The Reflection We Don’t Want to See

At times, when I look in the mirror, there are things about my reflection that I wish I could change. When I see an unwanted spot, dark circles, or uneven skin tone, I put on makeup so that I can shield these parts of myself from the outside world. I have this desire to appear to be flawless, but this type of thinking is so damaging. Every time that I look in the mirror and choose to hide things about body, it’s like I’m saying to myself, “You’re not good enough the way you are, so you need to alter your appearance before you can face the world with confidence.”

Although I am only 21, I grew up in the theater and in a dance studio, which required me to perfect the art of stage makeup at a very young age. When I saw how easily I could cover up the parts of myself that didn’t fit into the airbrushed version of a woman that I wanted to be, I started to wear makeup every day to school. These days I am more confident, and if I look in the mirror and feel those toxic thoughts starting to come to the surface, I’ll walk out the door makeup free just to prove to myself that I can face the world. However, the women that I see on an everyday basis aren’t flawless, so why do I feel like I need to be? As an adult, I have begun to wonder where this type of negative thinking stems from. We don’t just come out of the womb with this type of mentality. It is cultivated through the images that we see on television, online, and in print advertisements.

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When I look at a photograph of a model that has a thin frame, long legs, and no visible acne, I think that they must have it so easy because they have the ideal body type. Instead of just making assumptions about what a model in the industry goes through, I decided to consult one of my friends Katie who has worked as a professional model. While talking to Katie, I discovered that there is more to the story. The first thing that I asked her was if she has ever had her body altered by a photographer, and how seeing this altered version herself made her feel. Her reply was, “Yes. At the peak of my career, I took pride in knowing that there were several websites I was on that were 0% retouched. I shot with a new photographer for another site and he photoshopped me. Now, I looked good. We’re talking breast enhancements, flawless skin, and he took my hips and thighs in. I weighed 118 pounds and I was 6’0. I was too skinny already, and he made me skinnier. As much as I loved the way I looked, it made me realize the reasons why I have struggled with body dysmorphia my entire life.”

When you are on the outside looking in, it’s easy to make assumptions about what others see in themselves. As I was very curious to get her opinion on her body image, I asked her if there were things about her body that she wished she could change. Katie’s answer  was, “I am an extremely self-conscious individual, but I hide it well. I would love to be able to say that I love my body and that I’m totally healthy and that’s all that matters, but it’s not. I have been modeling since I was a kid and always scrutinized myself for being too this or too that. So no, I don’t like my hips, or my legs, because my thighs touch at the top. And I will always think that I am overweight. I’m not naïve, I know that photographers photoshop the majority of images that we see in advertisements. However, I had never taken the chance to actually think about how it would make me feel if someone were to use technology to alter the things about my body that made me insecure and present this version of myself to the public. That image would haunt me, because I would know that it was a projection of what I could never be and what I would always desire.

Recently Aerie launched a campaign that featured unretouched models in their lingerie ads. I think that this was a brilliant move especially due to the fact that their clothing is targeted at young girls, and Katie agreed with me. “I think it the best thing to happen to the industry. And it’s a huge eye opener for people that have never been on the other side of the lens. We can’t all look like Giselle or Heidi. When it’s your career to look a certain way you have to meet that expectation. Normal women are not supposed to be 5’9 and weigh 100 pounds. It isn’t natural, yet that is what we are molded to want to look like. I would love to see more companies take a stand and follow Aerie’s lead.”

When evaluating the inequalities of the modeling industry I have really only looked at the perspective of what this means for the women and men who are digesting these images but talking to Katie made me realize that it’s just as toxic to those who work within this industry. “There are a few things that get me heated in the modeling industry. 1. It goes both ways. Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign. In the ad it is several curvy women and is implying that that is real beauty. Well in return they did the exact thing they were trying to make a stand against. So what? Because I’m skinny I’m not a real beauty? I understand where they were trying to go but they went about it the wrong way.”

She also spoke about the flip side of the beauty spectrum. “I recently was going through a catalog and the model was 5’8 97 pounds. And all of the clothes were sized on her. She wore a small. So any woman that eats even once a day is going to be starting at a large. That is a huge problem. I have to wear a large shirt when on a doctor’s chart, I’m underweight. And in this same catalog the “plus size” model was a four. FOUR. I could go on forever on the ways that that is messed up. Growing up, I looked up to models/actresses/singers who were rail thin. I have always had unreal expectations for my body, and I cannot take a compliment. At all. Like afore mentioned, I have body dysmorphia. And basically what that means is when I look into a mirror, it’s like a funny mirror. I see everything bigger, wider, and uglier than it is in real life. I will never feel skinny, and for as long as I can remember, I have been embarrassed to eat in front of people. Close friends and family, I am manageably comfortable eating in front of. In my mind I feel like they’re judging me for eating, or what I’m eating. So I’ll either skip a meal or eat alone to avoid the anxiety.”

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After talking to Katie, it made me want to investigate even further. I wanted to know what men thought about the standards of beauty that are perpetuated through the media. I asked Jack, a 21-year-old college student, some questions about his perception of the female body. When asked about whether or not the images that he sees of female celebrities and models affect his opinion of women that he interacts with in his life, he said, “They do cultivate unrealistic expectations because that’s all you ever see in media…the model image is seen so often and so idealized that it’s hard not to compare women to models, but I in no way expect real women to look like a model.” The images that only a tiny portion of women pertain to are so exposed that many women can’t look at their own bodies without comparing them to these standards, and it goes the same for men that are looking at female bodies. Although Jack did state that he realizes that the images of female models only represent a tiny portion of what women can look like, his other statements demonstrate that the lines blur.

I believe that by straining ourselves to adhere to the standards of perfection and flawlessness that we see in the media it can make the moment when someone sees you just rolling out of bed with no makeup on a terrifying experience, especially if you have problem skin. I asked Jack if he preferred it when women showed their natural skin or when they cover up their imperfections with makeup and this is what he said, “natural flaws in the skin are fine but I do prefer when women use just enough to cover them up.” Though recently there has been a lot of hype about how men love when women are just “chillin’ with no makeup on” as I had suspected this is usually if your appearance already adheres to traditional standards of beauty. Don’t misinterpret my motivations in writing this; I’m not trying to bash him. I wanted Katie and Jack to be 100% honest. I just don’t see the point in trying to hide the fact that the standards that we hold of ourselves set the standards that others hold of us, and that goes for men and women.

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So how do we reconcile all of these perspectives and cultivate a realistic expectation for our bodies? I wish I could tell you, but I’m still figuring that out. One thing that I have figured out is to be self-aware. If you find yourself relying on makeup to walk out of the door, or skipping meals because you want to be rail thin, you should think about what your motivation for wanting to meet these standards are. Also realize that these thoughts are normal. You aren’t weak if you have negative thoughts while flipping through a magazine, and guys, you aren’t an asshole if you wished that the girl you are dating wore concealer instead of showing her flaws. It just means that you aren’t impenetrable to the media.

Although I am much more confident in my own skin now as a woman, I have many moments when I hate things about myself, and I do think that the media sets unreasonable standards for women. I think that companies like Aerie are moving in the right direction, but I don’t think that it will be an easy move for model standards to evolve on a mass level. In some ways, I don’t think that the public wants it to; we eat up the products that they churn out because they are so glamorously unattainable. My interpretation of self-image hasn’t changed overnight, but I’ve admitted to myself that I’ve drinking the Kool-aid, which has helped me understand a lot about myself and how to look in the mirror and love what I see.

If you are struggling with negative body image or self harm visit DoSomething.org in order to receive help and support.

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