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Instagram and body image: stretching the truth

November 15, 2017

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Instagram and body image: stretching the truth

November 15, 2017

Image: Zinteta, Instagram


This week, actor Lupita Nyong'o accused Grazia magazine of airbrushing away her natural hair on its cover. A few weeks earlier, Solange Knowles called out the Evening Standard's removal of her braids on the front page of ES magazine. While both cases specifically highlighted the importance of hair in black women's culture and the mainstream media's reluctance to respect this, they also showed once again how magazines and newspapers routinely promote a certain type of beauty that bears little resemblance to the reality of women's experience. 


I'm not sure what the collective noun for images that lie about what someone really looks like should be (A manipulation? An unrealism?) but I could quote you a whole heap of them from my own experience working on women's magazines.


The TV comedy actress whose hard skin was removed from her feet by the deputy editor on a national newspaper entertainment supplement, the arm tattoo that disappeared from a real life story about a bride's perfect day (but, obviously, not-so perfect body), the Hollywood star happily playing with her twins on a public beach whose stretch marks were erased. I've had moles removed and hair smoothed when I've been pictured for articles I wrote, and each time when I saw the 'me but not me' result, it made me feel that I'd been scrutinised and found wanting.


And it's not just women. Rather than us feeling less pressure, men are now facing the same expectations of conforming to accepted notions of beauty. I suppose it's equality, of a sort.


As recent studies have shown, boys and young men are feeling increasingly bad about how they look and spending hours in the gym. Not, as in the past, to get fit, but to achieve a Ryan Gosling-style six-pack.


Australian research also found that while women still outnumber men when it comes to feeling pressure about how they look, they are also a lot more likely to talk about it and seek help. The study, published by the University of Sydney, found men are up to four times more likely to remain undiagnosed with body image issues than women. 


Many people are increasingly blaming social media for a rise in problems with self-esteem and body image among young people, accusing Instagram of encouraging a generation of narcissists more interested in pouting for selfies than contributing to society. The app has also been implicated in negatively affecting young people's mental health.


While there may be some truth in this, social media is also helping young people.


Some of the strongest messages against media manipulation of images are now coming from users of the very platforms that have contributed to the problem.


You can find YouTube channels promoting body positivity and Twitter accounts lampooning newspaper websites' frankly creepy ways of describing the female body.


And Instagram itself is biting back. Barcelona-based artist Cinta Tort Cartró's account, under the name Zinteta, showcases what others might consider imperfections on women's bodies and turns them into something beautiful.


Stretch marks are celebrated with paint and glitter, mastectomy scars adorned with multi-coloured petals. She explains: 'All bodies have (more or less) spots, hairs, freckles, stretch marks, curves, lines, wounds, wrinkles ... and all are just as valid. It is high time that we begin to love ours.' 


Unrealistic notions of the ideal form aren't new. Whether it was Rueben's painted curves or Jean Shrimpton's rouged cheekbones, us humans do like to compare ourselves to beautiful people and find ourselves wanting.


Those trying to sell an imaginary, ideal lifestyle and the products that promise to deliver it will always manipulate the resources they have to work with because they know that happy, satisfied people don't spend money trying to right what they think is wrong with their world – or their body.


What's fascinating now is that social media and the internet is allowing us to call out those doing it, as Lupita Nyong'o and Solange Knowles have done, and maybe even shame the image manipulators into thinking before they open Photoshop. And that can only be a good thing.



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