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The Vitruvian Men and Women of the Virtual World: Social Media and Body Image

by Madhav Prakash

Almost 530 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci attempted to create a man of ideal proportions based on the math of a Roman architect, Vitruvius. The Italian polymath represented what he believed was the ideal beauty, complexity, and symmetry of the human figure. Historically, these standards have varied greatly. Even contemporaneous communities have had, and continue to have very different aesthetic benchmarks. While in some parts of the world, and in some periods of time, features like thin lips and slender frames on women were considered most desirable, others favored more pronounced features or different body types.

In recent history, however, the world seems to be more unified in what it considers ‘beautiful’. Cultural and geographic differences have begun to dwindle and beauty on its own has assumed a very objective standard. Who curates these alluring archetypes? Well, it isn't a particular person or even a committee of experts, it is the world of social media. The harmful standard once set by da Vinci is now prone to losing its position of authority to thousands of Instagram models and celebrities who perpetuate an even riskier message. In times where cosmetics and photo manipulation software are so readily available for commercial use, unrealistic beauty standards continue to be promoted to susceptible individuals across the world.

It is important to note that most research into the relationship between social media and body image is in its preliminary stages, and for the most part is correlational. Despite that, scrolling through pictures on social media platforms has been shown to negatively impact how one views themselves. What is even worse is that before the age of the internet, people only really had to encounter these standards when they saw a billboard or watched a film or the television. Now, people spend all day scrolling through virtual images that have the same effect as those previous brief experiences.

Furthermore, it isn't just the exposure to these photographs that is harmful, it is how we netizens interact with them. The pressure to have the perfect profile picture, have the best lighting for our posts, worrying about comments and likes, etc. Consumption of these virtual Vitruvian men and women- the ideal standards of beauty set by 21st-century influencers- can have detrimental impacts on young people. What starts off as an insecurity or negative body image can quickly spiral into more serious medically diagnosable eating disorders and health problems. It can cause an individual to have the obsessive idea that some part of their body or face needs desperate change. Void of serious mitigation can often morph into depressive episodes and serious anxiety which in some cases leads to self-harm and suicide.

In no way is this a plea to get people to stop using social media to post pictures of themselves where they believe they look nice or pictures that make them feel confident. At the end of the day, a future reality where people do not capitalize on appearances is far-fetched. However, influencers- particularly those with younger audiences must understand that their actions online have real-life consequences. And this responsibility stretches not only to celebrities but also to young people who understand that there may be someone out there who isn't feeling too great about their body and being constantly reminded that people better looking than themselves exist isn't the healthiest.

What can one on the receiving end of such feelings do? There are two very important things to recognize and come to terms with. Firstly, the pictures we see online, particularly those in advertisements or sponsored photoshoots have generally been through several layers of manipulation to reach their final state. These models and influencers are plastered with cosmetics, following which they take hundreds of images with professional cameras and camerapeople. These photos are then edited meticulously by professional photo editors using a variety of expensive editing and photo manipulation tools. What you see online is rarely a true reflection of reality. What we consume on social media is the creme de la creme of the numerous unflattering shots and messed up lighting and makeup.

(For more on how photoshop alters the perception of body image, check out this cool article!:

Secondly, it is often the job of these people to make you feel the way you do after seeing their posts. Corporations need to make us feel unworthy and unwanted to get us to engage with their skincare, cosmetics, hair, and beauty products. They manufacture within the consumer the feeling of being less than, which to them translates to increased sales. When one recognizes these characteristics in things you see online, one realizes that there isn't an incessant need to buy into the euro-centric beauty standards that brands and celebrities want us to buy into. The Vitruvian men and women of the virtual world may seem ideal, but beauty exists in 7,610,000,000 forms and it's time we come to terms with that.


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