In a society that craves beauty, marketers zero in on self-image
Beauty may only be skin-deep, but there's no arguing it has its perks.
Decades' worth of studies have shown that it can get you better grades in school, babies tend to like you more, the upgrade from coach to first-class is more likely, you'll probably get called back for a second interview and your paycheck might be bigger.
It's powerful enough to incite a near-riot by both men and women, who can't seem to decide whether they want to love beauty or loathe it.
At the same time that society screams for acceptance of all shapes and sizes, it can take a rabidly joyous approach to cutting beauty queens down to size.
For example: Kate Upton, the girl whose curvaceous assets earned her the distinction of being dubbed the Marilyn Monroe of the 21st century, was ceremoniously referred to as “lardy,” “porky” and a “well-marbled cow” after appearing on her first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover in 2012. Type her name into the search bar on Google, and the first two autofills that appear are “Kate Upton Fat” and “Kate Upton Weight.”
Marketing executives spend years trying to figure out what makes people tick, what fuels the compulsion to spend money. Love, sex, desire, youth, perfection, beauty, fantasy, happiness — a seemingly easy sell that consumers are buying into at a frenetic pace.
“Of course, we're going to pick pretty — we're not going to pick ugly. But this thing seems far, far more ... all-encompassing,” says actress Monica Parker, author of “Getting Waisted: A Survival Guide to Being Fat in a Society That Loves Thin.”
According to the online statistics compiler Statista, in the United States alone, $7.2 billion a year is spent on cosmetics. A simple Google search of “Beauty Tips” produces 354 million results. Mint.com has pegged $15,000 as the average amount of money a woman will spend on makeup over her lifetime. In fact, feeding off of our desires is working so well that the global personal-care industry is valued at $300 billion by market researchers Kline & Company and growing by 4.5 percent annually.
If society has grown tired of the age-old, seemingly impossible-to-achieve standards of beauty, consumers clearly aren't using their wallets to express disapproval.
“There is a contradiction; there is a hypocrisy,” says model and Pittsburgh Fashion Week founder Miyoshi Anderson.
“Beauty is a powerful concept — it can move us to tears, it can be heartbreaking, it can uplift us,” says Greg Hodge, managing director of BeautifulPeople.com, a niche online dating database that recently parlayed its offerings into job recruitment. To join the site, applicants must first submit a photo that is voted on by members of the opposite sex. So far, more than 7.5 million people around the world have applied, with 750,000 accepted as members.
Regardless of whether it's fair, the fact is that we humans are just hard-wired to desire beauty, Hodge says. “If you're in a bar or a social situation, you don't look across the bar and say, ‘Look at that man, look at that woman's beautiful soul.' It's just not a reality.”
Proof is in the pudding
“Essentially, what drives all of these businesses is money. It's the bottom line. So, whatever sells is going to be big in the image or message that they support,” says Melodee Gentry Bosna, a licensed clinical social worker therapist who specializes in body-image issues and eating disorders. “And so, for me, the thing that I always look at is, why is that message selling to begin with?”
The numbers suggest that our idea of perfection is what's selling. If consumers were to be completely honest with themselves, would Victoria's Secret be in business if its bras were modeled by an average-looking, frazzled mother of three?
“I think the proof is in the pudding. Marketing and advertising people have spent decades and billions of dollars figuring out what sells,” says Dr. Eva Ritvo, co-author of “The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful.” “Generally speaking, you're going to light up your (psychological) reward centers by looking at attractive people, and you're going to want to be like them.”
For all the complaints concerning impossible-to-achieve standards of beauty that come courtesy of the miracles of Photoshop, it's not unusual for professional models to extol the virtues of an electronic nip here or tuck there.
“I do like to see a little retouching on myself. I mean, any normal person is slightly insecure about little things on their body, and if you can blink an eye and, poof, it's gone, great,” 28-year-old Amber Tolliver told Elle magazine. Her unretouched image was one featured in American Eagle Outfitter's recent “Aerie: Real” lingerie ads that promised no airbrushing on its models.
A similar sentiment was echoed by Anderson, whose modeling career began just as the switch was being made to digital.
“With film work, there was no slimming and changing and altering any photo,” she says. “It was what it was. So, I think now that I've gotten a chance to work with both, yes, I guess I do like to see some of those changes made. However, I do my very, very best at each photo shoot by perfecting my technique.”
In her book, Parker makes the argument that it's one thing for the fashion, entertainment and beauty industries to be obsessed with our bodies. However, when we're just as obsessed with ourselves — as evidenced by the new era of selfies and social media sharing — something has gone off-kilter.
“I wonder if it's a distraction from the stress levels that we live under,” Parker says. “But, I also think that it has possibly bred a whole culture of, ‘Look at me, look at me, look at me!' I am hoping this, too, shall pass. It's not healthy.”
The Final Frontier
The impact such flawless images have on their target audience has always conjured up strong reactions. Three years ago, even the American Medical Association decided to get involved, announcing that it was adopting a policy that would “encourage” the advertising industry not to use images that could “promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.”
In 2010, Arizona State University associate professor of marketing Dr. Naomi Mandel conducted an experiment testing the theory that looking at all of those long-legged models not only depresses us, it can increase the susceptibility of young women developing eating disorders.
The results were surprising.
In her paper, she found that when looking at ads with heavier models, overweight women felt bad because they could relate to them. Meanwhile, thinner women experienced a boost in self-confidence because they didn't relate to them. When normal-weight women saw a thin model, they felt “similar and good,” while a heavier model caused them to worry that they were “similar and overweight.”
Hard-wired with an insatiable desire for beauty or not, Dan Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that when consumers finally decide to put their money where their mouth is, things will begin to change.
“I'd like to think that, over time, we'll put less emphasis on beauty. I mean, to me, it is the final frontier of discrimination,” Hamermesh says. “So, I like to think this will change, but it's not going to change in my lifetime. I think the overwhelming majority of this is a self-fueled consumer demand, not a manipulated consumer demand. So, if we don't like it, don't buy it. Boycott them.”
Kate Benz is a features writer for Trib Total Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-380-8515.