The Internet is Literally Distorting Our Image of Beauty

A study recently published in the journal PLOS One, suggests that the Internet influences our collective standards of beauty more than we’d even imagined. Researchers from the University of St. Andrews found that people with Internet access are more likely to favor a Western concept of beauty—skinny women, macho men—while those without WiFi preferred women with fuller faces and men with more traditionally feminine features.

The authors of the study, Carlota Bartres and David Perrett, focused their research on El Salvador, a developing country whose citizens largely do not engage with the Internet—only 26 percent have WiFi access. The researchers tested three groups of Salvadorians (based on their Internet access) and showed them two sets of photos. Photo set A contained an image of a man digitally enhanced to look masculine and also feminine. Photo set B depicts a woman who is altered to either have a thinner or more full, masculine face.

Participant Group 1 had Internet access and they were shown these photo sets online and asked which male or female they found more attractive. Group 2 had Internet access and were shown the same photos but in person. Group 3 had no Internet access, so they were only surveyed in person. All three groups were given the same exact photos to compare.

The results? There was no real difference in findings between Group 1 and Group 2. If they had Internet, they found masculine men more attractive, and thinner, more stereotypically feminine women more attractive; it didn’t matter that one group was surveyed via computer and another IRL. Group 3—the group without Internet access—overwhelmingly found effeminate men more attractive, and fuller, more masculine women more attractive as well. Keep in mind that the participants who had Internet, were more likely to have TV, so this particular group was much more exposed to Western beauty pushed by the entertainment industry.

Ultimately, this study demonstrates just how deeply and radically Western ideas of beauty have penetrated other parts of the world. As Identities.Mic eloquently puts it, “the study. . .should surely be vindication for body image activists who have long-argued that bombarding people with homogeneous, unrealistic ideals of beauty can impact what physical traits we value in real life.”

Though the Internet is obviously not all bad and we all see wildly diverse photographs of men and women every day, if you think about it: What kind of body do you see the most? When a makeup brand is trying to sell you the all-new smudge-resistant mascara, what kind of model are they going to use? When you’re shopping for your boyfriend or husband or brother, is the male model more macho, or does he have more feminine features?

I definitely think we are becoming more progressive as society. However, it’s a sad fact that the Internet still provides a pretty narrow spectrum of beauty standards and ideals, and these have clearly spread, globally.

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