Today, with the rapid spread of media through the Internet, it is easy to find examples of great people. Anyone with access to the web can listen to YouTube videos of the world’s most virtuosic musicians or follow skilled artists on deviantART or Tumblr. The talented, the intelligent, the accomplished and the beautiful are popularized in lists from TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential to countless articles on Buzzfeed.
How we react to the greats depends a good deal on our own moods, circumstances and personalities. Frequently we’re inspired, sometimes intimidated, often entertained, occasionally envious. While some people tend to be motivated by individuals they admire, others are more inclined to feel inadequate — a condition exacerbated when “adequacy” is unattainable.
A good number of us feel inferior when we compare ourselves to the superstars we find on the web — not necessarily because we have less potential than they do, but simply because much of what we see isn’t authentic. Many of our media idols are not real people. They are real people artificially edited into ideals. And when we compare ourselves to ideals, we will always come up short.
As long as we realize everything has been rigorously filtered or technologically doctored, shouldn’t we be able to distinguish realistic from unrealistic expectations?
Unfortunately, “no” is a strong contending answer. According to Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the human brain is naturally gullible. Believing what you see or hear is the default state; disbelieving, or unlearning, requires conscious processing. In one experiment, two groups of people were given a series of nonsense statements and told that each statement was either true or false. One group of people was instructed to remember a series of digits as the statements were presented to them — in effect, distracting their conscious minds. Later, each participant was given a memory test to see how many of the statements they thought were true. Those told to remember digits as they saw the statements recalled many of the false statements as true.
What does this mean for recognizing ideals? Basically, if we are not consciously aware that something has been tampered with, as far as our brains are concerned, it’s reality. So if a model looks impossibly thin because half of her body weight has been removed in Photoshop, unless I make an effort to tell myself that her picture is unnatural, I may just believe she exists in such a skeletal state.
But just because I believe it doesn’t mean it will affect my body image. I still have to internalize the ideal that thin women are more attractive (and presumably feel the need to be attractive) in order to suffer the anxiety and decreased self-esteem that accompany a comparison of my own flawed form to the popsicle-stick woman on the web. It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle, however, because media — including the Internet — play a significant role in what ideals people internalize. Although most studies have focused on women’s (dis)satisfaction with their bodies, I propose that individuals treat other ideals, ranging from artistic and academic achievements to concepts of happiness and “the good life,” in a similar way.
Even realizing my hypothetical model is fake might not help me, though, since research shows that people can and do internalize and compare themselves to impossible ideals. Therefore, I think it’s reasonable to theorize that inundation with unrealistic, inauthentic images may exacerbate poor self-esteem and emotional anxiety derived from social comparison or perfectionism. In other words, because our media is overflowing with airbrushed all-stars, we may have a higher chance of holding ludicrous standards that we mistakenly believe are attainable.
Of course, this argument presumes that we equate technologically modified versions with ideals, which is not always the case. Consider music. Automatic pitch correction ensures that slightly off-key notes can be slid into tune, while techniques for stitching together multiple recordings can correct larger blunders. By some definitions, the results are flawless. Yet, by other definitions, they are inhuman, lacking the charm of spontaneous nuance and divorced from the unpredictability of musical performance.
Movements are cropping up to subvert unrealistic ideals, including a recent wave of celebrity-posted unretouched photographs. Even without these welcome efforts, though, I think we would do well to recognize what expectations aren’t worth expecting of ourselves. It’s a fine line between striving to be all that you can and feeling that you will never be enough. For me, it helps to think in terms of progress, not accomplishment; to view failures not as failings but as opportunities. Ideals are not goals to be achieved. At best, they are guides, and some of them are not even worthy of that status.
For those times when we are dismayed by how little we think we have done, the Internet can be a minefield riddled with samples of the world’s best in every category. At our fingertips are the paragons of our aspirations, our ideals more idealized than ever.
But ideals are just that: ideals. We live in the messy, imperfect framework of reality, within which there is endless potential for improvement, development and growth. That, to me, is more inspiring than any “perfection.”
Contact Mindy Perkins at [email protected].