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What My Childhood Dream Says About Advertising and Body Dysmorphia

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

My childhood dream job was to be a “Victoria’s Secret” model. I ritually watched episodes of “America’s Next Top Model,” idolized Tyra Bank’s “smize” and practiced my catwalk on the not-so-glamorous brown carpet of my living room. The Victoria’s Secret catalog was my bible, and their model’s glowing skin, mature bodies and perfectly tousled hair were like candy to me. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to own every panty, bra and body spray they could throw at me.

Trivial questions clouded my thoughts on a regular basis. “Do you think I’ll have big boobs when I grow up,” I asked after studying my mother’s catalog. I must have been 10 and already theorized I needed a trim waist and perky chest to be valued as a woman.

Regardless of my breast size, I slowly realized my chances of being an underwear model were slim. My height peaked at 5 feet 4 inches and acne traveled from my face to my chest and back. Summer became the most dreaded season of the year. I avoided bathing suits and backless shirts like the plague. At 19, I opted to work at a “Victoria’s Secret” instead and watched Candice Swanepoel and Adriana Lima mimic me from cardboard cutouts throughout the store.

By that time, I fell even deeper into the brand’s web and became what was essentially a walking “Victoria’s Secret” PINK ad. It wasn’t enough to just wear the store’s underwear; I needed to sport their leisure clothing, too. I needed to smell exactly like what Rosie Huntington smelled like. It wasn’t just about fitting into the company culture; it was about making myself look much sexier than I felt. Having sex appeal was the cure to my depression and deep-seated insecurities.

A year later, in my university’s media ethics class, I was assigned to defend advertising’s influence on body shaming and sexism. My debate opponent made accurate points about the skinny, sexualized models we see in advertisements every day. She talked about the lack of representation of colored women and how it affects a woman’s self-esteem. My mind instantly went back to years of obsessing over those high-heeled, size-0 glamazons gracing my stack of Cosmopolitan magazines in my bedroom. I knew my opponent was right. As a woman, I knew it too well.

Instead, I argued the advertising industry didn’t create societal standards, but rather mimicked the message that was already embedded in American culture. I was confident with the newfound ability to make things up as I went along — a skill students often learned during their first year of liberal arts college. By the time my debate was over, I almost believed myself. Isn’t that what marketers do best? Stress a message they’re paid to share until their vulnerable audience believes it. This concept, altering a message to change the consumer’s perception, is known as marketing spin and is an extremely harmful form of propaganda.

Regardless of my college debate and years of work within the industry, I am still vulnerable to advertising. Every day, I struggle to counter pesky “I’m not good enough or skinny enough” thoughts. Every day, I force myself to ignore the compulsion to not nourish or love myself. Every day, I avoid the urge to buy tanning lotions, exfoliants, hair products, makeup, you name it, to reach society’s view of perfection — a standard that is so very obviously unobtainable, yet I feel the need to achieve it to feel like I matter as a woman.

Marketers are paid to make you believe their product — in my case, a lacy, sequined bra — is the solution to hating yourself. The irony is that their message is what’s causing a flux of body dysmorphia among women — a mental illness that causes persistent and intrusive thoughts of imagined defects in one’s appearance. These ads showcase unrealistic body types which are often altered significantly, thus causing women to compare themselves and feel unsatisfied with their weight. An essay by Healthy Place found 75% of women assumed they’re overweight, while 90% overestimated their body size. So, what some may call a “vanity” illness is actually a big culprit in developing an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Whether or not advertising is the main culprit for body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders, the effects are exponential. According to commonly quoted statistics, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness among young people, after asthma and type 1 diabetes. Not to mention that eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders. Yet, there are still limited resources for treatment, especially with those whose severity is not considered as high as for anorexia. Treatment is especially unobtainable in areas of poverty.

Leave it to media to distort and glamorize what an eating disorder really looks like. Hollywood’s go-to disordered eater is often depicted as a frail-looking, heterosexual, white girl in high school or her early 20s. In her review of Netflix’s “To The Bone,” the network’s break-out movie about a young girl in and out of anorexia treatment, The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert affirms the lack of equal representation in Hollywood. “The fact that such a glut of movies exist about anorexia—compared with only a few about bulimia, and virtually none at all about binge-eating disorder, or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), the latter of which afflicts as many as 60 percent of the patients in treatment for eating disorders—presents an uncomfortable paradox.”

Movies like “To The Bone” completely ignore women and men of color who exhibit disordered eating habits, when in reality black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) additionally points out that doctors are less likely to acknowledge an individual of color’s eating disorder symptoms than white patients with similar concerns. This construct encourages those with an eating disorder to believe their symptoms are not severe enough to receive treatment, thus spiraling and worsening the need to restrict or control food consumption.

Ads teach us what to eat to be considered desirable. On my morning drive to work, I saw a billboard with a cheeseburger and “I Choose 600” printed large in the center. A peaceful commute turned into a half hour of debilitating thoughts surrounding food and calorie-counting. The billboard challenged all the progress I’ve made in my own recovery and mocked my decision to stop looking at calories.

Turns out the ad is from the New York State Department of Health’s iChoose600 campaign, which is “designed to support women in using menu labeling and using 600 calories or less per meal.” The campaign’s Facebook page encourages cutting extra calories by ordering a plain burger without condiments or sides. The problem here is that a plain burger, despite being considered “bad food,” is still not enough sustenance for a full meal. Meaning, the campaign is encouraging less food over nutritional meals, which is a substantial trigger for anyone with eating disorder symptoms. C’mon. We can do better to promote healthy living, can’t we?

The answer should be simple considering healthy eating is a trend circling the blogosphere and your discover tab on Instagram. We see daily posts from influencers trying fad diets with updates on their progress. We see photos of women comparing their before-and-after progress. We see sponsored content with young women claiming the effectiveness of stomach wraps, tummy-flattening shakes and skinny tea. Most of these products only help with temporary bloat by giving you diarrhea, but influencers aren’t telling their followers that.

The only thing influencer marketing is doing effectively is instilling obsession with our body’s appearance. We seem to forget all the good our bodies do for us like keeping us alive and moving. A big part of recovery for me was relearning everything my body does to support me instead of focusing on all the things it does “wrong.” Your skin, regardless of stretch marks, zits and scars, protects your organs and keeps you alive. Your legs, no matter the build or size, help you travel and see the world. Your arms, despite muscle tone, hold the things and people you love. Your breasts, regardless of cup size, nourish the little humans that came from your womb. Your body is pretty great when you think about it.

To rewire our brains, we need to understand the influential factors that caused these destructive insecurities in the first place. Maybe it was our mothers who told us we needed to lose weight or a middle school classmate who made fun of our curves. Either way, all these people have been affected in some way by how the media tell us to look. As early as the 1950s, women were advertised products to make them the ideal housewives to their husbands — ads that were indeed created by men. This dynamic created the expectation women existed solely to serve a man’s needs.

Though the housewife expectation is dwindling as women climb higher in their careers, marketing still holds power over us. We’re seeing mixed messages all over social media from fitness gurus and body-positive activists to campaigns selling products like diet pills and makeup. It can be difficult to comprehend what’s real and what it means to you. It’s certainly OK to enjoy wearing makeup and using beauty products, but we need to see the message through the fluff, glitter and thirst traps. Does the message make you feel bad about yourself? If so, learn to recognize it and move on. No product, Instagram account or pant size is worth your happiness.

Photo by Oscar Blair on Unsplash

Originally published: April 24, 2019
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