The standard of beauty that saturates our media has a negative influence on young girls from an early age. We know this. Barbies have tiny waists and big molded plastic chests and would topple over if they were real women. Disney Princesses have nearly the same shape. And a quick glance at the magazine covers at the grocery store checkout clearly displays unrealistic standards of beauty on glossy covers.
This negative impact can result in eating disorders, reduced academic performance, and body dissatisfaction. The stakes are high.
Therefore, it is important to explore how our girls respond to the images they see and discuss what we can do to help our daughters reject unrealistic social expectations that shine through their media screens.
An eye-opening journey to the South Pacific…
Anne Becker, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, uncovered revealing information about media influence on young girls by going to Fiji. She gathered research by studying cultural shifts in this South Pacific island nation. Although this study is decades old, it may hold even greater relevance today.
Fiji Culture Clash
Becker was intrigued by the very different cultural standard of Fijian beauty as compared to the United States. Traditionally, Fiji was an agricultural community and Fijian women revered robust bodies. Well-fed bodies represented prosperity and were held in high esteem. Eating disorders were relatively unknown in this culture.
Then something changed.
The year was 1995.
That change was the introduction of television.
Becker was there to research this phenomenon and found the changes to this small island after the introduction of television were significant. Her results are fascinating because it allowed a real-time view through alternating lenses of this culture’s pre-media and post-media influence.
Three years later, in 1998, she discovered that 11.3% of adolescent girls reported they had purged to lose weight at least once.
Twelve years after these images arrived, in 2007, Becker’s research discovered that 45% of girls had purged in the last month. These young Fijian girls had a rapid increase in body dissatisfaction after exposure to media influences that equate beauty with thinness.
Let that sink in for a moment.
A long-standing beauty ideal for larger bodies began to transform shortly after the Hollywood residents of Melrose Place joined them at home.
Beyond Just Looks — Beauty and the Brain
We know from other noteworthy research that an increased focus on appearance distracts young women from intellectual tasks. This was demonstrated in a famous swimsuit study and discussed in the New York Times article “For Teenage Girls, Swimsuit Season Never Ends” by Lisa Damour.
Damour’s article discusses classic research from 1998 where female and male undergraduates were asked to take a math test in a dressing room in assigned clothing. The participants were given either a sweater or a bathing suit to wear. There was a mirror in the room, and the students were alone.
The women that wore the swimsuits scored lower on the test than the women with the sweaters. The test was repeated with an attention test to rule out a math bias. The result was the same. For the young women in the swimsuits, it seems this amplified focus on their appearance resulted in a loss of intellectual concentration.
(Interestingly, the swimsuit study did not have the same effect on most of the men.)
Our girls pay the price for weathering a constant cultural storm that objectifies the female body.
From the 1990’s to today
Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a present-day show and the physical traits of these celebrity sisters have infiltrated our popular culture.
Just like Fijian girls who wanted to look different after seeing pervasive body images on television, many women today want to emulate the Kardashians’ ample lips and generous curves.
It might not surprise you that the U.K. cosmetic surgery group Transform reported that inquiries for lip fillers increased significantly after Kylie Jenner had revealed she had cosmetic lip enhancement. What may surprise you was how significant this increase was:
In one day.
Clearly, media images are still amazingly powerful and influential.
Unlike 1995, today’s prevalent images reach far beyond the television screen. Many teenagers have access to a smartphone and computer, thereby exponentially expanding media connection time. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, celebrity websites, and other forms of social media do not simply occupy a-once-a-week time slot.
If we synthesize the Becker study with the swimsuit study, we can see how inflammatory the current culture is for teenage girls. How many girls study with a phone on the desk or bed? Imagine the competing images from social media that interrupt studying for a Physics exam. When Kylie Jenner shows up with her plump lips—she is not a helpful study buddy. When photo shopped bikini shots also join the study session, these images distract the focus back to physical appearance and dilute the ability to concentrate on the matters at hand. At the same time the bandwidth for brainpower decreases, body dissatisfaction increases.
The result is a psychological and intellectual double whammy for our girls.
The problem begs the question…
A few days ago at a town hall in Haverford, Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old girl stood with a microphone in hand and asked Hillary Clinton a question. She wanted to know what could be done to encourage girls to know “that they are so much more than just what they look like.”
The question unleashed a passionate response from Secretary Clinton, and it was later pondered if the teenager, Brennan Leach, was a planted actress. This intelligent young girl was subsequently interviewed with her Senator Father, and she explained she had been in some school plays and enjoyed acting. She also said she was passionate about the question, it was her own, and the Clinton campaign did not put her up to it. Her father helped her edit her sentences.
This “controversy” that she is an actress seems irrelevant to me—her question was a very good one.
What can we do?
- DISCUSS AND DECONSTRUCT TRADITIONAL MEDIA
Clearly, we can’t remove all media influences from the lives of our kids. We can, however, teach our girls to view persistent media messages critically. Awareness travels a long way to deconstruct and expose these promoted beauty ideals.
In 2014, Target was called out for photo shopping an obviously artificial thigh gap in an advertisement. The photo shopping actually cut out a piece of the model’s body. It was a brazen (and botched) attempt to reduce the size of the thin girl to look even thinner. (What makes this even more disturbing is this bathing suit advertisement was for juniors.)
Some astute bloggers noticed it, were appalled, and slammed it online. Others saw it, shared it, and criticized it. Target removed the ad and apologized. The familiar “See something? Say something!” is applicable here, and in this very public case, it yielded results.
This is worth talking about with our girls. Why did Target try to alter the image to make the model look unrealistic? What does it say that a loud chorus of online voices was able to shut it down? Those voices were heard and made a difference. Ironically, the same social media avenues that promote unrealistic standards can be used to shut it down. Let’s teach our daughters to speak up with a loud voice, digital or otherwise.
- DISCUSS AND DECONSTRUCT SOCIAL MEDIA
In addition to discussing the manipulation of media images, turn the discussion to the images of friends and social media. How much photo shopping is necessary? Talk about the lip-puckering shots and the filters. Why do girls use them and what does that mean? How many teenagers post bikini shots? Why? Who are they for?
Talk about these concepts with your daughters.
- BROADEN THE CONVERSATION
In addition to Natalie Portman’s face seen in Estee Lauder ads and movies, she is a Harvard graduate. Beyond Harry Potter’s Hermione, Emma Watson is a graduate of Brown University. So is Modern Family’s Julie Bowen. Meryl Streep is an acclaimed actress—did you know that she received a degree from Yale? Let’s help our daughters focus on intelligent icons in the media that go beyond beauty idols.
It’s understandable that girls and women to want to be pretty. It is critical, however, to analyze our cultural standards of beauty and broaden the discussion beyond beauty. Be more. More than lips and curves and photo shopped images. Let’s discuss the multi-faceted values of a real person with a real body that doesn’t need enhancement to match images projected to us through screens.
The more we decipher and discuss these images that bombard our girls, the better chance we have to help them separate what they see from who they want to be.