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Standards of beauty
January 21st, 2014

The ubiquitous retouching of photos (be they of fashion models or simply of ‘celebrities’) is known: wrinkles, spots, cellulite, round bellies, thick thighs and double chins are erased to ‘reveal’ perfect figures. Some words have been expressed against the impossibility for women to ever achieve such ‘perfection’ in real life; but the low self-esteem of women is such a perfect opportunity for business with makeup, creams, lotions and even surgery that the status quo remains.
As media outlets are primarily funded by advertising, the low self-esteem of women is considered “acceptable harm” to sustain the high self-esteem of big business. Under the cover of friends sharing tips, sisterhood and of generally being on women's sides, many magazines are actually working on enslaving women!

Fake health

What is a bit less debated —but is just as much worrying— is the retouching of photos to make models (or exercise-addict ‘stars’) rounder.


Model Karlie Kloss, airbrushed wider and bigger for the October 2012 issue of Numéro magazine, © 

Health and fitness magazines rely on retouching to make the models look ‘healthier’… which often includes ‘bigger’. The editor of British Vogue has quietly confessed to being ‘appalled’ by models for her own magazine (but not enough appalled to change her editorial line! Big business first!), saying « I have found myself saying to the photographers, “Can you not make them look too thin?” » The editor of Cosmopolitan has justified that cost and hassle of cancelling a photo shoot, should a model turn up too thin, are too high to consider —thus not only sending the message that it's okay for the model to be this way but also creating representational myths for readers.

For the problem with this second sort of touch-ups is that it actively hides the fact that being obsessed with thinness and weight loss and exercise is not healthy.
So not only there's big business in selling products and services to women who wish to reach an impossible figure (that's the perfect business model, isn't it? An impossible goal allows for a never-ending quest), but there's also the active destruction of health… The women who attempt to copy their thin and gorgeous “role models” have skin problems due to unbalanced diets. The businesses and the magazines don't tell them to eat properly; instead, they start new business lines and tell them that their skin is falling dead because they didn't include such and such rare berries and herbs in their diet, which they can now acquire for a ridiculous price.

The problem is that the representational myth is a myth, and too few people are wise enough, too few people have ceased enough lusting after beauty, to see through the veil and see things as they are.

The magazines proclaim to be all about sexiness, glamour and even about loving one's curves. Under the cover of fighting against the size-0 trend, some magazines were indecent enough to pretend to take a stand against the too thin (when really it was just about the readers being repelled by grotesquely skinny women, and one has to sell the magazine!) when they made skeletal models look bigger.


Model Cara Delevingne, airbrushed for La Perla in visible search for a fashionable and curvy celebrity

But, for all the retouching, it is still evident that the models are very, very thin. But they look so great! They have 22-inch waists (waists are never made bigger), delicate ankles and thin thighs, but they also have breasts(!), great skin(!), luscious hair(!) and full cheeks(!) —basically they have fat just in the right places but without fat in their body, and nutriments in the right places but without nutriments in their body. The retouching of size-0 isn't a positive challenge to the dictats of the fashion industry, it is the perpetuation of enslaving women (and men) in impossible representations.

Underweight people are not glamorous in the flesh: skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes are not what women want to get by following diets (but it is what they too get). All the drawbacks of starvation are hidden away, leaving only the allure of toned limbs and Bambi eyes. Women yearn to be super-thin only because they never see how ugly thin can be. In real life, ribs and protruding spines will not be airbrushed away though; collarbones sticking out like coat hangers, flat bottoms and chests are not signs of health, nor are they much aesthetically pleasing.

And, of course, if women have distorted views on this, don't expect men to be any wiser!
This is a perfect example of how ‘ignorance’, or mental fabrications unrepresentative of reality, creates suffering.

Thin-shaming, fat-shaming

The knee-jerk reaction to the questioning of “unhealthy thin” is to present it as thin-shaming, then to declare it as politically incorrect as fat-shaming. This might be a efficient strategy for denial, but a wholesome engagement requires to discern between ignorance and right views.

Let's be clear: these models don't just happen to have such a body type. This is the result of peer-pressure and of an industry having no qualms about creating a ‘fantasy’ regardless of its consequences.

It is obvious that obesity or even simple over-weight are not healthy. No amount of politically-correct discourse around ‘acceptance’ will make the consequences on one's health (and even on one's self-esteem) go away. The vast majority of fat people are just giving in to greed, lust, gluttony and frankly to a lack of decency in a world where people die from hunger… Food waste “because one can” is not wholesome. King Pasenadi of Kosala went on a diet, on an utterance from the Buddha (SN 3.13).
These are clear signs of ‘ignorance’ in the Buddhist sense, and no amount of self-serving narrative will change this. Restraint in how we acquire food is a natural consequences of the restraints from the five precepts: restraint from violence, from lies, from theft. An extremely small number of people do suffer from problematic metabolism, but even they should engage with this reality rather than just take it for granted.

“If, O monks, there is lust for the nutriment edible food, if there is pleasure in it and craving for it, then consciousness takes a hold therein and grows. Where consciousness takes a hold and grows, there will be occurrence of mind-and-body. Where there is occurrence of mind-and-body, there is growth of kamma-formations. Where there is growth of kamma-formations, there is a future arising of renewed existence. Where there is a future arising of renewed existence, there is future birth, decay and death. This, I say, O monks, is laden with sorrow, burdened with anguish and despair.”
SN 12.64

But it is time to also say that extreme thinness is not healthy.

One thing the Buddha rejected was the extreme and ostentatious austerities that many ascetics practised. As he refused to indulge in any of these practices and started the Middle Way, his opponents often accused him of being lax and of loving luxury (such accusations are still common against teachers nowadays… it seems the grip of ignorant righteousness is strong).
Gotama had engaged in asceticism as a path to Liberation, to no avail. A young woman, Sujata, wanted to make an offering to the god of the banyan tree under which Gotama meditated, and confused Gotama with the tree-god. She bowed with respect and said “Lord, accept my donation of milk-rice. May you be successful in obtaining your wishes as I have been.” Gotama ate the sweet thick milk-rice and then bathed in the river Neranjara. When he finished he took the golden bowl and threw it in the river, saying “If I am to succeed in becoming a Buddha today, let this bowl go upstream, but if not, let it go downstream.” The golden bowl went upstream, all the while keeping in the middle of the river. Within renewed strength and energy, he attained the goal of holy life.
After realising nibbāna, the Buddha set out to teach to the five ascetics he had dwelled with previously. The five ascetics, seeing the Buddha from afar, discussed among themselves: « Friends, here comes the ascetic Gotama who gave up the struggle and turned to a life of abundance and luxury. Let us make no kind of salutation to him. » But when the Buddha approached them, they were struck by his dignified presence (they were advanced enough not to cling to veils obscuring it) and they greeted him as a friend, later becoming arhats thanks to his teachings.

Healthy is wholesome

Asceticism doesn't lead to the cessation of suffering, neither by making one sexy nor by liberating one from kamma. Extreme thinness doesn't cease suffering, simple!

Buddhism promotes seeing things as they are, and to take into consideration causality. It is not wholesome —or helpful— to be fat, nor is it to be starving. The Buddha rejected both extremes. Lying about ultra-thin models being healthy (and/or ‘beautiful’ for that matter) is unwholesome. Due to such mental fabrications, some will starve then binge; others will develop eating disorders; others will opt out completely and give up on being healthily fit. None of these is wholesome, spiritually helpful nor compassionate —hence we shouldn't participate in perpetuating it. These mental fabrications are not right views, communicating them is neither right speech not right action, they actually break the first precept (literally, in relation to suicidal teenagers).
Mental fabrications can be extremely harmful even when they seem anecdotical; fashion and photoshop are very much “first world issues,” aren't they? Sure, nonetheless, proliferations are dangerous in practical and real terms.

The cessation of lust, aversion and ignorance manifests in an absence of bias, prejudice, veils, tendencies (kamma). Commonly, it is said that the Enlightened can respond appropriately to the situation at hand, can do what the situation requires (while taking into account that all sentient beings wish to avoid suffering).
Appropriateness may be expressed as fitness. And seeing things as they are prevents the confusion between fitness and thinness.