Where fantasy stops, untruths begin. Carl Pettit writes on the relationship between media and body image.
We lie to children more often than we’d like to admit. We lie in order to alleviate their fears about a frightening world, and we deceive them through the images we expose them to, which tell them how they should act, or what they should look like.
Recently, I’ve noticed several companies and media campaigns coming out against the excessive use of Photoshop on already much better-than-average looking fashion models. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and shouldn’t be limited to the whims of a layout designer who prefers the gravity-defying dimensions of a Barbie Doll, or a fashion guru who thinks his or her creations look best draped over the body of a woman with the figure of an adolescent boy.
These doctored images create an illusion of a typical physique that is nothing but typical, which harms the self-esteem of kids struggling with body issues. Yes, Renaissance models were often plump, when the ideal was of wealth, extra calories that came with that wealth, and the leisure time not to burn those calories away. These days, the ideal seems to be the ability to afford a personal trainer and natural foods, which will help keep those additional calories off in the first place. Ah, the ironies of being human… peasants toiling in the field during the Renaissance probably had little difficulty maintaining a trim figure, unlike many people today—although starvation was a real concern.
How honest should the images we hold as ideals be? Even without Photoshop, models and Hollywood elites tend to be in better shape, and better looking than the rest of us. When does misleading children (and adults) break into the realm of fantasy and play? Since I want every young boy and girl to grow up with a positive self-image, I’m firmly against photo manipulation that defies human realities (I’m not talking science fiction here), but I’m still unsure of where the line should be drawn.
When I was a kid, I loved G.I Joe and action films. The amazing thing about G.I. Joe cartoons, and action movies in general, is how the hero can jump from rooftop to rooftop while running into the direct fire of several dozen .50 caliber barrel machine guns, and at worst, suffer a bullet grazing his shoulder. Back in the day, I used to incorporate this sheer nonsense into my backyard play:
“Wow, it’s a good thing I was able to roll and dodge those 32 guys and their automatic weapon fire,” my eight-year old self would say.
“Wait, you’re bleeding, man,” my dutiful playmate would inform me, right on cue.
“Damn it,” I’d exclaim, hoping my mother, working inside, didn’t overhear my curse, “a bullet grazed my shoulder. It’s just a scratch. I ain’t got time to bleed.”
Jesse Ventura uttered that last line in the Schwarzenegger flick Predator, which, at the time, was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. “I ain’t got time to bleed.” C’mon, how could a boy who already believed he was indestructible not fall in love with that?
Media images tell us what our bodies should look like, and they suggest what our bodies can and cannot do. In a society rife with guns, and a military involved in armed conflict, we might want to take stock of the fodder we feed our youth before we send them off to fight. I’m not suggesting that a young solider believes he’ll come out of hardcore combat with nothing more than a scratch (although I’m sure that’s his fervent desire), yet it’s important to remember that the boy raised on immortal action heroes still lives within the man.
So the question is how much fantasy (lies) should we allow our children to indulge in? An actor rushes toward the cannon fire of an attack helicopter and miraculously survives because implausible fantasy is his job, just as a supermodel blessed with great genetics and an incredible body (even before digital touchups) has time for a rigorous diet and workout regime because looking good, and portraying a certain kind of fantasy, is her job. Perhaps the fantasies need to change (they do over time), but we can only police the images we create so far.
My first dose of physical vulnerability came when a horse stepped on my big toe. Limping around for weeks afterwards, I had to stop leaping from the roof of my neighbor’s house to nearby trees, which was something I dearly loved—despite my mother’s prohibitions against climbing. A simple injury made me realize how easily a human being could get hurt. All someone (or something) had to do was squash one of my toes. Lesson finally learned… action heroes should always wear steel-toed boots.
All right, maybe I’m a bit of a slow learner. The false images we take in when we’re young are hard to get rid off, but hard reality for a child isn’t that much better. The trick, I suppose, is finding a balance between the two.
Photo credit: istolethetv/Flickr