Posts Tagged ‘body image’


Image from Amazon.com

Have you ever looked at the cover of the latest fashion magazine or celebrity gossip magazine and envied the body of the featured model or actor? Have you gone to great lengths to look good, or feel bad because you don’t fit the image on the magazine? Even if you haven’t done or felt any of these things, it’s likely that someone you know has, which is what makes Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter, a josei manga about our obsession with beauty, such an unnerving read.

For a story of the hidden beastliness of the beauty culture, there’s no better protagonist than Liliko, a supermodel whose gorgeous face has all of Japan captivated. Yet behind that mask of perfect beauty lies dark secrets. Liliko smiles and titters in front of the camera, putting on an act of effortlessness, but in reality, she’s gone to the farthest lengths possible to achieve her beauty, undergoing an excruciating full-body plastic surgery in order to become gorgeous enough to make it in the modeling industry. Even so, the ticking hands of time haunt Liliko, an incessant reminder of the inevitable limit to her beauty and the interest the public has in her. After clawing her way to fame and fortune, her beauty, and the life she’s built around it, begin to unravel, and Liliko spirals further into a world of madness and violence as her desperation to stay beautiful and beloved grows.

Of all the books, manga, movies, and other fiction I’ve been exposed to, Liliko definitely ranks among the top levels of disturbed and disturbing protagonists. She attacks rivals in love and beauty, takes her hatred of herself out on others in the most twisted fashions, and in general seems the kind of unsavory character one would strive to avoid. What is perhaps most captivating about Helter Skelter is that, despite it all, Liliko’s desperation to retain her youth and beauty remains somehow understandable. Liliko exists in an amplified version of the daily pressure people experience to look, dress, and act a certain way, an industry where your worth (and income) depends entirely on your physical appeal. Low self-esteem and limited options eats at Liliko, and she relies on the image that she’s crafted to survive. It’s a job that leaves her feeling empty. In order to become the beloved Liliko, she makes herself into whatever the public desires, not just her body, but also her personality. She splits herself in two in order to present a dream Liliko to the media who manages to give the public what they want to hear without say anything at all, a pretty blank slate that reflects only fantasies. All the while she privately lets loose a personality shaped by a cruel reality.

As mangaka Okazaki suggests, however, hanging your self-worth on something as precarious as your fame as a supermodel, or more simply, your beauty, is a dangerous gamble, and one that will inevitably stop paying off. Liliko knows it, and this knowledge drives her further into a corner. She clings to a wealthy and spoiled young heir who the hardworking Liliko despises, believing that he’ll be her meal ticket when she’s too old to model. She becomes extremely antagonistic toward younger models and other women who threaten her position. And as her exterior begins to give way and all her struggling seems to be for nothing, her mental state crumbles as well. Liliko begins to wonder what her worth is when her only function is to wear clothes and pose, and tries to make herself feel better by abusing her manager, hellbent on dragging others down with her. She’s trapped, having made herself as beautiful as possible in the eyes of others yet with nowhere to go but down by the standards of society. Even her younger co-worker Kozue, the natural beauty who’s been modeling since she was a small child, cannot seem to break free of the fashion industry. Despite wanting to disappear from the public’s eye and desiring to pursue an education, she feels that her skills are limited to modeling. In one of the manga’s more surreal sections, an image of a beef cut chart slapped into one of Liliko’s dreams reiterates the sense that these women are little more than meat.

But as Helter Skelter shows, it’s not just the models trapped in a space where their worth rests on their beauty. This obsession with beauty is something that infects society as a whole. It’s interesting that the summary on Vertical’s English edition of Helter Skelter frames it as an examination of celebrity culture and the cost of fame. While it is indeed those things, Helter Skelter criticizes beauty culture, and peels back the layers to reveal a vicious cycle of body image, the media, and society.  Interspersed throughout Liliko’s breakdown are scenes of faceless girls and young women preoccupied with their looks, idolizing the illusion that is Liliko as true beauty, fretting over their flaws, and strategizing how to become prettier. Liliko’s full-body plastic surgery may seem fictitious, but it’s not too far from the truth. Women use plastic surgery in an attempt to obtain the unobtainable photoshopped beauty that we see daily on glossy magazine covers and movie posters. Ugly and disturbing as it is, what the desperate Liliko reflects is our own desperation to be perceived as beautiful, as well as our fears of aging. And it’s a never-ending cycle, as Okazaki shows us. As Liliko falls, other young women take her place, seeking beauty just as frantically as Liliko.

Okazaki’s Helter Skelter is not an easy manga to read. I knew that when I purchased it, and it sat on my bookshelf for months before I finally decided to brave this twisted josei manga that rips through the sleek appearance of the fashion industry and pop culture with knife-like sharpness. Readers should note that this manga is rated mature, and for good reasons. Although it’s presented to make an intelligent point, it nevertheless features numerous disturbing scenes of sexual abuse and violence. But Okazaki’s manga Helter Skelter isn’t supposed to leave its readers feeling warm and fuzzy. This harsh, surreal reflection of reality that Okazaki has created is meant to unnerve you. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking examination of beauty, media and celebrities, and the effects these things have on the mind, look no further.

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One of the hot new anime of the season, Say “I love you” is the classic story of two seemingly opposites–bullied and friendless Mei and popular nice guy, Yamato–falling in love. Because it has a plot used many times over, one might be concerned this is just another cliché and flat anime romance filled with stereotypes after stereotype. However, while there are some typical elements like a handsome high school student who appears to have almost all the girls falling for him and modeling agencies asking for him to work for them, so far Say “I love you” has successfully managed a bittersweet drama of Mei and Yamato and the people they encounter that has you wishing for more when the end song plays. The story and characters that may seem a little stereotypical at first glance are given depth that pushes beyond that and creates something charming.

For example, in the first episode we are introduced to some of Yamato’s friends, including Asami, a cheerful girl with large breasts. Initially, I thought she might be just another cutesy, cheerful airhead meant for fan service, something that is unfortunately not at all uncommon in manga/anime. Her large chest is pointed out several times by either camera angles or Yamato’s male friend. Yet later it is revealed that Asami’s chest has been a source of embarrassment for her since others have ridiculed and harassed her about it. Instead of making a girl’s chest eye candy, Say “I love you” went a more realistic and intelligent route by choosing to explore the teasing some girls have to put up with about their body. I was especially pleased that the story brought this issue up because manga/anime often glorifies ridiculously large breasts and if a female character has smaller breasts, her self-consciousness about this is often made into a joke. Therefore, I appreciate that a different side was discussed, one that takes girls’ body image issues seriously and shows that everything isn’t perfect because a girl has a sizeable chest. We also see that Asami is stronger than she may seem and has had to deal with her share of issues. In addition, rather than make Asami, who supposedly liked Yamato, a rival to Mei, she never treats Mei poorly or sees her with jealousy but actually becomes a friend.

That’s not to say there aren’t any rival girls in this story. Aiko has known Yamato for years and is hung up on him becoming her boyfriend. She doesn’t think Mei likes Yamato enough and won’t accept the two together. However, Say “I love you” once again made me happy when a situation seemed stereotypical. At a point in the anime when Aiko is being verbally ripped apart by someone, Mei stands up for her, breaking the girl vs. girl trend.

Unfortunately, I got a bit of a mixed message from this scene. Aiko was being insulted because of scars she got from dieting to an extreme, something she did because she believed she was pudgy and wanted to remake herself into the perfect girl for Yamato. When she met Yamato, she had been in another relationship in which she felt she needed to put on lots of makeup to be the ideal girlfriend. In other words, Aiko is the type that believes she needs to change herself physically to please the guy she likes, an unhealthy idea, especially since she looked fine to begin with.

Yet when Mei stands up for Aiko, she says that it’s an admirable thing to try to better yourself for someone you love.While I understand why Mei said this, I feel that this wasn’t really a good message to send in Aiko’s case. Trying to better yourself can be a great thing and if someone inspires you to do so, that’s natural. However, Aiko sounds like she has body image and self-confidence issues that make her feel that she’s not pretty or good enough the way she is. Case in point, in the past when her boyfriend dumped her, she slept with Yamato because she thought it would make her feel better even though she knew he didn’t love her. Therefore, while I’m happy that Mei stands up for Aiko, I’m not sure the show went about it in the right way. It felt like Mei gave the thumbs up to unhealthy behavior.

All in all, Say “I love you” is an interesting anime thus far. Obviously, there are things I like and things I don’t like, but it’s gotten me to think about some deep topics, which I always enjoy, and I’m curious to see how the story progresses. For those of you who are watching it, what are your impressions?  (If you haven’t seen it and want to check it out, Crunchyroll.com is streaming it legally and adds new episodes every Saturday.)

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This past week, I watched a 2011 documentary called Miss Representation, a play on the word “misrepresentation.” The documentary examines the overwhelming amount of objectified images of women in the U.S. media, the use of things like photoshop to create impossible ideals of women’s bodies, the emphasis on women’s appearance, and the lack of realistic women in the media. Even as someone who has been acutely aware of these issues, this movie really brings home just how bad this problem has gotten (for example, according to Miss Representation, out of all the U.S. fiction, only 16% have female protagonists).

Most significantly, this documentary focuses on the impact this emphasis on female appearance and objectification has on women politically. It claims that American girls are socialized (in large part through the media) to be ultra concerned with their appearance and that those girls who are the most concerned with their appearance feel less politically powerful. Studies have been done that show that in elementary school, an equal amount of girls and boys want to be president, but when these kids are re-interviewed in high school, the number of girls who feel they can be president has dropped significantly. Miss Representation also shows how female politicians are treated differently by the media than male politicians, making comments about how terrible Hillary Clinton looks or asking if Sarah Palin got breast implants. When was the last time you heard a news report on those gray streaks in Romney’s hair or speculation on whether Bill Clinton should get botox? This is just a piece of what the documentary discusses, but it paints a picture of how the media affects how people see women and as a result, how women are limited to certain representations.

I know a lot of people wonder when I or anyone else talks about poor representations of girls/women in the media (from commercials to movies to books to manga) how a piece of fiction can really matter. Miss Representation explains how better than I ever could by presenting a larger picture. These representations of women are everywhere and both girl and boys are exposed to them from childhood. Even boys’ and girls’ toys are segregated to socialize them to a certain role; boys get traditionally manly things like building blocks, cars, tools, etc. while one look at the girls’ toy aisle reveals a sea of pastel pinks and purples, makeup, fashion, and Barbie and Bratz dolls. We become used to seeing objectified and sexist images of women so, if one doesn’t stop to examine things more closely, it’s easy to miss them. So, when I talk about a book or movie that I feel poorly represents women, it’s likely not just that one piece of fiction, but one example of a bigger trend I see in many movies, books, manga, and so on.

If you have any interest in the U.S. media misrepresentations of women, even if you are a skeptic, you should definitely try to see Miss Representation. It goes over multiple issues related to this problem and really gives a good example of the larger impact a seemingly small thing can have on a society.

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