Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Paradox of American Nudity: Being in the Dark on Body Image

Think of all the naked people you've seen in your life, in person or on a screen. If your the average American, then the majority is from movies, TV (especially cable), various photo sites (imgur, tumblr, etc) and porn. If we extend that to partially clothed or advertising's tastefully nude then you can add magazines, commercials, and even billboards.
And if you're the average American, then the minority will be people you see in person.

I'm certainly not trying to make a statement about porn or the oversexualization in media, but I want to talk about body image and how we learn to form it.
Sex sells, this a fact of advertising. But, if the medium doesn't allow for sex, then sexy works just as well.

Actresses in television has transformed in the last few decades from being pretty, attractive, beautiful, and gorgeous to any combination as long as it's at least 50% on the sexy side.
Actors are given more slack but the trend is the same. When I rewatch Breaking Bad episodes, I realize that Walter White may be one of the last male leads who cannot be described as smoldering, hot, or even conventionally handsome.

Why This is a Problem

Overly sexy and sexualized people are going be in mainstream media. This, for the foreseeable future, is unavoidable.
The issue is that overly sexy women and men in mass media are becoming our basis for body judgments for ourselves and those around us.
This is compounded by our general culture of anti-nudity, leaving us with the paradox that nudity should pervade if it's at a distance, but in person it's often viewed between strange and unacceptable. Even in nude spaces. In America the number of open shower gyms is vastly overshadowed by the number of gyms offering private ones, so the chances of even glimpsing another body declines. Moreover, when people get ready in a nude space like a gym, they hurry to hide and conceal themselves until at least underwear is donned.

I never considered this, until my girlfriend came back from our gym after using the showers for the first time and expressed the immense relief she felt seeing a variety of other naked women for the first time.
She's 22, and until that point she simply didn't get the scope of variation the human body has to offer.

I can only imagine what seeing a group of average (a word which has become strong avoided in description) bodies can do for self image after only seeing media manufactured and frankly overly similar. These tailor made photogenic bodies only represent a portion of our real corporeal demographic, but with an aggressive market and even more aggressive marketing they are normalized to the point of being our litmus test of physical beauty.

This is exacerbated painfully if you're a minority. The vast number in media are made to have a look to grab the largest audiences (i.e. white). So minorities in mainstream media, already left with little representation, are comparing themselves to already incompatible paradigm.

Past to Today

Undoubtedly this was a problem in the past but today it's exacerbated ad nauseam. Fifty years ago we used to be significantly more covered up in media. The laws were much tougher and public outrage was such a threat that the first belly button to air on TV had to be have less then 3 seconds in screen time. Men and women would still bear a tailored  and specific look that didn't represent society as a whole but the details were unknown and not as great a source of dysmorphia. In that time being self conscious could remain in face and figure. Compare to today, with the same nude images in repetition, anyone with modem becomes anxious.

Posing and Motion

Seeing a group of nude people is eye-opening but witnessing these bodies in motion is even more so.It's then that we appreciate that posture and posing can mean everything.
So here's our rub of inter-connectivity: we see the right bodies at a distance, and we imitate it. In a time of increasing visibility, average is unacceptable. And so we learn to pose.

Facebook photos today have stopped being casual. They are often planned and changed. The average university student can sense a camera in a room and more important can place themselves for optimal positioning.
Flip through a few online albums and you'll quickly notice the same handful of body stances and poses in a loop. The trend is so ubiquitous, many already have names (sorority squat, knee pop, duck face, etc).

The number of students who know how to strike a good pose wouldn't surprise anyone, but the number of unspoken doctored FB photos probably would.

Overall, we keep looking at others in reference to ourselves and comparing. I'm not saying it's intrinsically a bad thing, but if you want to look at media as standard for your own beauty, know that the odds are stacked high against you.

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