”, the plastic surgery industry went from a $623M industry to a whopping $2.65 B one.
Teens and adolescents, too, are affected by the ill effects of unattainable beauty standards. The mechanisms of social media popularity largely depend on conventional beauty. Most popular content creators are conventionally beautiful and if not, face-altering filters can change that, making them seem more attractive. Comments on a YouTube video about Tik Tok popularity said,
“Seeing all these popular people on social media be pretty just makes me feel insecure about myself and my depression just spikes. It’s crazy how connected we are because of it but also how much it ruins our sense of reality”
“I’m a 17 y/o girl. I downloaded the app, made an account, used the app for 4 days, and then deleted it like 4 months ago. Just in those 4 days, my self-esteem and confidence dropped substantially. It was intense. Looks are all that matters on TikTok and the idea that young people are using that app and feeling what I felt for those 4 days saddens me.”
High self-esteem and self-concept can help teens combat the negative associations they have developed with their bodies. But, edited photos plastered all over social media prevent users from developing a high self-concept and a positive body image. Celebrities and popular content creators tend to label their manufactured, photoshopped beauty “natural”. Such half-truths complicate the relationship audiences have with their bodies.
The Consequences of a Distorted Self-Concept and Self-Esteem
A study on the distortion of body image says,
“In general, the rate of body image misperception has been reported up to 50%, and the reported rate of body dissatisfaction is between 30% and 75%.”
Such is the damage crushing beauty standards inflict upon individuals. A poor self-concept and mental health issues are inextricably linked. We as a society have internalized the computerized photos of models and filed them under the bracket of normality. It is not unheard of, nor is it uncommon for peers and family to comment on our appearance quite unabashedly. Many children have been victims of bullying in school simply because the way they looked doesn’t resemble the popular notion of desirability. Such distorted logic is fertile ground for the awkward association of conventional attractiveness and worthiness.
Almost every part of our identity is based on sociological systems. We crave the validation of our peers. We yearn for social desirability. The beauty standards of today have a dark history with colonization, whitewashing, casteism, etc. Such connections further complicate the dynamic between beauty and social acceptance. Unacceptance causes individuals to experience a multitude of mental health issues or illnesses like shame, anger issues, anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia disorders, etc.
Fixating on whether one is beautiful can also lead to a variety of eating disorders. The most well-known example is Princess Diana. She suffered from bulimia nervosa.
“Yes, I did,” she replied. “I had bulimia for a number of years. And that’s like a secret disease. You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable.”
Concepts like BMI are grossly insufficient in evaluating the level of health. Many tend to inflate the importance of such inefficient measures of health and jeopardize their mental well-being. Due to the stigma that clings to body image issues and eating disorders, they are seldom spoken of in public. It requires one to muster up great courage to divulge their concerns or issues. Yet, the prominent patterns depict a sad tale. Therapists and even the immediate social circle categorize such issues under the flimsy umbrella of vanity. Incorrect notions like these only worsen the problem.
So, What Now?
The Indian notion of femininity and masculinity thrives on an extremity. Most people in India don’t look like the ideal. The eurocentric ideal erases ethnic features and puts forth a simplistic binary narrative: you either look conventionally attractive or you’re ugly. The psychological consequences are too diverse for comfort. A poor body image can hamper the way an individual functions day-to-day.
The many systems controlling the beauty narrative may or may not change, but there are certain things we can do to better realize our worth. Therapy and counseling can benefit greatly. Your therapist could help you deal with your inner critic’s negative self-talk.
A study conducted by Don BP, Girme YU, Hammond MD in 2018 revealed that people with low self-esteem tend to surround themselves with people who make them feel worse. Being accepted by our peers is undeniably important, but it must never come at the cost of one’s mental well-being. Prioritizing yourself and your well-being is another avenue therapy can assist with.
Controlling the opinion others hold of us is a futile endeavor that is bound to result in a dead-end. What we can control is how we talk about ourselves with ourselves. Practicing self-compassion and kindness can equip individuals with a mindset that will allow them to feel better about themself. Having an internal source of validation could potentially improve one’s self-esteem and help build confidence. Our appearance is only part of who we are. Our inherent worth as a human does not rely on how appealing we are to the eyes of conventionality. Our worth is unconditional.
About the writer: Bhargavi Barnabas is a Content writer, English literature student, researches and writes on feminism, mental health, and LGBTQIA+ issues, she is also a Bouncbk user.