It’s Not About the Ad

Lovely reader Patty sent me this link a while back, and I hesitated to include it in any roundups because it gets into some diet-y, fitness-y, pushy stuff toward the end. In fact, I’d say if you struggle at all or are in recovery, skip it.

BUT. The first bit was pretty fab, and has stuck with me all this time. Particularly this passage:

Because if we’re honest, this isn’t a war on Photoshop, this isn’t a war on consumerism, and this isn’t a war on glossy magazine ads. Sure, mass media has a collective responsibility to be more honest with their portrayal and we, as consumers, have a collective responsibility to hold them accountable. BUT cultural “ideals” will always be plastered on billboards. That’s not going to change. Even in a non-Photoshopped world, we’re never going to look like supermodels. They’re, you know, super. The perfect storm of genetics and training and nutrition and lighting and makeup and spray tanning and 8 weeks of broccoli goes into one Armani ad.

It’s not about the ad.

This battlefront is waged within each and every one of us, individually. At the end of the day, at the end of the commercial, at the end of the magazine, nobody can make us feel inferior about our body without our permission. The best way to change the ecosystem is to change our own psychology. We have the fundamental, inalienable right to look at a Photoshopped god-like body and appreciate it while simultaneously cherishing our own body.

This perspective isn’t nearly as popular or widely discussed as the need for change in the system.

Now I understand that retouched photos create impossible beauty standards and believe that magazines and ad agencies should back WAY off it. I also understand that being able to look at a Photoshopped image and say, “She looks great. And damn, so do I!” is a worthy goal, but an incredibly difficult one for many of us. Myself included. But it’s the germ of the idea that I’m clinging to: That pushing for change within the advertising and fashion industries is important but slow, and that a quicker route to empowerment is to accept all bodies as good, to discard the figure-shape hierarchy, to explode the definition of beauty and include ourselves in it.

We live in an oppositional world where we’re trained to want – even demand – black or white, yes or no, this or that. There’s not enough “and” in our lives right now. When we look at photos of supposedly “perfect” women’s bodies and faces, many of us – again, myself included – often feel shameful, deflated, filled with failure. Because our brains are saying, “Since I can’t be that, I’ll never be beautiful.” What if we could look at photos of supposedly “perfect” women’s bodies and faces, acknowledge their loveliness, and NOT feel that rush of self-focused negativity? What if we could just note their appearances neutrally, realize they have nothing to do with us or our beauty or our worth, and move on? Easier said than done, not an excuse for rampant re-touching, but definitely worth pondering, I think.

How we feel about our bodies is linked to how we feel about other people’s bodies. But we might be able to weaken that link a bit if we remind ourselves that there’s no one right way to have a beautiful body, and that there’s beauty enough for all of us to go around.

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10 Responses to “It’s Not About the Ad”

  1. Rebecca Roueche

    “Now let’s not confuse the issue here: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the pursuit of “better”. Better is awesome.”

    I liked that point. There’s no real use in comparing yourself to someone else: you will never be exactly like them. Instead, try to be better than your own, previous self. That can still be problematic if you’re 40 and want your 20 year-old body, but you know what I mean.

    It’s like in running: I’m a solid middle-of-the-pack-er. I will most likely never run a 5 minute/mile or run a 2-hr marathon, I’m just not built that way. But I can better than I was a year ago, I can try to cut a minute off my 5k time. Race yourself, not other people (unless it’s the home stretch, then BEAT THAT SUCKER).

    • Fran

      Love this! It’s up to each of us to decide what “better” we are reaching for. It doesn’t have to be taller, skinnier, younger, but can be healthier, faster, kinder, stronger, whatever!

  2. Gisele

    I like your take very much, Sally: since systemic change is slow, the changes we can make individually can help us a lot today. You express it thoughtfully and well, as usual.

    I am strongly resisting the original linked article’s argument, though. It reminds me of those who feel that if people of color would just “get over” racism, the problem would be solved.

    “We have the fundamental, unalienable right to look at images that fetishize whiteness and appreciate them while simultaneously cherishing our own brown bodies.”

    • Anna Bartels

      Totally agree with Gisele. Unless we start bringing to light all of the different types of beauty through media, were just perpetuating the past and the standard. Beauty ideals can and should change. They must change through us, bringing it to the surface. I am tired of looking in magazines, and not seeing, people like mtself, reflected there.

  3. Jean Thilmany

    Here’s something weird. Have you ever known someone who is truly beautiful by Western..or any standards, modern or not? I have. And really you can’t be jealous. She’s like a work of art (not to dehumanize her) that you have to gaze and gaze it. This does sound dehumanizing. But one realizes “it” … beauty isn’t about you at all. If you appreciate it in others, all types of beauty, it makes it easier to appreciate in yourself. This is poorly worded, but just saying some people DO tick all the cultural beauty boxes and if you can just appreciate their appearance for that, it’s kind of fun and artsy.

    • Stephani

      I think that’s true. And I think the more open we are to beauty and different ideas of physical beauty in the world, the easier it becomes to see beauty in difference, regardless of the beautiful subject’s shape or size or coloring. And that makes it easier to accept our own unique type of beauty. Does that make sense? It’s so easy to compare yourself to other, supposedly perfect, people and see where you fall short. But I always get greater satisfaction and a greater sense of self-worth (because in our society, a woman’s worth is based on her appearance, and I’m as brainwashed as everyone else) by acknowledging the imperfect beauty of someone on the street or a new acquaintance, and saying to myself, “If I can accept her as beautiful, in all her apparent imperfection, I can certainly accept myself as beautiful, too.” And that doesn’t take away from the beauty of those who meet the more general ‘ideal’ of beauty. And the fact that those people match the ideal doesn’t take away from my own beauty or anyone else’s. There’s enough to go around.

  4. Andrea

    Truth, all of this. And thank you for saying it, Sally. Portrayal of ‘ideals’ is nothing new in the history of humankind. Just walk through any museum — those Greek statues? Those Egyptian carvings? Those Renaissance paintings? All perfection. Sure, the ideals may not look the same through time, but they are nonetheless representative of what human beings thought was perfection for them. Who knows how people from the past reacted to it (something tells me they had a lot more on their minds, like horrible diseases and not getting caught on the wrong side of the politics of the day), but I believe it *is* up to us how we react. At the end of the day, quite literally the ONLY thing we can control in our lives is how we react. We do have a choice, as hard as it is sometimes.

  5. Connie Turner

    “Make a woman feel insecure enough and you can sell her anything.” That is the reason for all the photoshopping and airbrushing. Money Money Money

  6. beate @ bahnwaerterhaeuschen

    we have a saying that one can only change oneself – which not means physical changes – but a change of view. how we see things and how we sort thru and learn is the only way to grow happy. not blaming the others/ the system etc….