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news: beauty backlash: saying enough to perfection

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Title/Topic: Beauty Backlash: Saying Enough to Perfection
Posted On: 10/29/2007
Oct 28, 2007 (Reno Gazette-Journal) – In the beginning, every little girl is a princess — beautiful, magical, a picture of bliss.

Then, somewhere along the way, a new and unsettling awareness begins to set in:

Not every girl is a princess.

Levels of beauty may vary.

And to them, one’s happiness is inexorably linked.

So begins the lifelong quest of many women to achieve physical perfection: a flawless face, the sleekest hair, an unassailable, flab-free body.

The beauty industry is there to help — to the tune of $8.2 billion worth of beauty products sold in 2006, according to NPD Group. Ditto the diet industry. Marketdata, an independent research firm, estimates that the total U.S. weight-loss market was worth $55.4 billion last year. We may spend big bucks on looking better, but for some women, the costs go deeper: Insecurity over their appearance can undermine an otherwise happy life.

“I see amazingly beautiful women in the media, and sometimes forget it takes an army hours to make them look like that,” said Trishee Standen of Reno, a 28-year-old stay-at-home-mom and contributor to

“My husband and I just had our second child, and while he says I look great, I do compare myself to those ads on television,” Standen said via e-mail. “I see how fast those in the media have been portrayed to bounce back, and it makes me mad. I have lost almost XX pounds* since my son’s birth in September, but it does not seem enough.”

Advocates for women long have decried media and marketing pressure on them to improve themselves via everything from make-up and clothing to perfumes, personal trainers, hair extensions, exercise gadgets and nowadays, cosmetic surgery.

“The debate over how to portray beauty has been going on for some time, but the fact is that a lot of women really like to look at images of beautiful women,” said Bourne Morris, a professor at the University of Nevada’s, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism and former president of Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency in Los Angeles. “They really like to think of themselves as part of that imagery.”

But the proliferation of the Internet, increasingly explicit cable television and fierce competition among dozens of women’s fashion and beauty magazines mean females today are targeted with images of “ideal beauty” with a frequency heretofore unseen.

“I think there’s been a lot of press about women’s complaints about the way they are portrayed,” Morris said, “but that has not changed the media much nor has it changed women’s concerns about the way they look.

“They’re still trying to lose weight, they’re still buying shoes with pointed toes, they’re still buying hair coloring.”

And if advertisers’ beauty fantasies have kept women uptight and insecure over their appearances, they haven’t done men any favors, either.

Filmmaker Darryl Roberts explores the subject in his new documentary, “America the Beautiful,” which takes a look inside the beauty and fashion industries at the forces that drive our perception of what’s beautiful. At the beginning of the film he describes losing the love of a wonderful woman in the quest for one who was more beautiful.

“When I first started making the film, it was to explore why as human beings we were so obsessed with beauty as a means to come to grips with a couple of blunders that I had made in my life,” Roberts said. He also pointed out that men now feel pressure to meet certain physical standards.

“Considering what women have had to endure for decades, I say the chickens came home to roost. Look at the movies. The last three “Star Wars,” you’ll notice that (Han Solo’s) head is getting smaller and smaller, while his body is getting bigger. A more muscular image is being thrust upon the eyes of men through magazines and the media. This has caused men to buy into it and get six-pack implants and calf implants … to keep up with this standard of beauty.”

Common wisdom suggests that adolescents and women in their teens and 20s are the most obsessed with appearance, and that with adulthood comes increased body acceptance. But for some, this turns out not to be the case.

“I don’t care as much as I did as a teen what people think of how I look,” posted Jennifer McEwen on “But every time I really start to believe that, I step on the scale or try something on that doesn’t fit and I pledge to get down to nothing by working my buns off or not eating, and I know that’s not healthy.”

And in some cases, anxious self-consciousness of appearance morphs into a full-blown eating disorder. According to the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness, one in five women has an eating disorder or disordered eating — and increasingly, those women are in their 40s, 50s and older.

“What’s coming out of the eating disorder centers is a tripling or quadrupling,” of adult women seeking treatment in the last 15 years, said Trisha Gura, Ph.D., author of “Lying in Weight: The Hidden Epidemic of Eating Disorders in Adult Women” (Harper Collins, $24.95) and herself a recovering anorexic.

Gura said the increase may be driven by a number of things, including growing awareness and willingness of women to seek treatment. But she also said the ubiquity of images of preternaturally youthful, slender women — such as Demi Moore, Madonna and Sharon Stone, all of whom are in their mid- to late 40s — isn’t helping, and may negatively affect women already predisposed to disordered eating.

“Here’s what happens: I’m highly sensitive and I’m a perfectionist. If you take a person like me and if you flood me with fashion model (images), then culture plays a really strong role in triggering an eating disorder that might otherwise be latent.”

So what’s the solution?

A few big advertisers — perhaps sensing an appetite for change — recently have launched campaigns directly criticizing the onslaught.

“Onslaught,” in fact, is the name of a striking “viral” video created by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide for Dove, whose Campaign for Real Beauty publicizes the company’s products by targeting purveyors of “perfection.”

In it, a clean-scrubbed, red-haired little girl faces the camera as the lyrics “Here it comes…” swell in the background, followed by a rapid-fire barrage of images from beauty magazines, TV commercials, sexually charged music videos, cosmetic procedures, bulimic behavior and more. The images finally fade to black under the message “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

Critics point out that Unilever, which manufacturers Dove, also sells Axe men’s cologne, the ad campaign for which uses images of women some find stereotypical and distasteful. But the Dove campaign has received considerable buzz on YouTube, as well as among bloggers and advertisers — most of it favorable.

“Evolution,” a companion ad to “Onslaught,” depicts a bare-faced, pretty model being transformed via a team of make-up artists, hair-stylists and, finally, a Photoshop treatment that lengthens her neck, enlarges her eyes and lips and slims her brow, into a dazzling cover girl. The message: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”

The ad won the Film Grand Prix at the 2007 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in June.

Nike, meanwhile, ran a magazine campaign not long ago that celebrated women athletes’ less-than-petite thighs and derrières. And Nolita, a fashion brand for young women, recently drew publicity with an anti-anorexia campaign featuring photos of a nude, emaciated Isabelle Caro, a French model and anorexic who weighs less than XX pounds*. Billboards of Caro were installed in Milan, Italy, last month during that city’s fashion week.

Morris, of UNR, said she admires the Dove campaign, but that she doesn’t yet see any great change in the way advertisers market to women.

“What (Dove has) done is tapped into a segment of the market that does love that approach and does like those products,” Morris said. “Revlon and Clairol and Clinque are still going their own way.”

Morris added that only consumers themselves can ultimately change the way products are marketed to them.

“If women stopped buying hair coloring, if women stopped buying certain kinds of cosmetics products, blue jeans or high heels, then the market would react.”

Roberts, the filmmaker, suggested men become women’s allies by helping them stand up to unrealistic beauty standards.

And Ben Hour, a 30-year-old software developer from Sparks, thinks education can help.

“I used to be a personal trainer so I’ve seen it all,” Hour said. “I really don’t think that you can do anything about the industry, but you can do something about how we educate our youth. Maybe a class on self-confidence and how you do not have to live up to any standards that get shoved in your face.”

* Numbers removed by Pale Reflections

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