Role models portrayed in the media are revealed to be all appearance and too often, no substance. Girls are very slim and tall with flawless complexions.
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The idea of the ‘Barbie complex’ is not new, but the importance placed on being blonde, slim and young has created a culture that is inordinately focused upon appearance to the great detriment of most of its members. This focus has led many young girls to develop severe eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia that can be fatal, but these conditions go well beyond the mere concern of appearance.
Perception of Body
Genesis of Problem
Girls who are constantly compared to the images they see on TV and in their favorite magazines as well as hear the comments of others around them who also hold these impossible standards are at great risk for serious problems.
“Research indicates that exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is linked with depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls” (“Beauty and Body Image”, 2009).
There is a clear link between several aspects of the appearance culture and increased rates of negative self-image, peer acceptance and eating disorders among adolescents. Dr. Sylvia Rimm (2004) explores the experience of even slightly overweight children upon entering school which contribute to future eating issues.
Girls entering school without an already trim figure begin to associate themselves with overweight which becomes increased as their peers also begin to make these associations. In this cycle, the child continues to gain weight as a result of the emotional turmoil they experience because they can’t keep up with other children on the sports field or they don’t measure up to the social ideals.
Going much deeper than simple appearance, these children start to think of themselves as less than average weight children in every way, including those attributes they may possess that are outstanding in other ways. Sadly, adults often reinforce these beliefs consciously or unconsciously as they begin to expect the overweight child to be lazy and less intelligent than other children, again judging the child by appearance (Rimm, 2004).
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The focus on beauty as a means of gaining social acceptance is also reinforced by adults, mostly women, who consider plastic surgery an acceptable means of attaining it. Attempting to escape the persecution of their childhood, many adolescents frequent these centers as well.
In a Scotland study questioning 2,000 girls with an average age of 14, “four out of ten said they would consider plastic surgery to make themselves slimmer” regardless of their current weight status (Gustafson, 2005).
For those who can’t afford plastic surgery, the only option they see available to them frequently emerges as a form of eating disorder, most commonly bulimia, a pattern of binge eating followed by forced purging, or anorexia, a pattern of willful starvation. Often believed to be rooted in issues of appearance and ‘not fitting in’, these conditions become issues in and of themselves.
Reasons of Problem
As is revealed through Rimm’s research, a number of factors contribute to why a child might become overweight, but the perception they form of themselves is based largely upon how they and others feel they conform to a social standard. The media plays an active role in defining this social standard and thus the perception of self for many people.
Children glancing in the mirror quickly understand how well or poorly they measure up with the ideal images they see on TV. This is a natural and automatic process. There are numerous arguments that indicate the focus on outward appearance is an unavoidable and even necessary aspect of life. From our earliest history, it has been through our outward appearances that we project who and what we are to other people.
This was and still is done as a means of instantly identifying everything from tribal membership to comparative rank in social hierarchy (Gilman, 1999). Studies conducted by Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Dacher Keltner have revealed that people most often make snap judgments about the people they meet without even thinking about it that frequently prove to be quite accurate (Walker, 2006).
People watching just three minutes of videotaped conversation between a newly married couple were able to accurately predict which couples would still be married in 15 years’ time in a majority of cases.
A similar study revealed that a smile could reveal a person’s place of origin within 30 seconds. If rating others through outward appearance is unavoidable, these arguments postulate, it becomes necessary then to focus on presenting the best possible outward appearance one can attain.
Individuals perceiving themselves to fall short of the social ideals presented through the media would therefore be unable to avoid developing a negative self-image. This conclusion is reached by extrapolating the fundamental psychological implications of this study. Instant associations with positive attributes would become more difficult to reach when couched in terms of ‘self’.
Thus, when advertisements air promising instant weight loss or easier approaches to attaining the body beautiful, many fall into the trap of believing such solutions are possible and are severely disappointed when they don’t work. Rather than placing the blame where it properly belongs, on the product, many women, particularly adolescent girls, tend to blame themselves, contributing to an ever decreasing sense of self-esteem.
Illustration of Image
To illustrate the potentially dangerous effects the media might have on adolescent girls, one study investigated how girls responded to ads for weight loss products or ‘magic pills’ for fitness and the body beautiful. In the study, 42 participants were shown print and television ads for weight loss products and were asked to interpret their response.
“Common factors in girls’ interpretation of weight-loss advertising included responding to texts emotionally by identifying with characters; comparing and contrasting persuasive messages with real-life experiences with family members; using prior knowledge about nutrition management and recognizing obvious deceptive claims like ‘rapid’ or ‘permanent’ weight loss” (Hobbs et al, 2006).
However, these same subjects were not as capable of understanding the deeper persuasive elements of the advertising and economic subtext. Thus, they still managed to fall into the trap of self as a physical ideal or failure.
Reinforced by the ideas and activities of their parents, surrounded by role models that have little more than looks in their favor and having these concepts reinforced by the skillful manipulations of television and film, it is unsurprising to find that teenagers believe the ideal form is the only way to acceptance and happiness in today’s world.
However, this belief often leads them to take part in activities that are physically harmful and sadly sometimes fatal. Even when they do overcome, conditions such as anorexia and bulimia will prove psychologically limiting for much of their lives.
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Understanding the Issue
It is important to gain a deeper understanding of these conditions if one is to treat sufferers with any degree of success. Marya Hornbacher’s book Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia brings out several aspects of the various familial, social and personal aspects of eating disorders that are not always considered in the face of strong media influence.
When studying about these illnesses, it is easy to overlook the personal aspects of the disorder, the addicting nature of it or the gradual way in which it becomes a necessary part of the individual’s life. In many ways, the illness becomes a girl’s way of defining herself and exerting a measure of control over her own life. It is surprising to learn of the various ways in which the illness affected her life.
Despite the fact that she had ample evidence that she was killing herself and the realization that her resulting appearance was not necessarily the attractive hourglass glamour figure she’d associated with on TV, time and again she continued to participate in the behavior that was killing her.
“The year I moved home, some switch flipped in me, cutting off the lights in the rational part of my mind … leaving me with a blind, desperate desire, more virulent than ever, to get rid of the self that I hated and make me new” (231). Through this description, it can be seen that the disease had transcended any concerns about appearance and desirability and became instead somehow a manifestation of or means of controlling the self.
While there is ample evidence to indicate that there is a great deal of harm being done to the psyches and bodies of the world’s industrialized female population through the various media channels that define our ideals, there is very little effort being made to curtail that damage.
Studies have proven that the media’s tendency to portray women who have body styles and appearances that are unattainable by 98 percent of the population has had very harmful effects upon the self-images of women throughout the viewing audience as these become the ideals of themselves and others.
This portrayal has been shown to cause anorexia, bulimia, drive young girls to unhealthy diets and drive a wedge between mothers and daughters as both struggle with their own appearance hang-ups.
While some media outlets have attempted to change this focus by portraying more normal-sized women in a positive light or by banning ultra-thin models from their stage, the advertising world maintains heavy pressure upon these outlets to continue promoting the impossible ideal that helps them to sell their products.
“Beauty and Body Image in the Media.” Media Awareness Network. (2009).
Gustafson, Rod. “In America and Overseas, Girls Yearn for a ‘Nip/Tuck’.” Parenting and the Media. Los Angeles, CA: Parents Television Council Publications, (January 18, 2005).
Gilman, Sander L. Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. Princeton University Press. (1999).
Hobbs, Renee; Broder, Sharon; Pope, Holly; Rowe, Jonelle. “How Adolescent Girls Interpret Weight-Loss Advertising.” Health Education Research. Vol. 21, N. 5, (2006): 719-730.
Hornbacher, Marya. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. New York: Harper Collins. (1998).
Rimm, Sylvia. Rescuing the Emotional Lives of Overweight Children. New York: St Martin’s Press. (2004).
Walker, Suzanne. “The Power of the Glance.” Auspac Media. (2006).