We had the chance to change celebrity culture, and we blew it—how did we get sucked into the most beautiful lie?
I once did an experiment: I got together a bunch of celeb magazines and counted how many women were pictured over a size 12 and over 50 years old … there were none (except for the occasional ‘real life’ story). The diversity of real women has never been represented by celebrity culture.
I used to run a magazine for teens, and, as part of that, I spoke to groups of girls about how the media represents beauty. I had girls confide in me about how they exercised twice a day. I got told about their gruelling diets, calorie counting, eating disorders, and how they obsessively compared themselves to other girls. None of this was a surprise to me, because I have also done it all, at one time or other.
Celebrity culture has sold us a beautiful lie: that there is only one type of beauty. Part of the lie is that being skinny is effortless. Thin girls eating ice cream out of the carton is an old rom-com cliché. Recently, supermodel Bella Hadid has made an artform out of ’gramming herself ‘eating’ pizza and other junk food. But this fantasy is as destructive as any objectification of our bodies (you could call it ‘food porn’). It sells us the lie that perfection is normal—that they are not actually slogging their guts out to maintain a perfect Size Zero.
For guys, there is increasing pressure to live up to the male beauty standard of the bulked up body—and the fantasy is that it comes naturally, not because of their two gym sessions a day. Welcome to our world, guys.
Celeb culture sells us cribs and cars and what our girl Lorde calls ‘royal’ culture, as the epitome of success. Happiness equals wealth and glamour. Most of all, being thin (or bulked up) equals being loved.
How We Bought The Lie
When social media began to blow up, I thought to myself: Now is our time! We’re going to take back the power. Finally, we get to define what beauty is. Through social media, we get to celebrate all body types and see the beauty in everyone.
And here’s what we did: we invented filters and the high-angle selfie. We posed like Kim Kardashian. We invented the thigh gap obsession—we did this, not the media. On Facebook, we made our lives seem perfect. On Instagram, we posted ‘candids’ (that took 23 shots to get right). We even created fake looking food and fake holiday pics.
Instead of challenging celebrity culture, we copied it. We can no longer blame the media, because we did this to ourselves.
We’re now living in the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ of beauty: with fake tans, clip-in hair, hairless bodies, lips with filler and stretched faces. We have created a parody of the human body—and called it beauty.
Unnatural is The New Normal
In a book released earlier this year, Perfect Me, Professor Heather Widdows researched our current idealised beauty standards. She says that the unnatural body has become the new norm. Our beauty obsession is focused on four main areas: thinness or buffness, firmness or strength, smoothness or lack of hair, and youth.
Our natural body hair is thought of as ‘disgusting’, and even disrespectful to others—people are grossed out by a guy with chest hair, or a woman with unshaved armpits. This natural part of our bodies is now seen as abnormal.
In another example, Widdows points to how we use cleansers to make our pores disappear: ‘We have bought the view that some kind of perfect, HD skin tone—that no human actually has—is what we should have.’
These standards have so pervaded our lives that we have made beauty a moral issue: if we eat junk food we’ve been ‘bad’, and if we’ve gone to the gym we’ve been ‘good’. We feel the same shame towards our bodies that we might feel if we’ve betrayed a friend or cheated on a test. Not having the perfect body has become a ‘sin’.
When I was grappling with my own body image and a disordered relationship with food, I found Paul’s teachings to the Colossians really helpful—they were part of a culture that made themselves slaves to pleasing their gods. These Christians were a small, radical group, who believed that Christ set them free from slavery to idols. Yet, they found themselves constantly pulled back to the rigours of idol worship that was so normal in their culture.
The accepted ‘beauty standard’ is one of the biggest idols of our modern world. Our culture has made us slaves to pleasing the god of beauty. We know the truth that we are loved unconditionally by God, but the world’s values constantly pull us back. We choose striving for perfection, over God’s perfect love.
‘You died with Christ. Now the forces of the universe don’t have any power over you,’ urges Paul. ‘Why do you live as if you had to obey such rules as, “Don’t handle this. Don’t taste that. Don’t touch this.” … Obeying these rules may seem to be the smart thing to do … with their harsh treatment of the body … but they don’t really have any power over our desires,’ (Colossians 2:20–23 CEV/NIV).
These rules sound so familiar: ‘Don’t taste sugar! Don’t touch carbs! Sweat it out!’ These things have the appearance of wisdom, but they are just a Band-Aid over the real issue. The deepest desire of our souls is to be loved and accepted.
Jesus gives us the most incredible gift: another way of living, where we get to be loved just as we are. Again, Paul reminds the young Christians in Galatia: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,’ (Galatians 5:1). Let’s not slog it out on the treadmill of life, when we could be resting in Christ’s love.
Letting go of culture’s biggest lies takes discipline, but Christ shows us the way: we transform our minds by standing firm in the truth. When we check out Instagram, we remind ourselves that their lives aren’t actually perfect. We realise Bella Hadid has to go to extreme lengths it maintain her ‘bikini body’—and if only she knew Christ’s love, she wouldn’t have to. Perhaps, we let ourselves be less-than-perfect on social media.
When we stop striving for acceptance by having the right body and flawless face, we find that we have been accepted all along. Christ’s love is complete, and it is always there for us.
With new eyes, we can see that beauty is actually all around us. God’s creation is remarkable because every leaf, every blade of grass, is unique. So are we. There is beauty in every body type, and every smile. We just need the freedom to see it.
Give yourself a break: Are you striving, trying to maintain an ideal of beauty? Jesus came to set you free from striving. Be brave enough to let go, and put it in God’s hands.
Give each other a break: Examine whether your beauty ideals for a potential partner are fair—are you holding them to unrealistic standards?
Use your eyes: Practise seeing beauty in all different types of people—in the most shallow sense of the word. Everyone has something attractive about them—you just need the eyes to see it.
Use your heart: Practise seeing beauty—in the non-shallow sense. Values, qualities and character makes a person beautiful, beyond youth and perfect pores.
Treat yo’self: Accepting yourself as you are doesn’t mean you are going to ‘let yourself go’ (whatever that actually means). When you respect yourself, you will look after yourself and treat yourself well—without wishing you were someone else.