Keira Knightley and the Power of an Image

Last week British actress Keira Knightly took a powerful stand against the manipulation of women’s bodies when she agreed to pose topless for Interview Magazine. Boston Globe Health writer Deborah Kotz explains, “Knightley chose to flaunt her underendowed, uneven breasts to make a point: Using Photoshop to edit celebrity bodies perpetuates the myth that beauty equals perfection….She wants the world to see that she’s not perfect, and maybe women will feel a little better about their own imperfections.”

In my own work, I’ve explored the often grotesque measures taken to reshape women’s bodies. Compared to footbinding or corseting, what’s the problem with a little digital manipulation? Kotz explains:

“The American Medical Association has taken a stand against digital body editing in ads since “such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image – especially among impressionable children and adolescents,” the organization states on its website….

….A 2012 British study found that women who viewed images of thin, rich women in magazines and ads were more likely to develop a negative perception about their own body. Another study published last year in the journal Body Image found that putting disclaimers on ads that featured Photoshopped models by stating that they were “digitally enhanced” didn’t prevent women from experiencing more dissatisfaction with their bodies after viewing them compared to a group who saw the photos without any disclaimer. On the other hand, a control group who viewed car ads, instead of models, experienced no negative impact on their body image during the study.”

Standards of beauty are continuously changing, but what is the often grotesque reality behind the extreme measures taken to reshape women’s bodies? A few years ago I began to investigate these notions by exploring various bodyshaping practices beginning with ancient Chinese foot binding. The vision of a teetering, helpless young bride was considered erotic, and a family prosperous enough to support a young woman made—by design—unsuitable for any kind of physical labor, gained status within the community. However, the reality of these treasured “golden lilies”, were deformed, painful feet, often malodorous due to rotting flesh and infection. Corseting began at a very early age in Victorian England and North America of the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme tight lacing had an understandably negative effect on the developing body of young girls, effecting not only outward appearance, but the growth and position of internal organs. The vision of the delicate swooning young woman at this time was considered ideal, but how robust and active could an individual be with a compressed rib cage, gasping for breath? A loosely corseted woman, by contrast, was judged not only to be imperiling her health but to be of loose moral fiber as well. Today, there is no longer a need for girls to be excessively corseted, when they are willing to carve out their own bodies through surgery or self-imposed starvation. The rise in incidence of anorexia, has  made clear how much young girls today have internalized societal ideals of beauty, just as foot binding and corseting of young girls and women were signs of past repression through the idealization of the female form.

One way young women measure standards of beauty is by taking in the images they see in the media. What might seem like a small gesture, such as Kiera Knightly’s simple request to be photographed as she is without allowing those images manipulated, makes a difference.

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