The slogan on the Levi’s magazine ad declares that “Hotness comes in all Shapes and Sizes.” The problem is the three models, standing sideways in tight jeans, are barely distinguishable from each other.
“What – are they, like, all the same?” asks Alyssa Spagnolo, 18, leaning in for a closer look.
“Except maybe their butts,” says 17-year-old Karmen Brar. (It’s true, one of the models does look a little more J-Lo. Slightly.)
“There’s maybe a difference between a size 0 and a size 4. Where are the size 8s, the size 12s?” points out Shannen Maili-McAleer, 16.
Paul De Sadeleer, 17, shrugs at his friend, Ryan Cao, also 17. “I never realized how we think about things so differently. I just saw that and was like, ‘Okay, hotness comes in all shapes and sizes. Yeah, that’s true. So good.’ I didn’t see that they were all thin.”
“That makes me so mad,” says Shannen.
Mad, but conflicted. These are the same young women who admit that the girls in school are devotees of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, and obsess about it for months afterward, posting pictures of their favourite model online, as an inspiration to lose the 15 pounds they probably don’t need to lose. (The reaction from Ryan and Paul? Another bewildered shrug.)
In all the debate about the perils of Photoshop and the impossibility of perfection, teenagers stand at ground zero, saturated in social media and bombarded with messaging. The side effects are showing: This month, a fresh group of young women jumped on a YouTube trend, posting pleading videos asking: “Am I Ugly?” A newly released study on mental health and young Canadians found that 39 per cent of female Grade 10 students believe they are fat, a number that’s substantially higher than those who are actually overweight.
In the cafeteria at Ottawa’s John McCrae school, these six teenagers have been brought together to discuss body image and the media and offer their opinion on some of the more egregious photo-shopping examples. (Remember the bizarre Ralph Lauren ad in which the model’s waist was barely as wide as her leg, and her over-large head looked ready to snap her stick neck? The unanimous reaction: Yuck.)
As surveys go, it’s not scientific. They are outgoing, middle-class kids, good students chosen by the principal. A familiar theme emerges: On one level, they know most of what they see in magazines and on the Internet is fantasy. (Says Alyssa of the Victoria’s Secret models: “We know it’s their full-time job to look beautiful.”) But when they look in the mirror, they find it difficult to reconcile the fantasy with reality.
In a way, it’s the story of Adele, the white-hot English singer. The girls admire her for being a talented, outspoken woman who says things like, “I don’t have time to worry about something as petty as what I look like.” But as Allison Lemenchick, 17, points out, they also hear the guys in school call her “that fattie.”
The pressure to be perfect is coming at them from every direction, they explain: magazines, social media, the Tumblr pictures their peers collect of emaciated, Photoshopped celebrities, the “getskinny” websites. “It’s everywhere you look,” Alyssa says. “It’s everywhere you go.”
Studies shows that depression, anxiety and eating disorders are on the rise – especially among young women, and when Alyssa says everyone knows someone who purges after binge eating, or takes laxatives to lose weight, the rest of the girls nod.
“Girls analyze their bodies a lot more,” she says. “Guys might say, ‘I wish I was little more muscular.’ But with girls, it’s like, ‘My thighs are too big. I have too many zits.’”
“A girl is her own biggest critic,” agrees Karmen.
Alyssa: “Girls go right down to the pores.”
Guys, Ryan says, have it easier. The magazines they read tell them to work out more, to exercise. Even if you’d like six pack abs, both he and Paul agree, there is more room in the male body spectrum to be different.
Paul: “The girls are talking about negative pressure, and maybe it is for them. But when I am looking at athletes, it motivates me to go to the gym.”
Allison: “But for girls, it motivates them to go the extreme.”
Alyssa: “Yeah, to starve themselves.”
So, what about all those celebrity photos that are airbrushed and thinned to a shiny, bulge-free perfection?
“It catches our eye,” Ryan admits. “But it’s not like we would go after that. It’s just kind of there.”