A Perfect Delusion

The racks of WH Smith are bloated with glossy magazines targeting either the male or female markets. No matter how hard these publications try to differentiate themselves from the competition with snappy editorial content, all appear to have the same basic ingredient – telling women how they should look.

The influence of women’s publications on perceptions of beauty has been well discussed, but mainstream men’s magazines are just as happy to tell their readership, through advertising, comment and articles, what the ‘correct’ female appearance should be. At the risk of making sweeping statements on the condition of the male psyche, one wonders to what extent men are succumbing to this media propaganda on body image and how this is effecting modern relationships?

Both men’s and women’s magazines are preoccupied with telling women how they should look

The danger with this propaganda is that men fall into a state of dissatisfaction that they cannot achieve relationships with the women they are ‘told’ they should be pursuing, or fall into an inferiority complex trap questioning why they can’t get the Bond girl.

In the world of women’s magazines the female population is continually urged to strive towards sleek hair, smooth, blemish-free skin, slender limbs and flat stomachs. Typical content, against a backdrop of advertisements, is designed to make one feel so inadequate that one purchases ridiculous amounts of cosmetics that promise to deliver the same appearance as that of the air-brushed models draped across the pages.

The women presented in men’s magazines generally have more flesh around the breast and bottom areas, but are essentially from the same sleek and smooth mould. However, where women’s magazines stop short of actually printing the words ‘Women, this is what you should look like!’ men’s magazines are more forthcoming that females should resemble Jennifer Lopez/Caprice/Halle Berry. Take for example the February issue of GQ magazine. From the front cover stares the pouting star of Shakespeare in Love, with the strapline below announcing ‘Why can’t every girl look like Gwyneth Paltrow?’

There is a very simple reason why all women do not look like Gwynie; we don’t all earn millions each year, which affords 24-hour yoga coverage, personal chef, a team of beauticians and the mobile numbers of several catwalk designers.

It can be argued that Gwyneth and her ilk are a fantasy that both women and men have bought into since the advent of the movies and fashion magazines. The difference is that previously these figures were regarded as set apart from mass society, far above ordinary mortals. Yes, women tried to emulate them, and men may have dreamed of bedding them, but no one expected to actually have that daydream come true. Now with the expansion of the print and broadcast media, which has necessitated the mass manufacture of celebrities (hence the attention given to reality television participants), it feels as though we know celebrities as intimately as our friends and family. They are no longer untouchables and their physical appearance is no longer seen as that special either.

Photoshop aided images of ‘perfect’ women sends out the signal that it is standard to be so attractive

The proliferation of Photoshop aided images of ‘perfect’, goddess-type women today sends out the signal that it is standard to be so attractive and to be expected in everyday situations. This normalisation of beautiful women is illustrated by FHM‘s “High Street Honeys”. Each issue an ‘ordinary’ girl is featured in the magazine, with the suggestion that these perfect-looking creatures are out there in the supermarket, in the office and in nightclubs waiting to be swept off their feet by Brian/Mike/Richard.

Personally, I don’t think many men have a 100 per cent grasp on reality. It is this element of the male mind that drives sales of PlayStations and Star Wars merchandise, powers their inability to see household dust and keeps them playing five-a-side football well into their 40s. And, it is well known that some men find it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

If we take porn for example, with the increased availability of images there is growing evidence that some men are finding it depressingly difficult to separate porn fantasy from real sex. In his November 2003 article for The Guardian, journalist Edward Marriott interviewed a selection of men who admitted their habitual use of pornography had left them disappointed with real life relationships. Marriott quotes from the 1983 Minneapolis city council public hearings on porn, where a witness says that the myth about pornography is that: ‘it frees the libido and gives men an outlet for sexual expression. This is truly a myth. I have found pornography not only does not liberate men, but on the contrary is a source of bondage. Men masturbate to pornography only to become addicted to the fantasy.’

Along with the increased access to hard porn, soft pornography images have moved from the top shelf, which pre-Loaded magazine provided a clear indication as to what was ‘fantasy’, into the middle shelf market. A recent analysis by the feminist organisation Object found recent issues of FHM were actually more sexually explicit than Playboy – which is still considered top shelf material.

Just as porn moved from the top to the middle shelf, are we seeing the inability to distinguish between real life and fantasy following this trend and transferring from the extreme to the mainstream?

A quick poll of male friends and acquaintances in the 24-30 age range resulted in a handful of anecdotes that revealed, with a complete lack of self-awareness, a search for aesthetic perfection in a girlfriend.

The search for aesthetic perfection in a girlfriend demonstrates an inability to distinguish between real life and fantasy

One 27 year-old male, average in looks, with an average job and average personality said he would not date a girl unless she resembled Britney Spears or Shakira. He is still single and looking for his pop staresque soulmate. Another 27 year-old admitted to not introducing his pretty girlfriend to his male friends for six months until she lost the stone in weight he thought she needed to in order to be more presentable. Even when one guy did get the girl in the magazine, a successful size eight glamour model, it was not enough. He bought her the Palm Beach Diet book as a Christmas present because he thought she needed to work on her stomach.

Dr Stephen Whitehead, senior lecturer in Education and Sociology at Keele University, Staffordshire and author of the book ‘The Many Faces of Men’, suggests men’s magazines act as masculine comfort zones for male readers, who may actually be struggling with all sorts of issues around failed relationships, impotence, fathering, debt, their fitness and looks, drugs and alcoholism.

“But at least by buying these magazines it suggests [to them] that nothing has changed, that the Beckham lifestyle is in reach of all men, even if they’re actually stuck at the edges of society and going nowhere,” says Whitehead. “Women’s magazines tend to be quite different. They may work by connecting to some idealised version of femininity, but the questions they ask and explore, around work, relationships, sex, motherhood, are much more sensitive and reflective. They recognise that women are struggling with multiple roles, insecurities around sex and relationships, but they don’t try to pretend that a retreat to some outdated way of being a woman is the way ahead.”

Whitehead adds that the quest for perfect-looking women is a way of turning the male crisis on its head by pretending that it is really men who are choosing their partners, when in fact it is women who are doing the choosing. “As women become financially independent and educated, all the evidence shows they are being more selective over the blokes they date,” says Whitehead. “The whole theme in the [men’s] magazines is making blokes feel good about themselves when in fact their worlds are anything but.”

Men’s mags suggest that a retreat to an outdated way of being a man is the way ahead.

It is true that many men are finding it difficult to get their heads around the fact that women will generally not put up with crap relationships anymore. ‘Make an effort or move on’ is the mantra of many a modern woman. However, women’s increased control over relationships is not the only potential reason for the rise in fantasy female content in magazines.

Dr Stephen Harper, lecturer in Media Studies at Glasgow University, believes that just as women’s dissatisfaction is a consumerist tool, so to is the male frustration at not having the magazine-perfect look. But where women turn this frustration inward, men are transferring the pressure onto women.

“There may also be a sense of indignation, as if men are saying: “Hey, I’m making an effort – why aren’t you?” This trend is calculated to make men feel less satisfied with what they’ve got and helps to fuel a consumer-friendly culture of low-level discontent, as people tend to consume more when they are unhappy and dissatisfied,” suggests Harper. Harper continues to say that this search for perfection in women is a reflection of men’s growing insecurities about their own physical attractiveness compounded by images of six-packs in magazine’s such as Men’s Health.

He says: “It’s well-known that men are subjected to more pressure than ever to achieve a “perfect” body, so part of the male desire to impose ever-tighter demands on women could be seen as a projection of their own anxieties”.

Whether it is to sell more moisturiser, or to comfort men for their loss of control over their partners, a side-effect of men’s mainstream magazines promoting beauty above all other female attributes is to fuel disappointment when the search for unblemished, sleek women turns up very few such creatures.

Women, just like men, come in a variety of packages and unless one has the money for reconstructive surgery, and until someone invents a Photoshop programme for use on human appearance rather than just pictorial, the majority will have flaws of some kind. It is this individuality which makes women and relationships interesting, and hopefully the men who know this will help to educate those who are at risk of allowing daft men’s magazines to influence their taste in girlfriends.

Samantha Lyster is a 30 year-old London-based journalist with great experience of dealing with delusional men!