A student recently sent me a message asking if she could interview me for a research project. She sent me a list of questions related to media, advertising, body image and self esteem.
I had fun answering the questions and I figured that other people might find my answers interesting or useful, so I am posting them here.
1. Do you think there is a link between media influence and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance? Why or why not?
I certainly do. There have been numerous academic studies that have indicated a correlation between media influence and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance. One study that really stands out was conducted in Fiji in the 1990’s. Just a few years after television and American shows like Melrose Place arrived on Fiji’s main island, eating disorders went from being virtually unheard of to noticeably on the rise. Read more about the study here.
2. Who do you think is most affected by unrealistic body expectations?
I think that young girls from the ages of approximately 8 – 17 are the most affected. This is because girls start to become more aware of how they look, and how they are “supposed to look” around age 8. They are very influenced by the images around them and desperate to fit in and be “normal.” Also, they have not yet developed the critical thinking skills necessary to combat the onslaught of images that confront them every day… their minds are like sponges just soaking up all these negative messages that women need to be very thin yet have large breasts and a round butt, dress in sexy attire, have long blonde hair and the lightest skin possible in order to be considered attractive.
3. When do you think this issue became especially prominent?
I think it became prominent when advertising really got ramped up in the post-war consumer era of the 1950’s. Advertisers realized that women were the primary shoppers and decision makers when it comes to household products (food, clothing, beauty products, appliances, etc.) so they began to target the majority of advertising towards women.
4. How does media affect our perception of beauty?
It has a HUGE affect on our perception of beauty. The biggest problem is that images of women in the media are often constructed using Photoshop, and they are not “real.” It is all too easy to brighten eyes, whiten teeth, remove winkles, slim down a waist or thighs using Photoshop. When this is done over and over again on virtually every image that we see of women in the media, it has a devastating effect on women. We believe that we CAN and SHOULD look like that, when in fact the models in the images don’t even look like that.
5. Why is the media so obsessed with thinness?
Thinness is desirable because it’s difficult to achieve. Very few people naturally have a “model’s body” – I believe it’s only 2 to 5% of the female population. So, advertisers and the media use thin models because they know that almost nobody can achieve that look, yet everyone will desire that look because it’s put up on a pedestal and worshiped. If people are constantly trying to look like something they are not, they will have lower self esteem and be dissatisfied with their bodies. This means they are more likely to spend money buying products to try and achieve that look.
6. How are men affected by unrealistic body expectations?
Men are definitely affected by this too, although I believe it’s to a lesser extent. Men feel pressured to have good skin, muscular arms, six packs, thick hair and to be tall.
The reason why men do not have as much pressure placed on their physical appearance as women do is because there are men in successful roles who are NOT thin, young or beautiful. Think about all the successful men who are bald, overweight, ugly, short, etc. Now think if you know any successful women who fit that description? And if a woman is successful yet fat, she is constantly harassed about her weight in the media, where as men are not.
7. Does the beauty industry prey on women’s insecurities to sell them things they don’t need? Explain.
Yes they do. An example would be anti-aging creams. Open any women’s magazine and you’ll find tons of ads for anti-wrinkle cream. The incredible thing is that these ads are targeting increasingly younger and younger women. There are so many in COSMO magazine, whose readers are mostly in the 17-23 age range. These are young women who don’t even have wrinkles yet, but they are already getting the message that wrinkles are bad, ugly, undesirable and something must be done to stop or prevent them. So women start obsessing over these “imperfections” and worrying about them. Once we become self conscious about something like wrinkles, we are much more likely to spend money on products like anti-wrinkle cream in order to “cure” the problem.
8. What do you think should be done to eliminate or reduce the influence of media on our perception of beauty?
I think that advertisers should stop using Photoshop to create unrealistic beauty standards, and I think they should use more variety in their models. I’d like to see images of REAL women of different ages, different ethnic backgrounds and different body types.
9. How does media influence directly relate to eating disorders and low self-esteem?
Go to Google Scholar and type in “media influence and self esteem” you will see tons of academic studies indicating that consumption of media DOES impact self esteem in a negative way. Almost every study I’ve read has come back with the same conclusion: the images we see every day are extremely powerful – we cannot live up to those unrealistic standards of beauty, yet we keep trying and continually fail. Constantly failing to live up to the ideal beauty standard takes a toll on our self esteem… it’s no wonder eating disorders are rampant.
10. How can everyday people combat against unrealistic beauty ideals and embrace their natural beauty?
My first bit of advice is to stop buying magazines or looking at images of “beauty” that are highly retouched. The next step is to start following blogs or Facebook pages that promote REAL beauty. For example, there are plenty of blogs on Tumblr that promote beautiful curvy women, beautiful petite women, beautiful black women, beautiful punk-rock women…. and almost every other niche you can think of. Find the niche that interests you and start to look at THOSE images rather than mainstream media images. This way YOU get to control the types of images you are seeing, and that is hugely powerful. For example, when I scroll through my Tumblr dashboard, I see amazing images of all these beautiful women who look nothing like the images in magazines, and it’s so refreshing. It makes me feel like my body is beautiful and normal, which of course it is.