Thin. White. Blemish-free. The representation of body image in society is an air-brushed fantasy.
Thin. White. Blemish-free. The representation of body image in society is an air-brushed fantasy. Let’s take a healthy look at reality.
As a teenager, I was obsessed with models. It was the 1990s, so supermodels like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Linda Evangelista were having their moment and I memorized their names, tore their pictures out of magazines, and taped them up all over my bedroom walls. Which meant that every day, as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning, I saw bodies. Thin bodies. With visible collarbones, blemish-free (and mostly white) skin, and extremely flat stomachs.
I didn’t want to be a model, exactly. But I wanted to capture some little snippets of their beauty, like lightning bugs in a jar. I wanted those collarbones. I wanted that acne-free, airbrushed skin. I really wanted that flat stomach. I studied articles on how they applied their eye makeup. I bought the same kind of low-rise jeans (or the version I could afford on my allowance) and all of the hair products. I never felt like I came even close.
The weird part? I was a thin, white, teenage girl. I was shorter, and had less defined cheekbones maybe, but in retrospect, not otherwise all that different from them—at least to a casual, alien observer. Yet, I still felt miles and miles away from this standard of beauty that I was so immersed in studying. For my friends in bigger bodies, brown bodies, gender fluid bodies, or disabled bodies, the gulf was even more enormous. We knew that we would never see ourselves in these images. The problem was, we thought that meant we had to change.
A few years later, I started interning at fashion magazines during college. And, I learned that even the models didn’t look like that when they showed up on set—that the perfect, glossy images I had pasted all over my bedroom walls were carefully constructed through makeup, lighting, angles, and Photoshop.
This should have been liberating—why was I so desperate to look like something that didn’t actually exist? But, it wasn’t, because even when we know a photo isn’t depicting reality, we still absorb the fantasy. One British survey of 2,000 women aged 18 to 24 found that even though only 15% of participants thought photos of models accurately depicted what those women look like in real life, 33% said they felt bad about their own bodies anyway. You can’t outsmart the air you’re breathing.
Today, a big part of my job as a journalist—covering weight stigma and body image—is to help parents think about how to change the conversation around weight and beauty standards for their kids. Often, parents don’t think they’re focused on beauty. They think they just want their kids to be healthy. But, they haven’t considered how much our cultural definition of “healthy” is tied up in a thin, white beauty ideal. Healthy bodies can come in all sizes, genders, colors, and abilities. When we equate health only with a certain body type, we make health far less attainable to everyone else.
This, ironically, leads to worse health. Think about it: If you only exercise to lose weight or tone up, you’re going to stop when it stops working, which means you’ll miss out on all the other ways that exercise concretely and consistently improves your health. We have to separate health from beauty, and to do that, we need a broader definition of what we consider beautiful.
In some ways, that’s getting easier. The rise of the body positivity movement on social media has increased the visibility to all sorts of bodies—if you know where to look for them. But, social media also means that kids today are also sold the thin, white beauty ideal earlier and more often than ever before.
Teenagers today don’t read magazines as fervently as we did in the 90s. Instead, they go on their phones and scroll through thousands and thousands of these images. My wallpapered childhood bedroom was a minimalist Zen retreat compared to this onslaught. The super model has been replaced by the Instagram influencer—and she has more power than ever.
As adults, we’re just as inundated, and influenced. And, all too often, the same thin, white body marketed as ideal by fashion models and fitness influencers is used as the default body in every kind of media. So, we aren’t just absorbing these ideals when we’re consciously looking up diets or workout plans. We’re encountering them every time we go online, or pick up a book or a magazine about anything.
Stock photography has long reflected these deeply ingrained cultural norms, which means that images that should have nothing to do with beauty—the photos accompanying a travel ad or a personal finance article, say—end up perpetuating and reinforcing these same rigid norms.
For years, if you scanned through stock photography archives, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people of color just never went to the beach, that people in bigger bodies never exercise or eat, and that people who use wheelchairs simply don’t exist. When folks in marginalized bodies did appear, it was in ways that reinforced stigma, especially around weight. Plus-size people often didn’t even have heads when you saw them, and you only ever saw them as B-roll footage or stock photography attached to news stories about the “dangers of obesity.”
This wasn’t accidental but, rather, cyclical. Stock photography users make choices about which images to use. This influences what their readers or customers see, which influences what they think that market wants to see. And, it also influences which images stock agencies offer.
Portraying marginalized bodies as sad and unhealthy reinforces the message that they are these things. What our kids need to see—what we all need to see—is quite the opposite. Let’s see plus-size people smiling, strong, in love. Let’s see disabled people exercising, working, living life. Let’s see queer brown boys, and Black girl magic. Let’s see these bodies as humans—complex, imperfect, and beautiful.