The Toxic Correlation Between Negative Body Image and the Media

Not so long ago, I had a friend who was smart, kind and good-hearted, funny, and extremely talented. Not too long after we had become friends, I wanted to be like her. But it wasn’t her personality, or even her talent I strived for, it was her flat stomach, her small thighs, and how tiny she was. I admired how light her eyes were, that she had clear pale skin, and long, dirty-blonde hair. She had the looks of a girl that belonged on television, in the magazines, and if she was a bit taller, she’d be on the runways.

I focused on how much I towered over her and how my body was much wider than hers instead of loving my own.

According to the Eating Disorder Foundation, today approximately 80% of women in the U.S. admit to being dissatisfied with their bodies. This dissatisfaction and shame that the majority of American girls and women, at any age, feel when looking at themselves in the mirror can be manifested in a number of harmful ways.

While some women will never go beyond a healthy diet and exercise regimen, others turn to cosmetic surgery and many may fall victim to harmful fad dieting, diet pills or eating disorders such as compulsive overeating, orthorexia, anorexia, and bulimia. The number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on youth 19 or younger more than tripled from 1997 to 2007. Anorexia is the leading cause of death among all females aged 15-24 in the general public.

It is not a coincidence that women are constantly body-shaming when advertisements, movies, television shows, magazines, clothing stores, and even newscasters, are incessantly bombarding us with images of attractive, perfect-looking people, and often send out the message that physical perfection,which is both FAR from average and unattainable, is what we should all strive for if we want to be successful.

Skinny size-zero model walks the runway

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the average American woman is, a healthy 5’4 and 140 lbs yet those strutting the runway or posing for ads in magazines are underweight at 117 lbs for their very tall 5’11 frame.

With images like this becoming the new normal, girls and women as young as ten start to perceive their body size inaccurately, viewing themselves as grossly overweight when, in reality, they could be in the healthy target weight range for their height, age, bone structure, and physical activity. Yet no matter how hard they strive to have the perfect body weight, they are never “thin enough.” All of this translates to feeling not “pretty enough.” Then, not “good enough.”

With some magazines, such as Marie Claire Australia and Elle France, now flaunting the occasional celebrity without makeup or photoshop on their covers and Seventeen Magazine promising a Body Peace Treaty, as printed in Ann Shoket’s editor’s letter in the magazine’s August issue, many would like to believe that our society has come a long way from its skinny-worshipping and misogynistic ways.

Seventeen Magazine’s Body Peace Treaty in the August 2012 issue
by: Ann Shoket

Not that 14-year old Julia Bluhm’s online petition “call[ing] out Seventeen magazine for its use of Photoshop retouching” was ineffective, because it was. “Her online petition amassed more than [a whopping] 7,000 signatures,” according to Ms. Magazine‘s Spring/Summer 2012 issue. That’s Pretty Amazing (pun intended).

It’s just, advertisements, movies, and television shows are still depicting women as less intelligent and weaker than their male counterparts and often objectified and hyper-sexualized. If they’re meant to be strong and empowered women, they are still hyper-sexualized. And if they’re not hyper-sexualized, they’re considered dowdy and unappealing. It’s all about the woman’s look or their sex-appeal, which is also translated to just their looks altogether.

In our high school feminism class, we recently watched Miss Representation, a documentary  narrated by Jennifer Siebel Newsom who was pregnant with a girl and was concerned about the society her child would be raised in. This documentary presented the horrible ways in which women are represented in the media and the ways in which, as a result, women are perceived by men, and how they are perceived by themselves. 

According to the documentary, “women in the public eye are more likely to be judged for their appearance and beauty than men. Media often jumps straight to how a female looks rather than their qualifications.”

I can attest to that. I remember reading about Gabby Douglas, the first African-American gymnast to win an all-around Olympic gymnastics gold-medal—and the girl who I had admired throughout the entire Olympic games for her strength and how far she had come—was being scrutinized just because her hair was not straightened. It is sad that her gold medal win meant nothing to the beauty-absorbed tabloids.

When women take a stand for their rights as independent human-beings, who are raising awareness about being preyed upon by the media, who don’t need a man to be happy and successful, who are protesting their reproductive rights, who are forging paths for other women in the government, they are often called “incapable” (in comparison to men), “whores,” or “bitches.”

How is it that, as a nation, we can boast that we are a country built on freedom, yet the “U.S. shamefully lags on the world front for women’s equality, ranking [only] 37th,” according to a Ms.Foundation for Women ad published in the 2012 Spring/Summer issue of Ms.Magazine? It’s truly mind-reeling.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Just looking in the “No Comment” section of  Ms. Magazine’s 40th Anniversary issue, I noticed something. Not only are mainstream magazine ads sexualizing, objectifying, and providing images of perfection for women to idolize explicitly through fashion and fragrance advertisements, but ad execs also send these messages through ads for cars and food. This, in my opinion, is the worst kind because it unconsciously instills these negative images in society’s brains through the most everyday of objects.

Sexist Chevy “Fly Solo.” Ad

So what can we do? We may not be able to change advertisers’ and magazine editors’ minds in the short term, but what we can do is promote positive body image ourselves. We can set an example. It is extremely disheartening for me to hear girls and women (including my friends) body-shaming, especially when in my eyes each and every one of them is beautiful.

This dissatisfaction is so commonly accepted that a lot of women who are happy with their looks are ashamed to let others know they are happy with the way they look so they too partake in the body-shaming. We need to change that. By finding peace with our bodies, we can help others find peace with theirs and spark a movement just like SPARK has for young women and girls looking to address these issues through blogging, tweeting, and other media activism.

Another thing we can do as a society is support women and girls’ endeavors and praise their successes. It is already enough that women are always being pitted against each other in the media, but we don’t have to give in to those expectations.

And lastly, we should stop judging other women based on their looks. It just fuels the cycle of body-shaming. It is toxic to ourselves and toxic to other women as well.

14 thoughts on “The Toxic Correlation Between Negative Body Image and the Media

  1. This was a fantastic piece that I intend to share with my clients. We have a business model at our studio that asks women to move towards strength and serenity rather than a “beach body.” It’s been a struggle but we’re part of the movement you discussed in our own small way.

  2. Wow… The beginning of this post was incredibly engaging and I could relate to it strongly.
    ” I wanted to be like her. But it wasn’t her personality, or even her talent I strived for, it was her flat stomach, her small thighs, and how tiny she was. I admired how light her eyes were, that she had clear pale skin, and long, dirty-blonde hair. She had the looks of a girl that belonged on television, in the magazines, and if she was a bit taller, she’d be on the runways.”
    I, like many other girls I’m sure – find ourselves constantly comparing ourselves to the people next to us. I have attractive friends, and always – I find myself worried about how they would feel to be seen with me, or I envy them or wish that I could look like them instead of me. However, I would then find them making comments about their own appearance, and how they wish they looked like someone else… Like you said; it’s a toxic cycle.
    No one is ever happy enough with what they look like.

    The constant sexualization of women in the media is what is fueling all of these insecurities, and negative messages.

    We need to take a step back, and realize that the things we see in the media, aren’t the things that should shape us as human beings.

    We need to start taking care of ourselves and each other in order to make a positive impact in what we see in the media and what we see around us.

    This post was fantastic, keep up the great work!

  3. “If they’re meant to be strong and empowered women, they are still hyper-sexualized. And if they’re not hyper-sexualized, they’re considered dowdy and unappealing.”

    I’ve realized that this is very accurate. I’ve noticed that in movies and television shows a lot of women that are shown in powerful roles such as bosses, they are definitely supposed to be “unappealing” to a man. These types of characters are shown as rude or always yelling at their co-workers. They are also usually wearing very conservative outfits that are not revealing with their hair up in a tight bun. I think the media’s portrayal of women in power has definitely effected how society views women in power as a negative thing.

  4. I like how your post goes into depth about the negative affects of seeing people size 0 and double 0. You too talked about how people think in terms of beauty first and then accomplishments. This attributes to the self esteem of girls because if you don’t feel that you fit into this category of beauty you feel that no one will know you and no one will want to get to know you.

  5. Kaytlin, this peace was an insightful view on the effects that media can have on women and their health. I found the segment in which you spoke about Gabby Douglas and how the attention of her great accomplishments were diverted because of her hair. It concerns me that that is what is prevalent and spoken about when i open a magazine or turn on the tv.

  6. You are who you are. If you can’t except who you are than you can’t truly enjoy life. I thought you did a great encompassing the idea of loving your body. Your statistics were mind blowing. When you stated, “According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the average American woman is, a healthy 5’4 and 140 lbs yet those strutting the runway or posing for ads in magazines are underweight at 117 lbs for their very tall 5’11 frame.” I almost jumped out of my seat. How can magazines only promote 117 Ibs 5’11 people. It just ain’t right.

    I liked how you talked about solutions as well as the problem. It makes me feel like I can do something to stop this horrible problem.

    Great Job!

  7. This is a really strong and accurate post. The quotation you use: “women in the public eye are more likely to be judged for their appearance and beauty than men. Media often jumps straight to how a female looks rather than their qualifications.” is something that I have noticed a lot more since taking this class. As a male, I can say that when talking about girls with my guy-friends, it is almost always about their physical appearance. I think a lot of guys do understand the idea that thinking about girls only for their body is a terrible and sexist thing, yet it is in the back of our heads, and the general male mentality about talking about girl’s physical appearance is that we aren’t doing any harm because they are just words, and “they don’t care what we say.” But the truth is that the media has taught girls to be self-conscious about their bodies and care about what guys think of their appearance, and this is something that has to change.

  8. I’m glad that someone wrote about body image problems and I admire your courage speaking up about your own experiences with them, because most girls I know are either very comfortable with commenting about their bodily insecurities or they are ashamed that they have them, knowing that everyone should be proud of who they are. I think it’s also a part of growing up in a society that is taught to find thinner girls more attractive. For most girls and women, that’s just impossible to attain and not everyone’s body type is built to be a stick. You’re also so right when you talked about the illusion that we have progressed. We like to think that we have gotten so far when we see a ‘no makeup’ or ‘no photoshop’ photo-shoot that we have evolved, but we haven’t. The troubling thing is also, that when celebrities don’t wear makeup or aren’t photoshopped (and they look like who the are: regular people) the media has a fit and bashes her for the signs of aging and for all the imperfections that make us one of a kind and make us human.

  9. I loved the factual evidence you provided in the essay. It think that it is quite disappointing and upsetting that eating disorders are caused by these images in the media. In the media, girls are shown women that they cannot relate to, so they begin questioning themselves on their differences. They need to be shown women as leaders and ones they can relate to.

  10. Wow! You did an excellent job Kaitlyn! I think it was a great idea to start of this blog by writing about your friend that you considered was “TV appropriate” because society has already absorbed these ideas about being beautiful for TV. It was not shocking to me to read that models on the runway are underweight and very tall because it is something that I always see and hear that woman want to be. This really needs to be stopped because if about 80% of girls are unhappy with their bodies, then serious changes need to be made because it is a huge number. Girls have to get the idea that being beautiful is not the most important thing in the world and that you will not gain admiration by having it. It is cliche to say every woman in the world is beautiful or that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is something that me and millions of others in the world truly believe and if people would “stop judging other women based on their looks.” then I think we can really stop the cycle of body-shaming everywhere. This was amazing!

  11. You have shown me that this image of beauty that has been implanted into our brains as children clearly has very serious negative effects on girls. I was not even aware that it can push girls so far that they take extreme measures like eating diets, pills and eating disorders. This was powerful and It just made me even more interested and emotional about the topic when you talk about your own feelings of not being “normal” or the right size. It is even worse when you say that 80% of women are dissatisfied with their body and feel the same as you. What is even more shocking is the amount of courage that you have to talk about your own struggle with body image and that really just gives me hope in a brighter future where the majority of women are not looking in the mirror and being disgusted or displeased.

  12. Awesome job Kaitlyn! I have gone through so many of the same things, comparing myself to friends who I consider to be more attractive than myself. I have always had a strange relationship with the idea of models because I am 5’11”. I have often had people say to me, “Oh, you could be a model if you lost some weight!” I would just smile and nod because I had realized a long time ago that not only would I have to be unhealthily skinny, but it would even worse for my body type, as I have a large body frame (aka Big Bones). For me to weigh 117 pounds would be ridiculously unhealthy. Looking at pictures of super-skinny models always made it feel even less attainable. Thanks for your piece, it really made me think!

  13. I truly loved your post, I can relate to your words when you started out saying that “I focused on how much I towered over her and how my body was much wider than hers instead of loving my own,” because it is something I went though myself. It is, I believe the same thing me and my mother and all girls go through when they straighten their hair or color it or eat less then they would like. I truly loved how you made this post personal since the beginning but you backed all of your information up with facts like “According to the Eating Disorder Foundation, today approximately 80% of women in the U.S. admit to being dissatisfied with their bodies.” These numbers are sick and to think that they are directly correlated with images the media feeds us is incredible. To think that in the 21st century we are letting companies rule our beliefs and value system and destroy such a big part of our population like females is crazy. Incredible post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s