The Toxic ideal of Beauty

Schönheitsideale werden oftmals genderspezifisch konstruiert und reproduziert. (Foto: Dan Cristian Pădureț / Pexels)
Through shows like Germany’s Next Topmodel, ideals of beauty are constructed or reproduced again and again – sometimes subtly. After a few years of (supposedly serious) diversity, a return to one-sided and toxic beauty ideals is now emerging in society as a whole.
„Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Thukydides
The Greek Thucydides (ca. 454 BC to ca. 396 BC) already noted that beauty is fundamentally subjective and that everyone can understand something different under this concept. However, the subjective perception of beauty is often influenced by socially standardised ideas of beauty. These are crystallised again and again – for example in various media products – and can be summarised under the term “ideal of beauty”.

Communication of toxic beauty ideals through Germany’s Next Topmodel

A particularly representative media example of the transmission of beauty ideals is the casting show Germany’s Next Topmodel. The most recent seasons focus on diversity – at least the show likes to adorn itself with this image, for example by chief judge Heidi Klum repeatedly emphasising how much this topic is close to her heart and how long she has been striving to implement it. When looking at older seasons, however, it quickly becomes clear that body-shaming was commonplace, which makes the sudden change in diversity seem less authentic: candidates were not only measured in front of the jury, but also in front of the show’s audience of millions and then devalued for their measurements. Very slim models were asked to suck their bellies in further during shoots, but at the same time models that were “too thin” had to leave the show because of their figure. If contestants gained weight in the time leading up to the actual casting, they were obviously degraded there. The eating behaviour of some of the contestants was also severely criticised by the jurors, for example because they ate a portion of French fries.

“Diversity Washing” on Germany’s Next Topmodel?

The degradation of young women and girls because of their appearance was a weekly programme – body-shaming was deeply anchored in the structures of the casting show and was also instrumentalised as a ratings generator. In this way, viewers were taught extremely toxic, quite paradoxical and above all gender-specific ideals of beauty. The sudden change to a supposedly longed-for diverse cast therefore does not seem particularly convincing. Rather, the production’s decision to make the show more diverse must be attributed to changes in society as a whole. The body positivity movement, for example, has been fighting against unattainable and discriminatory ideals of beauty and for social acceptance and tolerance of all bodies since the 1960s; it has enjoyed great success, especially since 2017. Such movements put and continue to put casting shows like Germany’s Next Topmodel under a social pressure that has made it impossible for them not to react to the changes in society as a whole and to make them part of their production methods. Germany’s Next Topmodel thus engages in a kind of “diversity washing” to maintain and legitimise its own production. Very fundamentally, one can also ask whether such beauty contests should not be problematised both in production and reception: The staging and exploitation of the “catfight” on Germany’s Next Topmodel is, after all, characteristic. It seems as if this misogynistic narrative is deliberately instrumentalised by the production for clicks and that this staging is also often accepted in the reception for its own entertainment.

Heidi’s (no longer publicly available) statement

In recent months, numerous voices have been raised that clearly criticised the production of Germany’s Next Topmodel. This was triggered by the YouTube video (May 2022) of ex-candidate Lijana Risen, who accused the show of manipulation, among other things. In the first episode of the current season, Heidi Klum finally took a stand on the accusations. In the meantime, however, this statement is only available in the form of recordings on social media, as the broadcaster subsequently cut it out of the episode. With regard to the establishment of diversity, Heidi Klum talks in her statement about how she herself did not have the right measurements for some jobs in the past, despite a very slim body. The insertion of old interviews in which she talks about this topic leads to personalisation. This is meant to certify her will to establish diversity in the fashion world. Overall, it seems as if the production wanted to authenticate Heidi’s good nature and the seriousness of her diversity efforts by staging her as the always benevolent “mother of the casting show”. A reflective discussion of the accusations in the room is avoided; instead, gaslighting is practised again and again. The statement clearly shows: Heidi Klum is (at least supposedly) not aware of any guilt.

“Size Zero” and “Heroin Chic” are back

  Diversity has also played an essential role on the catwalks in the fashion capitals of Milan, London, New York and Paris in recent years. Now, however, “Size Zero” is experiencing a renaissance. This is a US-American women’s clothing size, which we in Germany translate roughly as a size 32. The Size Zero trend is characterised by a particularly slim look. For example, the hip bones clearly protrude and a concave belly is also characteristic. As the Vogue Business Analysis for the autumn/winter season 2023 shows, 95.6 percent of the looks by renowned designers at Fashion Weeks are presented by very slim models (US 0-4), while plus and mid-size models are hardly represented.  
  In addition to deep circles under the eyes and pale skin, a particularly slim or rather emaciated figure is characteristic of “Size Zero”. As the name “Heroin Chic” suggests, the abuse of hard drugs is idealised in the sense of a recurring body trend. As it turns out, there are currently recurring gender-specific ideals of beauty that, due to their one-sidedness and unattainability for some – genetically, after all, not everyone can naturally assume every body shape – can or even must be considered toxic. The possible consequences of toxic beauty ideals show the relevance of drawing attention to the problems of beauty ideals and counteracting them in the sense of body positivity.