Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Beauty, Depression, and the Media

As I briefly mentioned in my last post, I spent the majority of my final college semester reading and thinking about media literacy. It's an important topic that Americans should be more aware of, but sadly, we aren't. We consume media at an alarmingly high rate, but we often don't fully comprehend what we're consuming or the ramifications of the messages we receive through media. Unfortunately, this often manifests in our own self-image; we feel insecure about countless "imperfections" about ourselves without really understanding where these insecurities came from in the first place.

I've suffered from depression my whole life. Sure, certain events in my life exacerbated the condition, but when it really comes down to it, depression is something that's hard-wired into my brain. As I also mentioned in my last post, I'm now married and happier than I've ever been. My marriage is the healthiest relationship I've ever had, and yet I still have depression. As a result of my own experiences, I should understand that in many cases of depression, an individual's personal happiness and appearance do not preclude them from suffering from depression. But then I see someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones, and when I heard that she has Bipolar II depression (a more "mild" form of the condition formerly known as "manic depression," where the "manic" states are more muted and less pronounced, and the depressed states are more prevalent), my first thought was, "But she's beautiful, rich, and happily married. How could she be depressed?"

Part of the disconnect I experience here is due to media images I consume on a constant basis. Through TV, magazines, the Internet, and more, the media consistently provides us with a narrative that dictates our expectations of personal happiness. We see ads for weight loss products that show before and after pictures. Typically, in the "before" shots, the overweight person is slouched and frowning, but in the "after" shots, the now-thin person has correct posture and has a huge smile plastered across their face. We come to equate thinness with beauty, and beauty with happiness; while we are told that being overweight is akin to being ugly, and therefore unhappiness. One of the most provocative examples of this comes from a series of ads for Medifast:


In each of these ads, we see a moderately overweight female crying about her self-image; also in the room is the same woman after losing weight, smiling. She tells her "fat" self that things will get better, she won't look like that forever, and she'll be happy and healthy.

When I first saw one of these Medifast ads, I felt deeply disturbed; it was a visceral reaction. But when I thought about it, I realized the problem I had with it: these ads are telling us that it's impossible to be happy when you're overweight, and that when you lose weight, you're guaranteed to be happy. But in the real world, there are countless examples of the contrary--countless overweight people who are happy, and myriad others who are thin and extremely unhappy.

I know that for some overweight people, their weight is the sole reason they are unhappy. But the narrative offered by Medifast leaves out some important portions of our populace, and perpetuates the message that thin=happy. First, they omit the people who are overweight for reasons far beyond food, the people who are overweight either due to some medical condition, or who overeat because of other problems in their life. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these ads ignore the people who are overweight AND happy. The media narrative is so ingrained in us at this point that many of us automatically assume that overweight people are unhappy, and that the overweight people who say they are happy really aren't. But I know many people who are overweight and completely comfortable with themselves. They exercise and eat mostly healthy foods, and they feel fulfilled in their lives.

This isn't to say that the media is all evil. They're attempting to appeal to the broadest base, so they make generalizations. It's understandable, really. The problem is that we as media consumers often don't recognize that these messages are generalizations, and instead we turn them into our own expectations of reality and how life should be. We see airbrushed images of our favorite models and actors, and we come to place those unrealistic expectations onto ourselves. Even the models and actors don't look like that in real life, but we strive to look like these fake images.

I've struggled with my weight for most of my life. Interestingly, when I was at my thinnest (I'm 5'2" and have been since I was 13), I was my least happy. By starving myself and eating dinner only because if I didn't, my parents would worry, and working out to the point of exhaustion to work off those dinner calories, I got to 97 pounds. But a 7th grade classmate was 94 pounds, so I berated myself for not being able to get to 93 pounds. I was socially awkward (still am, to a great extent), but I assumed that if I was thin enough, classmates would like me. Of course, they didn't, but I exuded unhappiness wherever I went. I realize now that I didn't have many friends because I was kind of a pain in the ass to be around, but at the time, I thought it was because I needed to be thinner. The magazine articles I read as a teen all seemed to confirm this suspicion, but really, all the constant calorie counting and working out turned me into an even more insufferable pain in the ass.

Fast forward 23 years, and I could definitely stand to lose a good 30-40 pounds, but I am a much happier person. They say beauty comes from within, and this is all too evident in photos of me through the years. I was intensely camera shy until I met my husband, a filmmaker and excellent photographer. At first, I was only okay with the photos he took of me. He made me look beautiful. But then I realized that I was also happy with photos of me that other people took. This was so new to me, since I hated almost every single picture ever taken of me until I met him; in fact, I assumed I simply was not photogenic. It wasn't some magic touch my husband had with the camera (although there's a fair degree of that as well); it was my own happiness that came through in these photos.

I realize this might make it sound like I'm only happy because of my marriage. I'm not. I spent many years working on myself and healing the wounds from past relationships before I met my husband. I was a much more confident person by the time I met him, and it was because of this newfound confidence that I was even able to meet him in the first place. I'm not happy because of him; rather, I was happy to begin with and he now shares in that happiness with me.

Even so, I still struggle with depression, which goes to show that depression is a condition that is often hard-wired into people's brains. This is definitely the case with me. Even if I was as thin, rich, and beautiful as Catherine Zeta-Jones, I would still have depression. It's not that something is wrong with my life; for me, it's a condition that just is. In the past, when my life was seemingly perfect, but I still felt depressed, I would search for whatever else was wrong that caused my sadness; if you search long enough, you'll find something wrong, even if nothing is wrong. Now I realize that my life is as perfect as ever. I'll continue to strive to make my life better, but there is nothing that needs to be fixed.

It's hard to feel comfortable in your own skin when you have depression. But when you listen to media narratives that tell you that unless you have perfect teeth, unless you erase the "dark spots" (aka FRECKLES) from your face, unless you are at an "ideal" weight, your life isn't perfect and you can't be happy, it's even harder to feel comfortable. Likewise, even if you appear to be perfect to other people, you aren't going to feel that way about yourself. I may look at Catherine Zeta-Jones and think she's possibly the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, but that doesn't mean she isn't depressed. In an odd way, her story is comforting to me. It may seem to be cause for despair, to think that even if I have everything, I might still be depressed, but for me, it's encouraging. It reinforces the idea that I can (and should) strive for bigger and better things, that even though there might always be this part of me that feels depressed, that shouldn't stop me from enjoying my life as it is.

Even for people who don't have depression or other such mental health issues, it's often hard to feel happy in our lives. But if we continue to consume media narratives passively, we will never feel happy. There's also a difference between happiness and complacency. I'm extremely happy with my life now, but I am not complacent, and I doubt I ever will be. In a way, my depression keeps me from being complacent. Provided I don't let depression weigh me down and overwhelm me, it's a useful tool that I can use to keep me vigilant in consistently bettering myself and my life. Taking media narratives to heart, and believing their message that something is wrong with me, will not and does not help.

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