Body Image

The internet has lately spent a lot of time complaining about the fact that humans (mostly women, but increasingly men) are physically portrayed in the media in an unrealistic way.

I understand the complaint. You can’t turn on your television or open a magazine without seeing humans that have been photoshopped almost to oblivion. It is ridiculous, but it’s only a symptom of a much deeper problem. You cannot change the way the media portrays our bodies short of a drastic restructuring of our entire economy.

The driver of our economy is consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism requires people to consume more goods and services over time. (You know how this system works because you are reading this on a device that you purchased and, if you were so inclined, could be reading it on an entirely different device that you also purchased.)

A system that requires increasing levels of consumption can run into problems when basic needs have been met. And here in the west, our basic needs have been largely met.

Here is a complete, comprehensive list of the needs of a human being, were you to keep one as a pet:

  • Shelter
  • Food (mostly vegetables and grains, some meat)
  • Mental stimulation
  • Physical exercise
  • Opportunities for socializing
  • Occasional medical care

That is it. Complete and comprehensive. As you can see we pretty much have all that covered. (The shameful exception of course being American healthcare. I remain unconvinced that it’s morally appropriate to make money off of sick people but we’ll save that discussion for another day.)

So how do you sell a product to someone who doesn’t need anything? It’s simple! You just convince him he wants it so badly it borders on a need.

And how do you that? You simply convince him he is deficient of something important that your product will provide.

If you want to sell someone a Thingamajig, make sure that the person using it on the screen is better looking than the viewer at home. Make sure the actor is handsome and strong and his yard is green. Make sure the actress is slender and beautiful and her kitchen is spotless.

Subtly remind the viewer of how much better the people – who happen to be using a Thingamajig! – are than the viewer at home.

Make you, the viewer at home, feel like something is missing from your life.

This feeling, this sense that something is lacking in you, that you could be better than you are, this is what drives our entire economy. Television – and now the greater part of the Internet – exists solely because of advertising that preys on this feeling.

This feeling also fuels our inability to be happy with having our actual needs met. It pushes us into debt, addiction, and obesity, which serves the people who make money off our weaknesses just fine.

When you say you think the media should be more realistic in its portrayal of human beings, you are asking it to stop being a money-making enterprise.

Good luck with that.

The best you can do is tune out. Don’t watch their shows, don’t read their magazines, don’t visit their sites. They are deliberately trying to make you unhappy so that you will give them money.

Which, to put it bluntly, is fucked up.