An interview with two women who attend Bloomsburg University told a story that is consistent with the plight of women across the country. Tori Hagel and Gabby Santa Ana are both freshmen who, despite being fit and healthy, confess to struggling with body image occasionally because of unrealistic pressures from media.
When asked about how media affected her behavior, Hagel stated “I feel like our lives are run by body image. You have to look good for school and work. [Media influenced body image] makes you want to look like someone you’re not.” She also commented that jobs that take appearance (beyond appearing professional and appropriate) into account in the hiring process, like Hollister and Abercrombie, are degrading. These businesses fuel an unhealthy body image and market to an adolescent demographic; they emphasize appearance as the most important aspect of a person.
Santa Ana believes that body image has improved in the last 30 years, because of a push to be fit, not just thin. But, she also commented “Social media plays a huge role [in negative body image] because you see what everyone else looks like, all the time.” The appearance of people on the internet is often skewed because images may be edited and many people only post pictures where they look their best. Both women conceded that they occasionally diet and exercise frequently. They agreed “We exercise a lot and are changing our eating habits mainly to be healthy, but looking good is kind of part of that. Self-confidence is a major factor.”
The influence of media on human behavior is no secret. In 2013, 73% of adults used social media, many on a daily basis according to a survey conducted by PewResearch Internet Project. Many have questioned the negative effects of persistent exposure to media, especially because it tends to show only certain aspects of reality, thereby distorting the perception of normality. For instance, media exacerbates the issue of negative body image, especially in adolescents. The presentation of retouched,
Photoshopped images creates an unrealistic expectation for men and women.
While women are not the only gender that media portrayal of “ideal” body image affects, many studies and surveys center on women, specifically teenaged and young adult women. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) 57% percent of adolescent girls utilize unhealthy weight-loss methods. The average body mass index (BMI) of Miss America winners has decreased from 22 to 16.9 from 1920-2000, in correlation with the advent of widely available media. Additionally, a survey of elementary school girls who read magazines indicated that 69% of them believed that the images influenced how they wanted to look.
Even well-meaning media campaigns, like Dove Real Beauty, can undermine their goal of promoting a healthy self-image. The Dove beauty sketches still focus on being more beautiful, as opposed to embracing personal “flaws” and it implies that women are the most critical of themselves. It does not touch on the root of the issue: society tells women to be critical of themselves and media intensifies the problem.
Many groups exist to support women with eating disorders including NEDA and the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) among others. Some new organizations have been created in an attempt to influence media to portray a healthier, more realistic “ideal body.” One such organization, dosomething.org, points out that only 5% of women have the body that is normally portrayed in American media. These groups, including About-Face and Do Something, need to draw more support in order to change the pervasive trend of unattainable body types in media.
In order to reverse the media messages that are influencing so many people to resort to dangerous, unhealthy and inconvenient methods of weight loss and beautification, consumers of mass media need to exert their influence over the media. Media messages can be subtle, but they are powerful, so women and men alike should be wary of the messages that popular media imbues. The media shows what people want to see and what they respond well too. To vanquish a false portrayal of women, editors of women’s magazines, like Cosmopolitan, for instance, need to seriously reconsider the true message that they convey. Consumers of media and pop culture have the power to influence a positive media environment that portrays images that are realistic, attainable and help all people to feel attractive in their own skin.