Female Body Image and Socialization as Influenced by the Media
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The mass media has always been recognized to be one of society’s most powerful and influential institutions. There are however concerns that such influences extend to the impressionable minds of its adolescent viewers particularly in the forming of perception of body images. There are concerning reports of growing cases of eating disorders among pre-teens and adolescents. The rise of such disorders has been credited to the often unattainable and unhealthy media portrayal of “beauty” as equivalent to being thin. There is a need for mass media to re-assess and take more active responsibility in the images and messages they send to their audience.
Female Body Image and Socialization as Shaped by the Media
“When I see these twigs of people in the magazines and on TV, I say ‘I’m going to go on a diet.’ I think I won’t look good in those clothes because I’m not that thin. You almost want to get thin just so you can wear the right clothes. I watch my junior high friends-they look like something out of a magazine.” — Darcey, age twelve (Hesse-Biber, 1997, p. 96)
Nowadays, a person’s personal body image is equivalent to that person’s feelings of self-worth. Even more so if that person belongs to the pre-teen and adolescent age group, a developmental period
Body image is defined as how individuals view and judge their own personal appearance (Morrison, Kalin & Morrison, 2004). This is further divided into two components: the “body image evaluation” or the way a person critically evaluates his or her own physical appearance, and the “body image investment,” or the things that people do “to manage or enhance the way they look”(Morrison, Kalin & Morrison, 2004).
Everywhere there are products being hawked like fashions designed to flatter curves and hide “problem areas,” new supplements that promise to help one burn fat or increase muscle mass. Salons and cosmetic surgery centers have all started hyping up “packages” and must have treatments for the beauty and “grooming” conscious (Hunker, 2000, p. 1)
What leads people to invest so much time, money, effort and at times, sacrifice to look a certain way?
Sociology dictates that people act and behave according to the existing trends and standards present in the environment. In society, a person’s sense of identity starts first and foremost with their assessment of themselves. The need to belong or feel part of a group is very common particularly among adolescents. Their “acceptance” into their peer groups serves as affirmation that they are “okay.” However, fitting into a group or society is not always easy. This is the reason why in most groups there are what is called the “in crowd” and the “out crowd.”
The “in-crowd” in the adolescent world are those who possess traits that set them apart and make them models of what most of their peers aspire to be. All the rest are just that, “the rest.” Adolescence is a time of confusion and pressure from peer groups and families. That is what makes teen magazines so popular especially among young girls who unfortunately treat the “how to’s” such magazines frequently publish as a “play-book” on how they should act or look like. These “how to’s teach girls everything from how to get skinny, what clothes are trendy or even how to catch the attention of a boy they like (p.97).
There is the idea that society propagates a certain “ideal” of how people should look like and behave in order to be accepted or feel that they “belong” (Morrison, Kalin & Morrison, 2004). This is especially true among women as evidenced by the continuous sale and production of magazine and television programs focusing on subjects like fashion, health and beauty and fitness (Botta, 2003)
The mass media, considered to be the primary purveyors of these ideas has been continually criticized for fostering unrealistic, unhealthy and often unobtainable standards and ideas of how women should look and behave (Turner, Hamilton, Jacobs, Angood & Dwyer, 1997).
The perception of attractiveness as well as the development of preferences for body size particularly among women is learned in through social and cultural interaction (Markey, Tinsley, Ericksen, Ozer & Markey, 2002). This “period of learning” typically starts during the onset of the pre-adolescence. In addition to interaction with family and peers, socio-cultural interaction includes exposure to all forms of mass media. (Ricciardelli & Mccabe, 2001, p. 189)
In popular media, often spotlighted and criticized is how female beauty and sex appeal are merged into the single word of “thin.” In fact in the recent years, there has been much comment on how models and actresses that are being held up as paragons of beauty are turning more and more into emaciated and anorexic looking waifs (Holmstrom, 2004).
Feminists view this “manipulation” of perception with regard to women’s bodies as a form of social control by which the media imposes a system of social beliefs that women are expected to adhere to (Hyde, 2000, p. 157). According to feminists, women are conditioned to think that they should look and act in a certain way in order for them to reach an “ideal” standard of femininity. (p.157)
There are some researchers who claim that the rising numbers of eating disorders among pre-teens and adolescents are caused by the continued portrayal of beauty as “thin” in media. It is according to researchers, this very portrayal of “thin” that fosters a trend of body dissatisfaction among women particularly those in their adolescence (Forbes, Doroszewicz, Card & Adams-Curtis, 2004).
Body Dissatisfaction breeds distorted or disturbed views of one’s own physical appearance. These distortions may include exaggerated estimates of body size and chronic thoughts about weight loss and weight gain (Botta, 2003).
Studies show that the biggest numbers of women suffering from body dissatisfaction come from the age group of 13-15 remaining constant until the age of 18. Researchers believe that it is also at this period where social feedback, the desire to “fit in,” become top priorities among most young women. It is also at this period where adolescents and teens strive to create individual “identities,” often using the images they see on televisions and trendy magazines (Holmstrom, 2004; Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003). These identities include how young women would like to be viewed by their peers including their physical appearances (Ricciardelli & Mccabe, 2001, p. 189).
On September 19, 2006, an article appeared in London’s Evening Standard news detailing the story of girls as young as seven years old being treated for eating disorders. (“Girls of Seven in,” 2006, p. 1)
Dr. Jon Goldin, a child and adolescent psychiatrist blames the rising cases of eating disorders among young girls on the media. “The images they see in magazines, on catwalks and in the media are having an impact…” he is quoted as saying. “Our patients talk about it. You see them looking at magazines and talking-about what they see and the problems are starting at a younger and younger age.” (“Girls of Seven in,” 2006, p. 1) He further goes to say:
“Children are influenced by what they see and if skinny models are seen as glamorous
then there is a risk that young people may associate that with beauty and fame and seek to emulate them. ” (“Girls of Seven in,” 2006, p. 1)
In the study (2003) conducted by Hargreaves and Tiggeman, they observed that pre-adolescent girls who were exposed to advertisements featuring the “thin ideal” were more prone to expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies and weight that those who were not shown the advertisements.
The models in advertisements are turned into standards by which young girls measure themselves physically up against. More often than not, those who feel that they are short of the mark end up overestimating their own bodies and feeling depressed at the difference they perceive between themselves and the models.
Body dissatisfaction almost always leads to low self-esteem that could lead young girls to doing drastic measures like extreme dieting, starving, obsessive exercising and “bingeing and purging.” (Ricciardelli & Mccabe, 2001, p. 189) There have also been reports that adolescents both male and female are buying more and more into the promises of various body building and weight loss supplements being sold through television and print advertisements (“Body Image, Supplements and Media Influence,” 2006).
The high sales and attraction of such supplements is also due to the fact that in Western society, there is a very “negative stereotype of overweight people”(Monteath & McCabe, 1997, p. 711)
Hesse-Biber (1997) decries what she calls the “endless barrage of messages” that
hound pre-teens and adolescents stressing the idea that being thin is the best thing they can be while obesity “is a liability.” (Hesse-Biber, 1997, p. 96) This same barrage of message selling the idea that to be thin is the solution to getting accepted and recognized in society is being pointed to as the cause of the increase in teenage cosmetic surgery (Hunker, 2000, p. 1)
In an interview with the Washington Times for the article “The Pressure to be Perfect” (2000) Plastic surgeon Dr William Little is quoted as saying:
“The thing that has changed is now we’re seeing teens who are looking for a quick fix to their problems,” Dr. Little says. “The girl who says, `I’m a bit overweight, and why should I exercise or diet when I can just get it sucked out?’ This comes from this media-generated electronic bombardment of images of idealized proportions.” (Hunker, 2000, p. 1)
Issuing warnings about the dangers of such procedures can be futile according to Matthew Feller from one of Washington’s district-based Center for Media and Public Affairs. He further adds that coverage afforded by media to these procedures even in the nature of warnings are inadvertently turned into advertisements for cosmetic surgery. (Hunker, 2000, p. 1)
The article further goes on to cite a joint study conducted by Seventeen magazine and Procter and Gamble that revealed out of the 4,000 teens between the ages of 14-18, more than half are already expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies. Approximately one-third of the teens surveyed said that they are considering some form of cosmetic surgery to improve their appearance (Hunker, 2000, p. 1).
In a study conducted by Renee Botta (2003) it is determined that there is a significant relationship between the number of exposures to health and fitness magazines and subsequent bulimic behaviors and anorexic behaviors in addition to a heightened drive to become thin. (Botta, 2003)
Magazines provide a powerful voice for defining what it is young girls are supposed to be doing with their lives; what is recognized as important; what is valued. It is here especially that they are socialized to take up the obsession with their bodies, even during their time in school. The overall message is that if you want to be beautiful and happy and to get a boyfriend, then you need to look like the models. (Hesse-Biber, 1997, p.97)
If there is one thing however that is undeniable, it is that media wields a very powerful influence on how people perceive different things. They can shape public opinion as to what is acceptable and what is not. Its ability to reach and influence people is the main reason why advertisers spend millions of dollars on buying placements and sponsoring celebrities on all forms of media.
There is a question as to why, if adolescents were so confused, do they not ask their parents for help and guidance? The answer to this is simple, the time their parents grew up in may be very different from the present time. The media especially the television and magazines offer the most up-to-date “tips and instructions” for adolescents in how they are “supposed” to get by in their world.
It is alarming how young women who have not even experienced the full maturity of their bodies can become so concerned and dissatisfied with the way they look at such an early age. There is an observation that while media does not directly tell its audience to go and starve themselves, its presentation of images and pictures that present the kind of acceptance, recognition and belonging most adolescents yearn for precipitates actions both unhealthy and dangerous.
It is also noticeable how concerned clinical psychologists stress the need for more responsibility on the media’s part in assessing their content. In the recent years, there has been a few talk shows who took it upon themselves to try out some “social experiments” where they tried to measure the differences of reactions people of various body types (or hosts dressed in fat suits) received from the average man on the street.
Much as the shows’ intentions were good, it also presented a picture that no one whether adolescent or not would like to go through. It is a double-edged sword. On one hand, such programs serve as eye openers against the disparity of treatments received by the skinny and the fat, and the beautiful and the plain. On the other, it may become too much of an eye opener that could drive people to extremes in trying to avoid or remedy their body type or appearance.
It is much like the comments on how media can both warn against yet advertise at the same time cosmetic surgery procedures.
Is the “culture of thin” here to stay? Myers and Biocca propose the interesting concept of an “elastic body image” that changes along with the trend of physical beauty as portrayed in the media. Put simply, media’s influence is so powerful that the trend of “skinny beauty” can become obsolete once mass media shifts to an interpretation and portrayal of beauty using heavier models and images (Myers & Biocca, 1992, p. 108)
Again, such change is largely dependent on how media chooses the way it presents their message. It is very normal for people to want something for themselves. Whether it is acclaim, privilege, or even simple acceptance of their peers. Media influence does a lot as to how society is structured. Even pre-teen shows reflect the existence of in-crowds and other “sub-groups” in a typical high school.
It is interesting to note that while media outfits may argue that most of their stories are based on reality, their audience, especially the adolescents base their realities on what is shown in the media. It becomes in effect a vicious cycle.
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