Pursuing the impossible

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Thin. But impossibly curvy. Straight smile. But impossibly white. Clear skin. But impossibly poreless. These images are plastered throughout our visual lives. They are a constant reminder of the unattainable standard set by the media: We must be and look perfect.

Unrealistic media images can cause people to see themselves more negatively. Illustration by Elliott Miller
Unrealistic media images can cause people to see themselves more negatively. Illustration by Elliott Miller

The pervasive nature of the media has led to an increase in image perfectionism, resulting in more cosmetic surgery, eating disorders and depression among young women than ever before.

Steve Thomsen, a BYU communications professor nationally acclaimed for his research on media effects and eating disorders, has insight on how media manipulates perceptions of reality.

“Because of the ubiquitous nature of the media and the fact that we are bombarded continuously by more images than previous generations, I would tend to assume that, over time, the media has had a greater influence of shaping how we think,” Thomsen said.

According to ABC News, many organizations and countries like France, Britain, Israel and Norway are campaigning to slap warning signs on altered photos.The American Medical Association even condemned the manipulation of photographs, urging advertisers to set limits on photoshopping.

According to Thomsen’s studies, however, these warnings may be a moot point among young women.

“Even when they understood that these images had been airbrushed or photoshopped, or that these women were physiological anomalies, they still accepted them and embraced them as the social cultural norm,” Thomsen said.

Thomsen concluded the repetition of inaccurate media images caused these women to have erroneous perceptions of reality, thinking “to be normal was to be perfect, and to be perfect was to be normal.”

Utah has been more affected by image perfectionism than most regions. In 2007, Forbes magazine called Salt Lake City the “vainest” city in America because of its disproportionately high number of plastic surgeons. Salt Lake City has six plastic surgeons for every 100,000 residents, as compared to New York City’s four.

“People from the outside look at our conservative culture and think plastic surgery should be taboo here,” York Yates, a plastic surgeon based in Layton told Salt Lake Magazine. “In fact, plastic surgery is more popular here than in many other parts of the country.”

LaNae Valentine, director of Brigham Young University’s Women’s Services and Resources, has her own theory about why Utah has a problem with image perfectionism.

“Women here in Utah fall into the expectation that image is important,” Valentine said. “Especially speaking of LDS women, our goal is to get married and have children. So we do that, but we still want to look good, so people resort to plastic surgery.”

Further, a 2008 study done by Mental Health America, the country’s oldest independent mental health advocacy organization, ranked Utah the most depressed state in the country. Likewise, another survey released in 2008 by Express Scripts, a drug distribution company, found Utah residents were prescribed more antidepressant drugs than any other state, amounting to twice the national average.

Rebecca Hamilton, a master’s student in marriage and family therapy, consults young people struggling with image perfectionism on BYU campus. She said image perfectionism is often prevalent at BYU.

“It is a very competitive school,” Hamilton said. ”When you have those kinds of people — overachievers, really academically sound, they probably did a lot of extracurriculars in high school — they get here, and they all of the sudden become a little fish in a big pond.”

Hamilton described campus as a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, where each person tries to be the best in a certain area, gets whacked down and then tries to pop back up again as something more perfect.

“When I first came to BYU, I felt almost as if I had lost my own identity,” said Kathryn Arbon, a junior studying nursing. “In high school I felt that I was naturally pretty. Then when I got to college and saw how done-up everyone was, I started wearing more makeup, spending more time on my hair and picking out outfits so I felt like I would be considered pretty by BYU standards, too.”

According to Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory, humans instinctively want to know how they match up., thereby rating themselves either upward or downward. The trouble in society today, however, is that upward comparisons are often based on manipulated media images and are, therefore, unattainable.

“We are taught in the larger culture that to be successful we have to beat everybody else,” Hamilton said. “But really, healthy goals are against yourself. … That’s why coming to BYU you really have to shift, or I think it is dangerous if you are still comparing yourself and making goals based on other people.”

Marleen Williams, psychologist and clinical professor of counseling psychology, helps others understand how some people are predisposed to have image perfectionist tendencies.

“It all has to do with vulnerability that exist in them,” Williams said. “Two people can see the same images, and one may have a problem with it and another one might go, ‘That isn’t real anyways,’ so I think the vulnerability exists in the person prior to that.”

Though women are often more vulnerable to image perfectionism, men are also affected. The rise in fitness magazines sometimes makes many men feel they are too small, just as women feel they are too big.

The results of severe image perfectionism, like eating disorders, cosmetic surgery and depression, are always founded on trying to control the chaos or sense of inadequacy in life. Sometimes the body gets scapegoated for bigger issues. By addressing root problems that are going on, people are able to win the battle of image perfectionism.

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