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Too Much Media Consumption Unhealthy for Women?

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.

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Women’s Magazines Are Making It Worse

Recently, as I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures, fashion and gossip magazines, it dawned on me that sexism is still disturbingly prevalent in today’s society. And as I read my Cosmopolitan magazine, I began to question whether or not some women and some media outlets are enabling sexism against women and causing misconceptions about femininity to endure.  

Cosmopolitan, known colloquially as Cosmo, began in 1886 as a women’s fashion magazine that also included artwork and current culture. It morphed into a magazine that showcased literature, specifically the work of muckrakers during the early 1990s, featuring Upton Sinclair, Kurt Vonnegut and Jack London. They wrote provocative stories that commented on the sociopolitical climate of the day. In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown became the editor of Cosmo (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/04/26/guest-post-the-evolution-of-cosmopolitan-magazine/).  She was a figurehead of the sexual revolution, and she wanted women to feel sexually liberated. Thus began the trend of sex tips and scantily clad women gracing the cover. Cosmo has continued in this vein because sales increased after this makeover but, it is far from serving the purpose that Helen Gurley Brown intended for the magazine.

If Cosmopolitan claims to be a magazine to empower women, then the focus of the magazine should be women. Just because it features a woman on the cover and has advertisements for makeup on the inside does not mean that women are deriving benefits from the magazine. Here are some example of sexist articles and headlines featured in Cosmo under the guise of female empowerment:

What Guys Secretly Freak Out About (Why does it matter?)

Get More Passes in Glasses (Read: How to be more attractive to men.)

50 Ways to Have Fun With Your Guy (What about just having fun?)

Our Most Sizzling Sex Survey: 12,000 Men Confess What Makes Their Toes Curl (Where are the women in this survey for a women’s magazine?) (Cosmopolitan, March 2014, Vol. 256).

 

Even the cover of the magazine is more psychologically appealing to men than women. The models are posed in a come-hither, sexualized manner with minimal clothing. Women are more psychologically attracted to models who have friendly smile, not a sexual smirk, and who are posed facing the camera head on, as this more accurately represents a women’s body and does not over exaggerate curves.  I have often noticed in grocery stores, etc. that the covers of Cosmo are blocked because they are too offensive and sexual. How does this portray the spirit of the magazine which is supposed to be liberation for women? Nearly everything in the magazine relates to men somehow. Whether it is getting fit and sexy for a date, how to decipher your boyfriend’s mood or what to wear to score a guy, the message that is transmitted is sexist and detrimental. It implies that to be a women, you need a man. This is, of course, patently untrue, yet, even when Cosmo tries to highlight the successes of powerful, independent women it falls short. The issue is this: it even defines success in terms of men. It showcases women who are successful in male-dominated fields or women who rose above men in the ranks of their careers, or women who are successful despite handicaps in the workforce imposed by men. These women have achievements that stand alone, regardless of whether or not there are men in their workplace, field or social circle. One article particularly made my hackles rise with this sentence, “Women, unlike men, don’t always know when their value is rising and it’s time to push for more at work.” Men always know when their values are rising? Women are incapable of determining when it is a good time to ask for a raise or promotion? A woman, not a man, made this asinine statement in an article that boasts the ability to “help you [find] love and [unlock] your inner CEO.” Additionally, note that finding love is placed before job success in this headline.

If we want to vanquish sexism and a false portrayal of women, editors of women’s magazines like Cosmo need to seriously reconsider the true message that they convey. Media messages can be subtle, but they are powerful, so women and men alike should be wary of the messages that popular media imbues. I, for one, will be searching for a magazine that portrays women more positively for internal strengths, accomplishments and attitudes, not merely physical appearances or the ability to please a man in bed. As consumers of media and pop culture, we have the power to influence a positive media environment that emphasizes the strengths of all people and discourages discrimination and belittling of groups.

Cosmo cover featuring Miranda Kerr
These are the messages of a typical Cosmo magazine
Cosmo parody
This may be a parody, but these messages would serve women better

Further Reading:

http://www.beautyredefined.net/cosmo-magazine/

http://journalism.uoregon.edu/~cbybee/j388_u02/projects/cosmomaxim.html

 

 

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