Profit vs Wellbeing: How the Mass Media is Shaping the Self-Image of Teens

February 13, 2013


In today’s world, we are constantly surrounded by some form of media. Whether it is a television commercial telling the viewers to buy a shampoo that will make their hair look like they just stepped out of a salon or a tabloid asking grocery store shoppers to guess which celebrity’s body it is, the emphasis on appearance in our society can not be ignored. Teenagers are looking at models who wear perfectly draped sweaters that hang loosely over skyscraper legs, and they desire to look the same way. However, whenever those thoughts run through the mind, they create questions of what normal truly is. Are we supposed to look like those models? Are media companies setting the standard for how teenagers really look? Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t fit into the mold, but I’m not the only teenager that’s been put into this position.

Media outlets are using the same mold for every body type or facial structure in their advertisements that are shown to the public; in Western society “thin is in” and  artificial means such as liposuction are used to lessen the appearance of hips, buttocks, and general fat (FCC Foundation).  When the models who have a smoother jawline, thinner nose, and smaller body frame look better in a product than the consumer, teenagers begin to think that something is wrong with their size and appearance. With their young age comes increasing susceptibility to the negative influence such messages have on their body image. After consideration of those negative thoughts, the values they are instilled with from a young age begin to conflict with each other. If parents tell their children that they are special from a young age, and they should be happy on the inside no matter what, then feelings of insecurity seem like thoughts of betrayal to the set of standards they were raised with. These thoughts bring discomfort yet also plant the seeds of “what if” into the mind.  What if teenagers actually looked like that? What would their lives be like? Would they be happier?

Statistics show that an average American in a city will be exposed to upwards of 5,000 media images per day (Story). Now when the concept of photoshop is taken into account, it is important to note that at least 28% of advertisements are retouched with a disclaimer, and an estimated 44% are retouched without a disclaimer (Huffington Post). An advertisement with a disclaimer includes cases such as a mascara commercial where the model is wearing false eyelashes, and there is a small asterisk as the bottom that tells the viewer the lashes are not real. As a result of this exposure, plastic surgeons are seeing an increase in both interest and procedures in the teenage demographic based on a report that explores the correlates of young women’s interest in obtaining cosmetic surgery. In a report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons there was a 44% increase in lip augmentations in 13-19 year olds (ASPS), and a 69% increase in chin augmentations in the same age group between the years of 2010 and 2011 (ASPS), and most shocking of all, there was a 548% increase in cosmetic procedures in the same age group from 1996 to 2010. Teenagers are on the rise in the list of those looking for body enhancement. This age group often has plastic surgery to improve physical characteristics that they believe to be awkward or flawed, and that if left uncorrected, may affect them well into adulthood.  An example that depicts the media’s large influence is a study from 1995 where a US television channel in Fiji started broadcasting imported US shows such as Friends. By three years later, 11.9% of Fijian adolescent girls were diagnosed with bulimia, where there were previously no reports of bulimia ever existing. Yes, it must be acknowledged that perhaps cases existed before and simply hadn’t been reported, but based on the concrete facts presented; a red flag has been raised. However anyone who undergoes plastic surgery should make sure to do their job and are well informed about the risks and dangers involved in the surgery.

The cosmetic surgery industry in the United States is booming, with profits expected to reach $17.5 billion by 2015. (PR Web) In a society that is so focused on hunting down the fountain of youth, many seem to think they have found the next best thing in both invasive and non-invasive procedures to help nip and tuck the unwanted edges. We have managed to take something that was once an individual’s most guarded secret and turn it into a luxurious vacation known as a “surgery safari” in South Africa where rejuvenated patients can take photos posing with wild animals (Kuczynski).   As technology advances, cosmetic surgery is slowly becoming more and more accessible to those who could not afford procedures or perhaps were nervous about the safety of different surgical routines.  On top of a higher level of accessibility, Americans are finding it easier to rationalize the desire for altering their appearance. In a dog-eat-dog world where job competition is fierce and the growing popularity of weight-loss reality shows, who couldn’t be inspired to change the way they look? We have been told that change is good- change is better. In fact, we are constantly surrounded by media images that encourage us to change ourselves such as the toothpaste that will make your teeth whiter- they’re too yellow right now- or the underwear that will make you look a whopping five pounds lighter because that extra half inch on your torso doesn’t do anything to accentuate your waist. Media companies are at large, and they are convincing individuals that there is something about them to modify. Over time the innocent individuals may purchase different beauty product that provide a temporary change, but something more permanent becomes necessary, and beauty modification is taken to a more drastic level.

When the extreme measures of cosmetic surgery are taken, there is a great question of how can underage patients even get these surgeries in the first place. In America there is no restriction on the minimum age for cosmetic procedures, but only the requirement that an underage patient be at a high enough maturation level, so that the surgery will not be altered too much by the body of teenager who is still growing and changing in natural ways. This requirement monitors changes in the rate of change of shoe size and height in order to make a definitive decision on how much the patient will grow in the future. As long as a parent or guardian is present in the consultation room, there are no problems whatsoever. For some adults, the lack of restrictions is concerning. After all, what parent would allow their teenager to go under a knife in order to change how they look? Yet the decision for the parents of patients is not as difficult as one may think. Although the reasoning appears to be a bit hazy, the step-father of one 17 year-old breast augmentation patient says, “You send them to a good school. You’d buy them shoes. You’d get the braces, which we did. Everything comes with a price.” He feels the surgery brought a beneficial change to his step-daughters life stating, “[she] feels much better about herself….and healthier.” (Crezo)

Ask “Do I really need to do this?”  According to American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) statistics, about 224,000 cosmetic plastic surgery procedures were performed on people age 13-19 in 2010. These statistics are shocking and stand as a wake-up call to take notice of the active changes in our society and the way we view each other. Ethically speaking, there is a question of how traditional values are being traded for superficial values. First, how society values extrinsic objects that bring an individual happiness versus how it values the intrinsic values that provide happiness. In the American dream, the pursuit of happiness and opportunity is placed above all else and superficiality is looked upon negatively. Yet when the mental conflict of what’s desired more becomes an issue- it must be taken into consideration how this affects the teen. Secondly, capital value pits itself against the personal identity of teens because the incentive of companies to maximize profits ends up not aligning with the goal of fostering the healthy living of teens. Many media companies think about nurturing the self-image of teens, however they are heavily incentivized to put capital first. The duty of the advertisers to make a profit does not support certain other goals they may have. Yet what is more valuable in society- the self-value of teens, which subsequently can increase the confidence and inner-happiness, or the high profits made by media companies, which further exploit the external items/happiness money has to offer?

In the aspect of external happiness, there appears to be a societal value placed on how “attractive” an individual is. When a person is attractive, they generally get treated better, and have more opportunities in the career world. Existing studies have proven that attractive men and women earn more than average looking people. (Shellenbarger) In a lifetime, that “more” amount can add up to about 3-4%. Based on the average American’s salary, that small percentage tallies up to show that “attractive” people can earn up to $230,000 more than an “ugly” person over a lifetime, and even an “average” looking person can earn up to $140,000 more than someone who is considered to be unattractive. Also, rather than decreasing it, modernity has only increased the emphasis men and women place on a woman’s appearance. Those who are constantly seeing an attractive model staring back at them from an ad are going to prefer someone that is considered “visually appealing” when juxtaposed with someone who is not traditionally adhering to norms of commercial beauty. Cosmetic surgery offers solace to the women, teenagers, and men who have a low perception of their own self-image. If they become more attractive through surgical means, they think the world will have more to offer them. Thus, the value of external happiness can literally have a price on it. Furthermore, society has the perception that individuals who are more appealing to the eye are generally more likeable. What it then comes down to is that beautiful people are perceived to be nicer and happier in any standard of beauty across all cultures. When the adolescent grows into adulthood it can also lead into a self-fulfilling process; after constantly processing the expectations of those that are beautiful i.e. confident, popular, successful, etc, they morph into what is “normal” of people with these characteristics. After growing in self-confidence, attractive people can continue on to earning a higher average salary and better treatment from authority figures or the legal system. At the end of the day, the superficial happiness that money can bring an individual is not always the most fulfilling. Harvard psychologists conducted a study that proved wealth increases human happiness only to above the poverty line and into the middle class. Once an individual has enough money to live in the middle class, they are given the opportunity to choose commodities they may not have been able to afford previously. Afterward, money does little to increase happiness above the middle class. (Begley) While money may seem like a way to get ahead in life, there are also shortcomings and money does not always provide the high level of life-satisfaction one would expect.

Another point of view to take on the issue is the factor of money. In a capitalistic society, competition is encouraged in businesses, and capital gain is the primary incentive in a for-profit company. Yet what does this reflect about how human beings view or respect each other? Many media companies only care about making a profit, and are willing to go to any means in order to one-up their competitors. Using Dove Skin Care as an example, in 2004 the company launched the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”. This movement hopes to create a world where one day, “beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.” It seeks to raise the self-esteem of women and girls all over the world- but to what cost? It turns out that the net gain is zero. Based on quarterly reports, Unilever (the mother company of Dove) neither lost nor gained any profit in the years following the launch of the campaign. Although it appears that nothing is wrong with the campaign, the ineffectiveness has proved to other media companies that this is not a clever strategy when it comes to marketing and advertising. The consumers appreciate the campaign, it’s refreshing to see “real” women on their televisions, but when profit stays the same, it is clear to competitors that the original tactic is just as effective. When the earnings stay the same, there is no motivation to change advertising strategies. On the other hand, many media companies are over-photoshopping their models into unrealistic proportions, that are completely unattainable for any average person. One of the repeat offenders of being caught with outrageous photoshop techniques is Ralph Lauren. Models wearing their clothing appear in magazines with waists smaller than the width of their head while their shoulders are a normal distance apart, taking the term “hour glass shape” to an entirely new level. Not only is this extremely off-putting to look at for the consumers, but it also makes the already thin model appear completely alien. The Ralph Lauren photoshop mishap exemplifies how when companies seek to find more of a profit by fooling their customers into thinking the models and clothing look different than they really do, it can come back in the form of a public who is angry at being tricked. Conversely, when the public is seeing the whole truth, as in the Dove campaign, they may not be inclined to purchase the honest product.

During their teenage years, adolescents are in the most formative stages of their brain, and are very impressionable. Things that they are exposed to can easily change their perception of how they should act or look. Media plays a large role in their lives and is one of the most powerful daily influences. One outlet of media that is incredibly popular nowadays is reality television. Shows such as “Extreme Makeover” or “The Swan” show people who aren’t believed to be beautiful undergoing cosmetic surgery to become more attractive. Despite the title of “reality television”, there is nothing real about it. It fails to depict the pitfalls and bad outcomes of cosmetic procedures by downplaying the risks and upselling the glamour. Some risks include unexpected bleeding, nerve damage leading to muscle paralysis, scarring, side effects of anesthesia, and depression. We are left with an unrealistic view of how severe these surgeries truly are. A brief interview with a producer of one of these reality shows also depicts how skewed the ideas of the entertainment business are, and how wary TV audiences need to be of the information they are receiving from these programs. Research shows that body dissatisfaction motivates low self-esteem individuals to pursue cosmetic surgery as a result from the internalization of the media messages they are receiving.  After leading to many negative self-image related body dysmorphic disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, cosmetic surgery suddenly becomes the go-to for fixing problems in the lives of teenagers who are experiencing social issues, but the issue is that their ideas of self may become warped in the process. They start to believe that by not looking like everyone else, something is physically wrong with them. In a short special by ABC News, Nadia, a 14 year-old from Georgia, received $40,000 worth of surgery for free from a foundation because of facial “deformities” that she was born with. These deformities included ears that stick out and a deviated septum. Neither of which are known to physically deteriorate an individual’s quality of life. However she was eligible to have her surgeries paid for. She originally wanted only to get her ears pinned back, but the surgeon proposed an added nose job and chin implant in order to “balance her face.” What message does this relay to other teenagers struggling with their own body image? Connotations that follow the word deformity are not socially accepted and are generally negative. The implications on a teen’s body image from thinking that they were born deformed can be detrimental to their perception of themself.

So what can we do to prevent the election for cosmetic surgery in teenagers? A compromise should be made for media companies who target the teenage demographic to be more consciously aware of what images they are putting out to the public eye. Yes, the models have to be attractive in order to attract consumers, but just because they don’t fit the mold of previous models’ looks doesn’t mean that they can’t be attractive in other ways. Confidence and happiness have been proven to portray beauty over the physical looks of an individual. Certain major media outlets such as Seventeen Magazine have begun to embrace the movement of fighting against virtual alterations of models and celebrities. Seventeen Magazine has launched a “Body Peace Treaty” where anyone can sign an online pledge where they vow to appreciate themselves for their personalities and confidence instead of focusing on the numbers on the tags inside their jeans. Now, in added support of this treaty, the magazine itself has pledged to put at least one unaltered photo in each issue sold. Although an ideal goal is to have every image unaltered, this step is one that is going in the right direction and passionate individuals have taken it upon themselves to create petitions to encourage more behavior from other media companies. With examples such as 14 year-old Nadia from the ABC News report that was mentioned before, it is clear that the emphasis on appearance is as high as ever. I believe that steps such as these should be necessary in all fashion magazines as well as advertising companies. Airbrushing and photoshop can still be allowed- for it would be severely unrealistic to expect businesses to cease this action completely- but for every year at least one image released would be untouched by any technology. It sends a message that not every picture has to be perfect, and in turn it could possibly make certain companies that over-edit seem more attractive to the everyday consumer.

Works Cited

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Natalie Camponovo is a senior at Kent Place School. After initially hearing about The Bioethics Project 2012: The Medically Modified Human, she decided to apply in hopes of learning more about ethics in the medical field. The class trip that Natalie and the other interns made during the summer to Johnson & Johnson’s Clean and Clear department where they learned about the ethics of advertising inspired Natalie to pursue her topic of the influence of the media in teenagers’ decisions to undergo cosmetic surgery, where she explores the effects of photoshop and advertising images on teenagers' body image and their desire to get cosmetic surgery. The Bioethics Project has given her not only more of a medical knowledge, but also research and presentation skills she will able to bring to college in the fall.

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