Friday, July 4, 2014

Effortless Beauty: I Know You Didn't Really Eat That Pizza

Exercise bikes from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Keith Ramsey, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

Television is a medium which affirms a dissonance in worth and value.  An actor generally speaking must be considered attractive, as well as have the ability to act to be considered valued. So not only do we get a false representation of what society generally looks like, we have a standard which is absolutely unattainable for the average person.  Celebrities are in the business of looking good at all times because it is a requirement of the job.  Certainly you can argue that character actors manage to avoid this as a job requirement; however these same character actors very rarely end up in leading roles.

When we examine shows like The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, The Originals, Beauty and the Beast, (or, indeed, anything on the CW) and Dominion to name a few, what we have is a false world in which most are beyond conventionally attractive. The women are incredibly slim (Nina Dobrev, Peyton List, Anna Paquin for example) and the men are muscular and fit (Joe Manganiello, Ryan Kwanten, Charles Michael Davis, Jensen Ackles). Yes, we are indeed looking at a fantasy world but the characters themselves are meant to be relatable and not necessarily part of the fantasy itself.  Not only does it set up an unrealistic standard, it creates a world in which appearance becomes primary to how we value people.

These images then become not only naturalized but something to actively be sought after.  Of course because these standards are unattainable to the average person it makes this a quixotic dream.  If to be seen as likeable, attractive, valuable and talented one must necessarily conform to an idealistic vision, shows which continually highlight the beautiful quite unintentionally cause recognizable harm. In the normal course of events this small percentage could integrate with the rest of society and simply exist. It is the medium of media that elevates their existence and creates a hierarchy. These body types become overly presented and set up as something we should all be trying to achieve - and therefore something most of us are falling short of

There’s a lot to unpack about television constantly depicting one standard of physical beauty which could take a ream of posts alone to touch. But one thing that creeps in (in both books and on TV) is the depiction of these body types as effortless and normal.

There are probably people who have managed to luck out on the genetic lottery and manage to be predisposed towards a body type that fits our societal ideal of what is attractive or even super-attractive. But they’re not common and, frankly, even with kind genes, so many of these actors manage these physiques by at least some level of conscious effort - and it is that effort that is so often missing.

Take a recent episode of True Blood where Jason Stackhouse identifies the age of stale pizza by tasting it - implying that Jason orders take away pizza an awful lot. Jason Stackhouse can live off unhealthy take aways, but I doubt very much that Ryan Kwanten eats like that to produce his stunning physique and 1% body fat. I can’t imagine that Ryan Kwanten does anything but work extremely hard for that body - yes, there’s a lot of genetic advantage there, but there’s also a lot of very hard work.

Similarly, on Supernatural we see Dean Winchester eating any high fat junk he can get his hands on. It’s actually a running joke that he loves burgers in all their high fat glory - bring on the cholesterol and joyous saturated fat. But Jensen Ackles has even spoken in interviews about the difficulty - and even unpleasantness to him - of eating like Dean.

We love watching Dean’s body on the screen, but it is Jensen Ackles’ diet and work that creates it, not Dean’s lifestyle

These examples are male, but that’s largely because women eating junk food seems to be extremely taboo on our shows, certainly we don’t get the running jokes like with Jason and Dean - we rarely see women eat anyway.What is most common are characters like Elena on The Vampire Diaries, who before becoming a vampire seemed to exist largely on alcohol and the very rare pasta dinner. But there still examples - Elena in Bitten has a woo-woo explanation for her huge appetite and Sally on Being Human had the excuse of her zombie appetite that couldn’t gain weight, but, again, we see societally perfect, ideal physiques linked with huge appetites, no diets and little exercise.

This carries over into books as well - with many protagonists declaring how they don’t diet and eat what they want - happily chewing their way through big, heavy, fatty meals. And, yes, characters shouldn’t be compelled to diet - and I love to see a character who likes their food - but they get to eat this way because they effortlessly have the societally “ideal” bodytype without any diet or exercise. Sometimes there is a woo-woo excuse (high metabolism werewolves and fae are extremely common), but we still see female characters who happily and merrily eat whatever they want (which we applaud) but only do so because their weight will never change

We are not saying any body type is ideal, or that other body types aren’t beautiful or that people should exercise or diet. What we are saying is to look like these characters takes a lot of work. In interviews with the actors themselves it’s clear how hard it is for them to maintain these physiques

On Teen Wolf the actors have spoken about the exercise regime and the fitness requirement that they have to meet. In the video you have one of the character boasting that unlike most of the cast he has not thrown up in the gym. Can you imagine working out so hard that you throw up to be part of your employment contract?

Whenever there is a break in filming on the True Blood set, Alexander Skarsgård and Joe Manganiello can be found in the gym working out attempting to improve their already magnificent bodies. I’m quite certain that Ryan Kwantan who spent much of the entire first season naked is not far behind. Manganiello considers carbs something that he can only rarely treat himself to when he is on break from filming.

Things aren’t any easier when it comes to women. Unlike men, they are not encouraged to get larger but to maintain as slim a physique as possible. This means working out while alternately starving oneself. Speaking on this issue, Kristin Bauer (True Blood’s Pam De Beaufort) had the following to say:

"The other day I realized as long as I'm in this business, I'm going to be hungry. The camera really does add 10 pounds. I'm trying to stay under the weight I want to look like on TV.”

These bodies are not, inherently the problem, except for their unreasonable ubiquitousness. The problem is the work to obtain these bodies is not shown and, sometimes, the characters maintain lifestyles that would make the actors who play them cringe. By hiding and outright denying the effort and sacrifices the actors make to achieve these physiques, we present these bodies as easily obtainable and normal and commonplace - none of which is true. We’re not only presenting these bodies as ideal (which is wrong in and of itself), but also easily obtainable which contributes to the shaming of people who cannot reach this body shape (which is, frankly, most of the planet). The actors look like this because working out and dieting is part of their job - even they often don’t maintain these bodies when their shows are cancelled or on hiatus - because this isn’t something they can or would even want to maintain.

The truth is that the lifestyles required to achieve this level of physical fitness and these body types are extremely hard work, time consuming and often expensive and definitely out of reach of the average person - even if they are genetically predisposed. These are not body types most people can begin to achieve, nor should feel lacking because they fail to do so.