It’s no surprise that, for most women, body image is negatively impacted by messages in the media. In fact, there is a growing awareness around this, even within the media and our popular culture itself. But how exactly are these negative messages delivered? What makes them so insidious? Let’s take a look at a few of the mechanisms by which the media can have a harmful effect on a woman’s body image and self-esteem.
The doctrine around what makes a woman “beautiful” and therefore “loveable” or “valuable” is first taught at a very early age. Let’s start with toys. If you walk into Target or a similar store, you’ll find toys intended for girls in a separate aisle from those intended for boys. This alone suggests that there are certain gender norms that are thought to be more appropriate for young girls – and one of these, of course, is meeting the arbitrary cultural standards of female beauty.
When you look at boys’ toys, many of them are action oriented. They’re super heroes and sports stars. But many girls’ toys are more oriented around shopping and fashion. At the same time, many girls’ dolls, like the Bratz series (and, of course, Barbie) promote unrealistic beauty standards, and are dressed in a way that many would consider to be too sexualized for young girls. The dangerous message that these factors taken together deliver to young girls is that a successful woman is not one who makes meaningful contributions to society – rather, a successful woman is one whose appearance conforms to cultural beauty standards.
And it doesn’t stop with toys. Cartoons and children’s movies paint a fairly dismal image of how we value women, as well. While Disney movies are beginning to feature female characters who are more empowered than those we saw in the 1980s and 1990s – in films like Frozen and Brave, for example – even those characters still promote an unattainable ideal of beauty.
Sadly, the picture doesn’t get much better once girls grow up. In movies and television, of course, women face any number of double standards. They must be “beautiful.” They are seen as leaders less often than men—and when they are portrayed as leaders, a significant portion of the plot often revolves around a male love interest.
In 1985, what is now known as the Bechdel Test was created in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a film must feature two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Unfortunately, there are still movies being made that do not pass this test. Similarly, beauty pageants like Miss America, which continues to draw a very large viewing audience, still actually judge women based on their physical beauty.
The relative lack of agency among female characters, combined with the requirement that they be conventionally beautiful, again suggests that a woman’s value is determined by her physical appeal to straight men.
And advertisements only reinforce this. Women are routinely shown in extremely sexualized situations and outfits in commercials for everything from hamburgers to cars – products that have nothing to do with sexuality. This suggests that there is no circumstance in life in which a woman’s appearance doesn’t matter. Indeed, in both dramatic TV series and the news itself, we regularly see female CEO’s and politicians being criticized and judged based on their appearances on a regular basis.
What can we do?
With the non-stop stream of messaging telling women that their physical appearance is what matters more than anything else, it is no wonder that so many women feel insecure about the way they look. Compound that with the fact that the standard of beauty they are holding themselves up to is practically impossible to meet, and it’s easy to see how women begin to suffer from a poor body image and low self-esteem.
For this reason, it is important for women (and men) to take “media diets” whenever possible. Turn off your phones, mobile devices, and TVs when you can, and engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself. And because we can’t shut ourselves off to the media entirely (and most of us wouldn’t want to), it’s important to be mindful of the kind of media we consume. On Facebook and Twitter, for example, try to consciously like and follow people and organizations that promote positive messages about women. While it is probably impossible to eradicate our exposure to negative messaging, it is possible to significantly limit it. Give it a try, and see if your feelings about your own body begin to transform!
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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