Face It

The challenges of aging in today's culture

Bridging the Authenticity Gap

Different generations are striving toward a common goal.

The message baby boomers have been shouting for a while is finally being heard across the generations: Beauty does not—and for many, cannot—be equated with flawless perfection.

While this movement toward authentic beauty was first fueled by millions of mid-lifers frustrated by anti-aging ad campaigns—no, 15 is not the new 50!—more and more young adults have joined the bandwagon. Together we are recognizing the negative impact that unrealistic beauty has on body image and self-esteem—and together we are finally saying, "we have had enough."

The New York Times recently featured a story about a young girl from Maine, Julia Bluhm, who took a stand against unrealistic imagery in teen magazines. Using Change.Org to start an online petition, 14-year-old Bluhm targeted the fault-free faces that fill the pages of Seventeen. "I look at the pictures and they just don't look like girls I see walking down the street and stuff... they don't have freckles, or moles, anywhere on their bodies," Bluhm told the Times. "You can't, like, see the pores in their face, they're perfectly smooth. Their skin is shiny. They don't have any tan lines or cuts and bruises or anything like that." Promoted by Spark, a project that fights the sexualization of girls, her protest resonated with thousands of other everyday teenagers—and their moms—who joined together to support the cause.

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The goal set out by the petition and a demonstration in front of Hearst Corporate Headquarters was to have Seventeen "commit to printing one unaltered—real—photo spread per month." ABC's Nightline covered Bluhm's day in New York City, including the meeting she had with Seventeen's editor in chief, Ann Shoket, who invited her to talk about the magazine's picture doctoring practices. While clearly an issue that applies to all glossy magazines—Cindi Leive, Editor-In-Chief of Glamour recently told her readers that her photographers would no longer excessively alter their models, even if they requested it—the event at Hearst highlighted the fact that perfect-looking photos make everyday girls feel inadequate. More importantly, the event caught the much-needed attention of a large group of women of all ages.

More buzz was created over this issue when a tweet was recently sent by AnnaLynne McCord, the 24-year-old actress from 90210. McCord took to Twitter to express her protest against the pressure to appear perfect. Posting an unaltered, cosmetic free self-portrait—blemishes and all—she wrote, "I woke up this morning and decided I'm over Hollywood's perfection requirement. To all my girls (and boys) who have ever been embarrassed by their skin! I salute you! I'm not perfect—and that's okay with me!" Her message? It's time for everyone to see what is really behind the makeup, lights and cameras.

McCord's tweet parallels the sentiment expressed by an increasing number of celebs feeling cruelly scrutinized about their appearance. Did anyone catch the poignant plea made recently by Ashley Judd on NBC's Rock Center? Women like Judd and McCord are just two among a growing number of actresses speaking up against the criticism they receive for looking imperfect while being simultaneously judged as inauthentic if they do something about it—a phenomenon I call the Beauty Paradox.

Objections to our culture's lack of authenticity have been growing over the years. In 2006, a model's transformation was graphically illustrated in the video Evolution of Beauty produced by Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty. Described as "Beast to Beauty in 60 Seconds," a model is shown going from 'real' to 'perfect'—using time lapse photography, make-up, styling and photo retouching—to make the point that the end result is manufactured, not natural. It's a video worth watching, and as of today, close to 15 million people have done so on YouTube.

Last year it was reported that three Oscar-winning actresses—36 year old Kate Winslet, 42 year old Rachel Weisz and 52 year old Emma Thompson—had joined together to create an "Anti-Cosmetic Surgery League." While the actual formation of such a League has been questioned, Winslet, Weisz and Thompson have all been quite outspoken about cookie-cutter beauty and its impact on the aging celebs. Winslet told The Telegraph, "I will never give in. [Cosmetic surgery] goes against my morals, the way that my parents brought me up and what I consider to be natural beauty." Weisz agreed, saying, "People who look too perfect don't look sexy or particularly beautiful," And Emma Thompson added, "I'm not fiddling about with myself. We're in this awful youth-driven thing now where everybody needs to look 30 at 60." Surely these women can afford to take such a stand—being so young (it's all relative) and beautiful (yes, also relative)—but their attitude toward it all has been well received.

Let's not forget that psychologists and psychiatrists have weighed in on this issue as well. This year the American Medical Association showed their support by adopting a policy against the altering of photographs that promote unrealistic imagery. Extreme use of photoshop, the AMA reported, could lead to distorted ideas about body image and ultimately be psychologically harmful, especially to children and teens.

The point is, momentum for this movement toward authenticity has been growing from a multiple directions, from people of different disciplines and across generations.

Lastly, whatever one thinks of the new controversial HBO series Girls, and its very real looking star/writer/producer Lena Dunham, no one doubts the great pains she takes to display authenticity on the show. With seemingly no makeup or digital alteration, the series presents 20-somethings as far less than perfect in every way. Dunham courageously—and often nakedly—plays the role of the most awkward one among her close friends, almost exaggerating her physical flaws on camera to make her point. She is who she is and she represents how most "girls" truly are in the real world.

This movement—this scream for authenticity—is clearly not about eliminating beauty from our screens and pages. It's human nature to be fascinated with youthful vitality and attractiveness. Most likely we are hard wired to enjoy physical beauty—just as we are attracted to beautiful performances by talented singers, dancers or professional athletes. Surely, this stand being taken by an increasing number of people of all ages isn't about negating the pleasures that come from beauty as a form of entertainment. It's about the popularization of these unrealistic standards and the demand they make on every man and woman.

Perhaps we need to see authenticity as the goal for the everyday man or woman, leaving perfect beauty to cover girls, actors and celebs or anyone who chooses to be in the spotlight. The importance of this movement by teens, young adults and mid-lifers is to keep perfection and youth from being equated with beauty, so that this unrealistic equation doesn't leave us feeling inadequate if we don't achieve it.

 

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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

 

For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City and co-author of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change.

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