Go to any shop, a supermarket, or the little corner shop, just down the street. Walk through the magazine aisle and take note of the people who feature on their covers. They will be actors, models, celebrities—and they will be digital people, photoshopped people, the false ideal that the magazine purports. Vogue will give you a “Guide to Lazy Day Beauty”, Glamour shouts “HIGH HEELS: THE ONLY SHOES YOU NEED”; meanwhile, Men’s Fitness' covers scream: “Lose your gut!” You are unattractive, ugly, even, but we can make you look good—so the gloss-varnished shelves claim. But why do we buy into these specific ideas of self-improvement?

Untitled (VB35), 1999 by Vanessa Beecroft.

Untitled (VB35), 1999 by Vanessa Beecroft.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons suggests that, in 2012, 14.6 million cosmetic plastic surgery procedures were performed. Even assuming that some people are having multiple procedures, how come so many people are unhappy with their bodies, to the point of drastic surgery?

Renowned architect César Pelli said: “The desire to reach for the sky runs deep in our human psyche.” The desire to improve the self is exacerbated by society, and by marketing executives looking to sell their products. Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, suggested that society might be controlled and indoctrinated through a combination of methods, including constant social conditioning and the consumption of goods. I would suggest that popular ‘fitness’ magazines utilise a similar methodology. Our ideas about what we should look like stems from this medium—but it hasn’t always been this way.

Undated Stigmata II by Philippe Bréson.

Undated Stigmata II by Philippe Bréson.

Undated Stigmata III by Philippe Bréson.

Undated Stigmata III by Philippe Bréson.

You can trace the changes in desirable body image from as far back as the Middle Ages—in Body Image, Sarah Grogan writes, of the ideal female body image, that ‘the “reproductive figure” was idealised by artists. Fleshiness and a full, rounded stomach were emphasized as a symbol of fertility,’ and she gives Rembrandt van Rijn’s Bathsheba (1654) as the ‘aesthetic ideal of its time.’ Purportedly, slenderness was not seen as an ideal until the twentieth century; Manet’s Olympia was criticised “because the subject was not considered sufficiently plump to be erotic.”

Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1654 by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1654 by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Olympia, 1863 by Édouard Manet.

Olympia, 1863 by Édouard Manet.

It is likely that plumpness was idealised as a sign of wealth and luxury, whereas slenderness suggested hardship. It was only with the dawn of the fashion magazine that these ideals shifted towards the slender. The iconic Flapper style of the 1920s, for instance, required a flat-chested figure to wear the low-waisted dresses. This artificial ideal continues to this day, and in extreme cases can cause body dysmorphic disorders, a type of mental illness in which sufferers focus on a perceived flaw in their body image.

Chorus Girls wearing costume dresses by Clement Andre-Ani on the set of Becky, 1927, directed by John P. McCarthy.

Chorus Girls wearing costume dresses by Clement Andre-Ani on the set of Becky, 1927, directed by John P. McCarthy.

Those who control these concepts of beauty set these standards by applying a logic of the market, which causes anxiety and personal dissatisfaction. It's not psychologically sustainable for individuals to be permanently exposed to content and messages that underline flaws and faults of their bodies; living in this permanent crisis of being the opposite of what we end up believing to be good, or right, or perfect is damaging.

Everyone wants to be desirable—it is a natural human instinct. But, by forcing these false ideals of beauty on ourselves, we sacrifice our own personal integrity. If we allow our identities to be informed entirely by these magazines—essentially advertisement compilations intended to make us buy products—we wage war on ourselves, one that often seems already lost.

Words: George Cheese

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu