Looking hot, but ...
Is reality television's obsession with beauty a good thing?
By Martha Irvine, The Associated Press
April 13, 2003
It is a quest for 15 minutes of fame that can turn into a few humiliating moments of shame. Still, a growing number of people are putting themselves out there -- smiling or serious, sometimes scantily clad -- asking strangers on the Internet and even celebrity judges on TV to rate their bodies and looks.
They post their photos on any number of Web sites, where Internet surfers can rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. And now a new TV show -- ABC's "Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People" -- has brought the concept to prime time and taking the rating game to a new level.
"People used to identify the American dream with a white picket fence, half-acre lot and a better life," said Matthew Felling, a spokesman for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington-based media watchdog. "Nowadays, we see that better life possessed by the people in front of the camera."
And looks count. Never mind the karate moves or tough personas. Victoria Burrows, a judge for NBC's upcoming "America's Next Action Star," said the show is looking for men and women who viewers would like to sleep with. And CBS' "Survivor" likes to show off the bold and beautiful -- attractive men and women with strong opinions.
On ABC, the new series "Extreme Makeover" is all about appearance as ordinary people undergo makeovers. And supermodel Tyra Banks is producing the upcoming UPN series "America's Next Top Model," in which she will turn a not-yet-famous woman into a model.
From the women and men on "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" to the construction worker who turned out to be a former model on Fox's "Joe Millionaire," it's all about looking great.
Some people who've posted photos on Web sites say the Internet trend shouldn't be taken too seriously. That includes Desiree Koh, who posted photos of two male co-workers on a site called HotorNot.com, one of the first of many rating sites. "It was a form of affectionate ridicule," said Koh, a 25-year-old Chicagoan.
At least one of the co-workers, 28-year-old Heath Shackleford, was a little embarrassed at first but now thinks it's funny -- "especially since the other guy got as low a rating as I did."
Many others post their own photos for all the World (Wide Web) to see.
"People do care what people think of them. Most say, 'I don't care.' But they do, inside. So this kind of gives them an idea," said a 29-year-old from south Florida named Dom, who'd only provide his first name. He said he doesn't want his friends to know he posted his photo on HowHotAmI.com and received a 5.0 rating out of 10.
"But I don't think I'm ugly, you know?" he says. "It's all in fun."
Or is it?
Some experts believe the trend only further encourages negative body image and eating disorders that young people in particular already struggle with.
"We keep telling our kids, 'You're more than your bodies.' But that's not the message they're seeing on television and in magazines," said Jane Fleming, executive director of the Renfrew Center Foundation, a national nonprofit that addresses the issue of eating disorders.
The message on TV is that body parts count. On "Are You Hot?" the camera pans down to focus on women and men's chests and stomachs.
It's all on TV, and it's on young people's minds. In one survey, Brigham Young University researchers asked 498 girls at two Salt Lake City-area high schools about their weight-loss methods and their health-and-fitness magazine reading. Among the 9 percent who reportedly forced themselves to vomit after meals to lose weight, 79 percent were frequent readers of the magazines, compared to 43 percent of girls who did not vomit to control weight gain.
Earlier this year, some viewers began referring to a somewhat pudgy male suitor on the reality show "The Bachelorette" as "Fat Bob." Now, with its parade of women and some men in bathing suits, "Are You Hot?" has put the focus entirely on body image. (By the way, Chantille Boudousque of New Orleans, featured on the TV Star cover, and David Maxwell of San Diego, pictured on Page 3, were proclaimed the winners in the April 5 season finale. They each received $50,000 and a trip to Tahiti.)
Felling, from the Center for Media, said "Are You Hot?" caters almost exclusively to readers of popular men's magazines such as Maxim, which regularly feature little-clothed female models on its covers. "It's as if the only focus group that matters is fraternity brothers," Felling said.
Rosie Amodio, features editor at Maxim, said when she first saw promos for "Are You Hot?" she thought it looked "like one of our photo shoots."
Because of reader requests, she said, the magazine is using more photos of "real women" -- providing a few moments of fame that she says have an "intoxicating" effect on those who are selected.
She recalls one nonmodel who called after her photo was in the magazine, boasting that all her ex-boyfriends had seen the shots.
Even some who counsel people with poor body images say the rating fad should be kept in perspective.
Logan Levkoff, a New York University doctoral student who has a master's degree in human sexuality, said too many of the young women and men she works with think their bodies are "gross or dirty or ugly." But, she said, such self-concepts often stem from deep-seated issues, including family dynamics.
TV shows and Web sites that rate bodies, she says, are "simply for entertainment."
Martha Irvine can be reached at email@example.com
. TV Star editor Dave Mason (at firstname.lastname@example.org
) also contributed to this story.