Take the time to read my friend William Newton’s post on marketing, how action figures have changed over the years, and how he’s concerned about the self image of today’s youths. Once you’re done, come back here. We’re going to talk a little about Madison Avenue.
I was born and raised in the Philippines, as I am wont to remind everyone. Many Filipinos in central Luzon—especially in the great rice plains of Pampanga, the ranchlands of Bulacan and the Metro Manila megalopolis—are of mixed descent over many generations, but an equally large population have features that are more provincial (rural) in nature. This is not just a question of fair skin as inherited from our Castillian colonists or the Chinese, but a matter of bone structure, of facial features and body types.
Humans crave the exotic, and there are anthropological bases of beauty grounded in signals for good health and symmetry that transcend cultures, but the sheer assault of Western—not just American but European—aesthetics upon other lineages has gotten ridiculous. And it’s not just Asians, but African Americans with their history of living with their White masters that serve as cautionary tales of how worship of the different can—when taken to extremes—be detrimental to the psyche not just of an individual but to that of an entire people.
Hair straightening in black people is not a new phenomenon; their girls in the slave era have been observed as trying to straighten their hair with everything from kitchen grease to tar. All to wash the stink of difference, to achieve a sense of sameness that may lead to the respect that comes with being equals. Tough shit, though the Afro hairdos as popularized in the disco era, along with creative ways to deal with the unruliness of curls, are making headway into the popular culture.
But what of my people? Culturally we have always been a melting pot, so I am in no mood to indict those among us who like to adopt the mannerisms of rap artists or gangbangers nor exclusive school preps or whatever catches their fancy. However, what of our standards of beauty? The Filipino male, given the proper diet, will tend towards a barrel chest and a mild paunchiness of the belly despite being generally low in body fat. We are shaped differently, and yet the media we consume—Stateside or back home—fills us with imagery of statuesque Caucasian men and svelte women. Perhaps Zainudin Maidin, then Information Minister of Malaysia, had a good idea striking Brad Pitt from a car advertisement airing in his home country.
Some of the best male physiques in tv and movies—Teddy Sears, Alexander Skasgaard, Paul Walker, Peter Facinelli, Ryan Gosling, Cam Gigandet—to name a few (of my favorites) all have shapes that are unachievable by anyone who isn’t white. I see this at the gym every day. We have a lot of non-white lifters in varying degrees of fitness, but despite being low in body fat (and skin taught enough over their muscles and whatnot) they do not come close to the sillhouettes of white paragons of physique.
And where did this contemporary standard come from anyway? Look no further than Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, a modern marvel of sports photography and cinematography. That’s right. That Leni Riefenstahl, whose art I have praised in this blog years before and still do so today for its technical merit, skill and craftsmanship. Despite that, we must recognize her role in reviving the popularity of Classical sillhouettes as the standard for beauty.
As for how Madison Avenue has messed up the self images of women, with the unrealistic goals of unhealthy emaciation, let us cite the insightful Nora Vincent, in her book Self Made Man:
[…] A lot of women have asked themselves why so many men are so fond of modern porn stars and centerfolds, women who aren’t real women, whose breasts are fake, whose hair is bleached into straw or perversely depilated, whose faces are painted thick, and whose bodies have ben otherwise altered by surgery or diet to conform with doll-like exactitude to something that isn’t found in nature. Why, I had so often wondered, didn’t men want real women? Was it misogyny, a kind of collective repressed homosexuality or perhaps pedophilia that really wanted a body type that more resembled a man’s or a child’s, fatless and smooth? For some, this is no doubt true, or why would magazines like Barely Legal, full of pre- and parapubescent girls, sell so well? Why would the fashion industry, long dominated by gay men, demand that women starve themselves until their bodies, hipless and breastless, look like the bodies of adolescent boys?
I’m going to let the gay-as-a-pedophile stereotype pass for now. Not in the mood. But Madison Avenue—such a beautiful metonym for such a vicious industry—is not in the habit of creating beauty; it used to be, but now it’s been reduced to assaulting one’s self-image, convincing a person to hate himself enough to just want their product as in insufficient salve against the sense of deficiency that they inflict upon their customers. Advertising hasn’t always been like this. Advertising shouldn’t stay like this.