Every day when I wake up, one of the first things I do is look at myself in the mirror.
I gaze upon the same face, eyes, complexion and body I see every day. Yet, every day I fall into the same complication, my self-love depreciates the longer I look.
My hair is too messy. My acne is coming in. I’m not tall enough. I’m too fat.
All of these thoughts add up, and by the time I’m done looking at myself, all I can think is: “I’m not enough and will likely never be enough.”
But why do I think this way?
Because the media has been telling me — and all of us — that to be sexy and beautiful we need to live up to the looks of a select few.
Beauty comes in various shapes and forms. But if the media is to be believed, beauty can be reduced down to a couple of social media models and influencers who are wearing makeup, posting photoshopped pictures and undergoing Brazilian Butt Lifts. Media messages about what beauty looks like are hurting all of us, but specifically young women and girls, with unrealistic beauty standards.
In 2020, Americans had more cosmetic plastic surgery procedures than any other country, with over 4.6 million surgeries performed, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. This number is over 2.7 million more than the second-ranked country, Brazil.
These surgeries are wide-ranging. The top-five cosmetic procedures are nose reshaping, eyelid surgery, facelifts, liposuction and breast augmentation.
When we look at just how physically attractive media darlings are — especially those in reality TV shows, magazine covers and beauty product advertisements — we can see why so many Americans are getting body alterations to fit beauty norms.
Men who are over six feet tall, have six packs and exhibit the most well-structured faces are deemed the most attractive, while the women with fair skin, clear complexions and the skinniest hips or biggest behinds are put on a pedestal. While behind the scenes many of them have gone through plastic surgery to achieve their looks.
Data has shown that girls as young as 6 are conscious of their body shapes and are self-conscious of their weight and shape. A 1991 survey of 1,118 preadolescent children found that 42% of first-to-third-grade girls wanted to be thinner.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the media has been planting the seeds of unrealistic beauty standards in our daily social consumption, and it’s poisoning our communities.
One of the deadliest mental illnesses is anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder where individuals try to achieve or maintain a below-average weight through starvation or excessive exercise due to their distorted body image and a fear of being overweight. Eating disorders affect about 9% of Americans and result in 10,200 deaths a year, according to Harvard University.
Yet, the more I look through Instagram, the more I see the platform’s algorithm highlighting individuals — predominantly women — who fit these hurtful beauty norms.
I have the option to close social media apps, but I have to walk past magazine covers, billboards and posters featuring all the same models. They star in most of my favorite shows. I view them in pop-up ads on all my personal devices.
There is no way to fully escape.
I am trapped in the matrix of what a beautiful and sexy person “looks like,” and sadly, I’ve been falling for it. I fear that I’ve just become a part of the algorithm.
Increasingly, media companies are employing AI-based facial analysis tools to rank what content is beautiful and attractive.
AI gathers its data from a wide variety of data sources, but most AI-generated content is not filtered out for inaccuracies and prejudice.
With drastic new steps in digital technology, we are making the definition of beauty even more exclusive.
AI algorithms have already indirectly led to the creation of “Instagram face,” which can be attained by editing photos to make your nose smaller, eyes bigger and lips fuller. People do this to get prioritized for recommendation by social media algorithms, according to MIT Technology Review.
These same algorithms also give higher attractiveness rankings to white women.
Many social media users, especially women and girls of darker skin tones, internalize these messages and genuinely believe that they need to change themselves to fit these unrealistic standards. Some even try to make their skin lighter with filters and skin whitening.
Amira Adawe, founder and executive director of BeautyWell, an organization that aims to end skin-lightening practices, conducts workshops where she informs dark-skinned girls about the dangers of social media filters lightening their skin.
“They think it’s normal. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is not skin-lightening, Amira. This is just a filter,’” Adawe told MIT Technology Review. “A lot of these young girls use these filters and think, ‘Oh my God, I look beautiful.’”
Snapchat lenses are used by 200 million active users daily, a Snapchat spokesperson told MIT Technology Review. Some of these filters lighten users’ skin tones. Instagram and TikTok also have filters and automatic enhancement features that lighten skin automatically.
The skin-lightening beauty standard has built a national skin-whitening empire. The skin whitening industry makes $8 billion in global revenue every year, according to CNN. Women account for 80% of sales worldwide. This booming industry is expected to increase its profit margins by 50% within the next six years and social media is fueling the market for these products.
Many skin-whitening products are sold and/or promoted on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Many of these products also contain harmful ingredients like steroids, hydroquinone and mercury.
Sure, there is a fair share of no-makeup and plus-size campaigns, but mass media has made many of our cultural beliefs more uniform. And with unity comes danger.
It’s hurting our communities. It’s deceiving us into believing that we need to change our appearance — even if it hurts to do so — to fit some arbitrary societal beauty standards.
Remember that just because something’s in the media doesn’t mean it’s true.
Look in the mirror and point out what makes you beautiful and sexy rather than focusing on what societal messaging deems imperfect.
If there is one thing you take away from this, please remember to be conscious of how you speak and treat others, especially women. Somebody who’s been led to believe they’re ugly might be listening.
Remember to let those around you know that they are beautiful and sexy, just like you.
A.J. Franklin is an assistant features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org