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Our Image Obsessed Culture Needs a Makeover

03/04/2013 17:05 BST | Updated 03/06/2013 10:12 BST

We are a particularly innovative species when it comes to creating ways to make us feel increasingly insecure about the way we look.

The term 'chubby chaser' for instance, has entered our modern lexicon. It is not a term of endearment; 'chubby chaser' is used to describe someone with the apparent temerity to be sexually - or even emotionally, God forbid - attracted to someone whose BMI exceeds that which society deems worthy of erotic attraction. (Its almost as if there is a weight-based limit on whom we are allowed to be romantically engaged with).

Terms like 'walk of shame' have also sprung up of late to demean women who choose to have consenting relations with more than one lover whilst unattached, but the male equivalent - 'stride of pride' has an honorable ring to it. This time, it is the volume of sexual conquests that determines one worth, for better or worse.

But of all of this new jargon that fuels our preoccupation with the sexual, physical and visceral, the one that grates on me most has to be 'FFB'. 'FFB', or 'fit from behind', summarizes the gross disappointment one feels when, having spotted a female from a distance and mistaken her for an attractive potential mate, on closer inspection she actually turns out to have an asymmetrical face or whatnot. You promptly avoid making the acquaintance at all, explaining to your friends that she was only FFB.

In essence, all such terms have one thing in common: they degrade those who were not fortunate enough to be born beautiful. And if you don't think beauty owes a large part to nature instead of personal choice, you should seriously reevaluate how you perceive it. You cannot engineer beauty from inherent ugliness (you can't polish a turd), and you cannot entirely redefine someone slighted from birth (falling out of the ugly tree is mostly irreversible). The result is that we relentlessly pursue an ideal of aesthetic perfection that will never come to fruition, expending valuable emotional capital in the process.

The impact of our adopting such an image-obsessed vocabulary has not been to force us into adopting healthier lifestyles either. Far from it, as rising obesity rates attest to. It has simply been to distort our image of what constitutes beauty and the value of it. Studies have shown for instance, that we rate those with a BMI of around 18 as most attractive when presented with a spectrum of body types to choose from. In terms of a medical diagnosis, however, these people are classified as 'underweight'.

Worse, our climate of image fixation has led to a situation in which those fortunate enough to be born with enough beauty to be properly enhanced by expensive products reap undue privileges for their 'efforts'. A nightclub in Kent recently thought it was appropriate to offer discounted entry for girls willing to display their superior cleavage, for instance, clearly discriminating against those wishing to retain a greater level of dignity.

The point just made may sound prudish, but there is now a mounting level of more important evidence which suggests that attractive people really do get a leg up in the job market in terms of both recruitment and pay, such as that documented in University of Texas labour economist Daniel Hamermesh's book "Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful". By Hamermesh's calculations, a below-average-looking man can expect to earn 17% less than a good-looking one, whereas for females this pay differential is around 12%.

More attractive realtors are able to negotiate better sales, according to a study in Applied Financial Economics, and a few inches above average height for a man can amount to hundreds of pounds difference in wages each year. Even NFL quarterbacks who boast more handsome features than their peers but equal talent enjoy a significant pay boost because of this fact.

Basically, our culture has resulted in a situation where we idolize attributes that in fact bear no relation to the common good of society. Vanity is not a virtue. Humility, in my mind at least, is. If we spent half as much time developing our personalities as we did our appearance the world would surely be better for it. But marketers are most gifted when it comes to exploiting our predilection for the former, ensnaring us in a vicious cycle of increasingly obsessive aestheticism. Soon, we may find that we have saturated our discourse with so much image fawning homily that we run out of ways to fixate even more on how we look.

The triumph of style over substance thanks to modern vanity has real victims. Its not just innocent social bantering; the BBC reported recently that children as young as five are suffering from insecurities about their weight, insecurities that are increasingly afflicting boys as well as girls. Of course I want to encourage people to lead healthier lives. But in order to be truly healthy, one has to be at ease with the way that they look. This will never happen when we, as a culture, put so much emphasis on inherently subjective ideals such as image and beauty.