Our Desire For 'Perfection' Is Doing More Harm To Us All Than The Autoimmune Condition Attacking My Own Skin
CW: Contains discussion around issues of identity and critical self-talk.
There is a growing trend whereby people are bleaching their skin to achieve their 'profile picture worthy' look. Increasingly, people are turning to altering their natural skin tone. This is known as skin lightening. There are a number of risks to undergoing this type of treatment such as mercury poisoning, dermatitis and kidney problems, as well as a whole host of other nasty side effects.
As a young woman, this priority of image over health horrifies me. I live with an autoimmune condition, Vitiligo, that attacks the pigmentation of the skin. Cosmetically, it presents itself as "white patches" on the skin. It is not physically harmful, however it can have an impact on quality of life. The skin is incredible, acting as a protective barrier to the outside world, and it needs to be treated with the same respect we expect for the rest of our body.
The State We Are In
The last ten years has seen a massive rise in the influence of social media platforms on society, and on those who regularly engage with them. As of January 2022, 58.4% of the world's population now use social media, spending over two hours each day engaging in content. It has provided new marketing opportunities for businesses and global brands are increasingly utilising this space as a platform to promote their messages.
The abundance of opportunities for brands to capitalise on this lucrative market has seen a gross failure by social media platforms to demonstrate the social responsibility that comes with such power. Global brands have an incredible amount of leverage over our choices by tapping into our mindsets, yet social media sites today are still saturated with stereotypical images of 'perfect' skin.
Why The Media Is Failing Us All
Media content has never been so pervasive in all aspects of our lives. From the moment we check our phone to the last post we view that day, we are inundated with a record amount of media content. The effects of such excessive consumption have, in recent years, had a shocking effect on our overall wellbeing.
Many young people, for whom social media is all they have ever known, are more self-critical than ever and crucially many are lacking in self-esteem. This preoccupation with 'perfect' skin has certainly not developed overnight. It can be argued that social media, (by which global brands capitalise from our insecurities) are, at least in part, responsible for this worrying trend.
The trouble is, when people look [at images on social media], they forget that many of these images are not real and it creates unattainable expectations and beauty ideals. - Dr Pamela Rutledge - Director of the Media Psychology Research Center
Although Vitiligo affects around 1% of the population, there is barely any representation of individuals with the skin condition. As a child, I did not know anyone with Vitiligo and this made me feel very alone and left me questioning my identity. Today there may be a slight shift towards representation of people who live with visible differences, however the move is not happening at a pace necessary to be as inclusive as possible.
The media does little to address the insecurities they have contributed towards. Instead, they periodically produce 'diversity campaigns' that are supposed to address the inequalities faced by those from underrepresented backgrounds. However, these campaigns are often tokenistic and fulfil only basic diversity quotas. After the dust has settled on these campaigns however, the advertising space becomes littered once more with 'blemish-free' or highly edited images of, often young, Caucasian people with unattainable beauty standards.
There are also a number of instances where brands have gotten it wrong. An advert by Dove in 2017 sparked controversy after showing a black woman turn into a white woman. This advert faced fierce criticism and was eventually taken down. These harmful images fuel the insecurities many of us have about our own self-image.
How on earth will those with visible differences, ever feel truly confident in their own skin when so little is being done to represent them? - Author
Living With An Incurable Skin Condition
Despite having lived with Vitiligo since I was eighteen-months-old, nothing prepared me for the anguish every summer of having to reveal my skin and face a barrage of questioning from people asking 'What happened to you?' As a young person I felt as though I had to justify why I look like I do. As a consequence of this lack of understanding I reasoned to using degrading language about myself such as 'cow' and 'panda eyes' to give me some ownership over this isolating condition. This self-critical talk did little to boost my self-esteem.
Growing up, I noticed that my experiences were a direct result of a lack of representation in the media. Now, as a twenty-something-year-old, I have more respect for my body and feel more confident in my own skin. I have learned to accept that my skin is mine and that I am better off embracing it.
My body has a unique ability to morph into an impressive piece of art. - Author
It's Time For Us To Own Our Natural Beauty
Social media is increasingly used as a means to influence others. However, this space has been dominated by big brands for far too long. Many of us are now influencers in our own right. It is time we rise up and do what those in the media fail to do and promote more realistic, healthy images. As social media was created by the people, for the people, it is possible the good for which social media was intended to be reimagined.
Perhaps we could all post more realistic content without excessive filters on these platforms. This may help others feel empowered, reducing the pressure on us all to cosmetically alter our bodies. Let's reimagine what has the potential to be a force for positive change!