As our obsession with all things Hollywood grows, so does our dissatisfaction with our own physical imperfections. Be it our less than perfect complexions, asymmetrical features, wash basin as opposed to washboard stomach, too small or too large breasts (or if you’re male, the mere presence of anything resembling breasts); whatever the complaint we may have about our appearances, it’s likely we’re looking to celebrities as the paradigm of desired physical perfection. What other explanation can there be for the popularity of infotainment programs or the seemingly unending parade of self-congratulatory award shows? No one can possibly have any true interest in hearing Pamela Anderson’s views on the Middle East or Ben Affleck on transcendental enlightenment, can they?
This chronic comparison, once the exclusive domain of women, now extends to men as well. While it remains more pervasive for women, men too are assaulted by a barrage of beefcake imagery upon which to make unfavorable comparisons when looking in the mirror. Some celebrity’s beauty has the distinction of instilling admiration in both sexes. Johnny Depp’s eyebrows and jaw line are apparently a source of envy for both men and women.
This phenomenon is of course nothing new. Our grandparents shared a similar fascination with the icons of their day. From Bogey to Brando, Garbo to Monroe, all were the embodiment of fantasies of masculine or feminine beauty to which audiences of the day aspired. Escape into fantasy is, after all, the bread and butter of Hollywood. And to some degree this escape can be a healthy diversion to our daily routine. Problems arise when we confuse this illusionary reality for an actual one and impose the same expectations on our own lives. The scope of these unattainable expectations encompasses a complex array of life’s many facets, from a need for high drama in our daily lives to career, sexual partner and family aspirations.
Paradoxically, our appearance, the area which is in many ways the most difficult for us to change, is where the public seems to be most influenced by the Hollywood standard and most determined to aspire to that standard. We’re not talking about changing your hairstyle to match that of Julia Roberts or George Clooney, an easily attainable goal for most. Some people are going to great lengths and expense to alter their physical appearance as evidenced by the continual rise in cosmetic procedures being performed yearly. Many procedures (botox injections, liposuction, and face lifts, to name but a few) can be considered an attempt to hinder, or at least disguise, the once dignified process of aging. Others are simply an attempt to alter perceived imperfections and some are a blatant attempt to mimic what is admired in others. Cosmetic surgeons commonly report their patients’ use of celebrity-influenced shorthand to describe their desired physical attribute; a nose like Julia’s, a butt like J’Lo’s, etc. Even more disturbing is the high percentage of young women (and though less prevalent, young men) who literally starve themselves due to what they perceive of as an unacceptable physical appearance on their part. Anorexia and Bulimia are complex disorders with myriad intricate causes and contributory factors; to blame these conditions solely on the influence of media and particularly Hollywood is surely folly. However, we cannot discount the influence the media has on the public mindset, especially that of the young who face an unrelenting barrage of media imagery on a daily basis.
Odd that defenders of the Hollywood myth machine will often tout the capacity of their product to change society for the better when speaking of films with a political or humanistic bent, yet let anyone make even the suggestion that the content is having a negative social impact (albeit unintentionally) and they will circle the wagons, dismissing the notion by stating that it’s all merely entertainment, about as significant as a pack of chewing gum.
To be realistic however, movie and television producers and advertising execs are not intentionally and maliciously destroying our self-esteem (ok, advertising execs may be another story) as part of some despotic plot. Good, bad or indifferent, they’re simply providing the public with what they want, and what we want seems to be a continuous parade of the beautiful people whose perfection we can never achieve, only aspire to in an existence of escalating frustration and self-imposed torment.
If we are to have any hope of achieving more realistic and broader views of beauty that do not have a negative social impact, then not only must the media take a lead in this reassessment of aesthetic values, we the public must in turn respond to these changes. Bottom line is king in Hollywood after all; the powers that will provide us with whatever imagery we are currently responding to - often ad nauseum. However, there is evidence of hope on the horizon. Realistic dramas such as the Sopranos can elevate character actors such as James Gandolfini (he of the bloated stomach, hairy shoulders and icy stare) to improbable sex symbol status by virtue of their charisma. For such changes to occur, the onus is definitely on us, the viewing public, and it will at best be a slow process. Perhaps we will see a day when talented, charismatic normals, such as Janeane Garofalo and Kevin James top the sexiest people alive lists, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Until then... Caveat Emptor!