While watching the Olympics over the last week, it wasn't just Team GB's fantastic medal tally that made me stop and think. Something else was different, noteworthy. Gone were the airbrushed, botoxed and identikit actors and actresses of soap operas, dramas and commercials. Instead, people of many shapes and sizes danced across the screen. From the Olympians - tall slim long distance runners to large muscular shot putters -to the diversity of the attending general public. A startling range of appearances and bodies were on show. It seemed unexpected somehow to see swimmers rising out of the pool with no make up, hair sodden, and out of breath, but looking fit, healthy, and, well, real.
This is hardly news, but when you juxtapose this with our usual daily diet of the media, it's becomes clear as to how much this breaks from convention. We are bombarded with images where people look just the opposite of real. We are sold the idea that to be happy and successful, we need to be hyper-real; beautiful, young, slim and without any blemishes or visible differences. People with less than perfect appearances are excluded from view, save so called 'shock docs' and programmes which articulate their 'plight' (http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/newsandevents/news/09mediacoverageofdisfigurement.html ). Indeed, this narrow view of beauty and over representation of the ideal appearance in the media has been argued by psychologists to contribute to reduced psychological wellbeing and lead to psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, anorexia and bulimia for those most vulnerable.
Psychologists at the Centre for Appearance Research in Bristol, Dr Emma Halliwell and Dr Phillippa Diedrichs suggest that there are two solutions to combating the impact of these idealised images. Drawing on Festinger's social comparison theory, research suggests that when we compare ourselves to the appearance of others, using images as motivation for self enhancement or improvement may be less detrimental to our psychological wellbeing than merely comparing ones appearance to the model in front of us. It is suggested that in the former scenario, we are entering into a fantasy where we could achieve that appearance, and in the latter, creating something unattainable, and therefore setting ourselves apart from the ideal appearance. In addition, viewing a greater range of more realistic 'average size' male and female models has also been shown to have little or no detrimental effects and, in some cases, boost body satisfaction (see psychological research from Dittmar and Howard 2004, Halliwell and Dittmar 2005, Diedrichs and Lee 2010, 2011). So, seeing aspirational and more diverse appearances in the media could help combat our nations 'normative discontent' with our appearance. Perhaps Olympians offer us a diverse yet aspirational array of comparison targets?
Oh, that it was so. It is evident that the tightly defined 'perfect appearance' still holds currency in the Olympics. Adhering to the stereotype of a slim yet muscular Greek god or goddess still seems to encapsulate what we think of as 'Olympian'. Sports professionals remain under intense pressure to control their bodies for their sport and perhaps, their public image. Although the link may not be causal, research has suggested that for women, competing at a high-level is associated with an increased 'risk' of developing an eating disorder (http://www.bps.org.uk/news/faster-higher-stronger%E2%80%A6thinner). Even Team GB's poster girl, Jessica Ennis was allegedly told to lose weight (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/may/24/jessica-ennis-fat-olympics?newsfeed=true).
The objectification of athletes' bodies is also a talking point. The press and commentators treatment of the Women's Beach Volley Ball teams hasn't gone unnoticed. The focus on their tight pants rather than their 'shanks', has left many of us wondering if feminism ever happened (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/bj-epstein/objectifying-women-the-last-olympic-sport_b_1654244.html). Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton and Tom Daley are similarly lauded for their abilities as well as their looks and there is little doubt that this focus on an ideal appearance can have a damaging impact on our athletes. Despite being young, fit and exceptionally talented, Rebecca Adlington has spoken openly about being bullied on Twitter about her looks (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jun/03/london-2012-rebecca-adlington-twitter). Australian Swimmer, Leisel Jones suffered similar criticism about weight gain from the press and the public ((http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/26/leisel-jones-australian-olympic-swimmer-herald-sun-weight-body-criticism_n_1707944.html). Indeed, everyone from the marathon runner to the Greco-Roman wrestler are expected to be scrubbed up, at least by the time they reach the studio, ready to present a polished image off the field to the viewers at home.
Nevertheless, the fact we are allowed to see even the most beautiful, slim and polished athletes sweating and panting, is a break from the norm. Athletes may be on a billboard advertising beauty products throughout the rest of the year, but for a short spell this August we get to see them in the their natural habitat. Winners, without the assistance of airbrushing, a full face of make up and a blow dry. The nation celebrating what they, and their bodies, can do. It may not be a world record, but it's worthy of at least a bronze medal in the campaign to value appearance diversity.