April 18, 2005

Perception of Female Beauty and How It Is Portrayed in the Media

Throughout history, the common person has understood his/her era's perception of beauty by how it was presented by the media of the day. The media not only presents society's current ideal, but it helps propagate that ideal through its assertions that the ideal can be made into a reality. In the past, that idea imitated what was being seen in the reality of the time, but in the present day that ideal has become exaggeratedly unreal.

In the Classical era, the feminine ideal was that which was attainable by the aristocracy. Hearty, well-fed, pale, small breasted and statuesque, this ideal was best portrayed through both paintings and sculpture. In the Victorian era, emphasis was placed on thin, corseted waists (again, attainable only by the aristocracy), but the ideal soon returned to the healthy, proportioned look. Sex Goddesses of the 20th Century, such as Marilyn Monroe, had that same pale, healthy, average-chested look that would be considered heavy by our current standards.

Because of various factors, including the supposed abolishment of social classes, our culture’s perception of the ideal has not only drastically changed, but it is now available to the masses through four distinct mediums – Television and Film, Magazines, Comic Books and Video Games, and Traditional Print Media. Each of these mediums uses the same ideal for its own specific purposes.

Television and Film

In most television sitcoms and film, “the ideal” is pitted against “the other.” The other is always a form of comedy, representing either the fat, imperfect, and unhappy female seen in Friends, The Nanny, and Bridget Jones’ Diary, or the short, smart, and funny female seen in Seinfeld and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.

In Friends, Monica’s fatter, younger self is a source of amusement for her and her friends. Flashbacks and a fat suit are utilized to heighten this contrast, and the audience is given permission to laugh because she has now turned into the ideal. Because her miseries as the other have passed, the common woman watching Friends may believe that she too can make a dramatic change toward the ideal. In The Nanny, Fran Fine, the ideal, is constantly worried about turning into her fat, unhappy mother Sylvia. The joke is intensified as Fran dreams of her future self (The actress in a fat suit). The common aging process called gaining weight is seen as the ultimate fall from grace.

For the film Bridget Jones’ Diary, actress Renee Zellwiger had to gain a severe amount of weight in order to play the fat, unhappy woman who tries to find love. In truth, her weight only ranged from 119-133 lbs, well below that of the American average of 162 lbs. Immediately after the movie finished filming, Zellwiger was praised by the media for managing to lose the weight and return to the ideal.

Two of the most famous female comedians fall into the other “other” category – Janeane Garofolo and Julia Louise-Dreyfus. The token female in Seinfeld, Julia Louise-Dreyfus made the character of Elaine famous through her multi-faceted personality. Elaine managed to be selfish, independent, crafty, loyal, funny, and smart, all while remaining loveable in her “normalcy.” Her flaws made her famous, but they also created a character too unlike the ideal to survive without the comedic elements. An actress also appearing in Seinfeld, Janeane Garofolo became famous by capitalizing on the fact that she wasn’t the ideal. In Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, for example, Garofolo played a sarcastic, cynical, and bitter woman whose anger is directed toward the title characters (the ideals). Although she eventually finds happiness in the end, that happiness is dwarfed by that of the ideals.

In recent years, the emergence of Reality TV, in particular makeover shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan have changed the popular belief that the current ideal is an unattainable goal. These shows make achieving the media’s ideal of beauty a reality. Many doctors, however, have spoken against these shows, claiming that the plastic surgeries used are themselves ideal scenarios. The candidates chosen are done so based on how dramatic their transformation will look with the least amount of surgeries. Candidates are also chose based on the elasticity of their skin, so that the amount of surgeries performed won’t be as dangerous as they would be for the majority of people who have less elasticity in their skin.


While television sitcoms and film can merely contrast the ideal with the other, magazines have the ability to make an exaggerated form of the ideal seem like the reality. With tools such as airbrushing and hours of hair and makeup, they are able to turn the tiniest human imperfections into absolute perfection. In the words of Cindy Crawford: “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.” Magazines capitalize on this method by assuring readers that the look is not only real, but attainable. In the April 2005 issue of Marie Claire, for example, an article entitled “Sexy Body Tricks” illustrated how stars such as Heidi Klum and Jennifer Lopez became “blonder, thinner, and tanner” as they became more famous, then gave the readers quick tips on how to achieve the same look. These tips included getting “face-brightening highlights,” using sunless tanning cream, and using a dry grapeseed oil to enhance muscle definition. While these tips may help, they can in no way produce the desired effect. While the magazines may insist that the ideal is attainable, their step-by-step methods to reach the ideal only gloss the surface.

Another key element to magazines is their ability to show new trends in the ideal. The cover of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition about 10 years ago shows that the ideal was the extremely skinny, almost waif-ish, big-breasted look. Emphasis is placed on her chest, not her body as a whole. In the most recent Victoria Secret Swimsuit Collection, the model is seen as being not only thin, but muscular. While her chest is prominent, so are her abdominal muscles. She is by no means waif-ish; she maintains a healthy balance between thin and fit.

Comic Books and Video Gages

The feminine ideal in both comic books and video games is severely exaggerated – perhaps because they are both male-dominated forms of media. Video game characters such as Lara Croft are shown with disproportionately large breasts and unhealthily skinny waists. In comic books, female characters such as Catwoman are also given abnormally large breasts, although they tend to be somewhat more proportional to the rest of her body. However, more detail is given to her body than it is to her face, which remains rather anonymous. Although part of this is attributed to her anonymity behind the mask, the detail given to Superman’s chin makes his masked face extremely recognizable.

Traditional Print Media

While portrayal of the feminine ideal is not as extreme in traditional print media as it is in other mediums, that same ideal is still subtly portrayed. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, he describes the ideal by describing how his love cannot compare to that ideal. By pointing out her shortcomings and flaws, he points out what feminine beauty should be. In the romance novels of today, the majority of heroines are described as having small waists, ample bosoms, and irresistible beauty. While the reader can choose to picture any heroine she wants, the initial description is that of the ideal.

In my presentation on this subject last Tuesday I attempted to portray these themes in similar detail but I know I didn’t go nearly in depth enough. Hopefully this blog will clear up some of my loose ends.

Posted by JohannaDreyfuss at April 18, 2005 08:10 PM | TrackBack