Mass Media and Body Image


"Whoever controls the media -- the images -- controls the culture."
Allen Ginsberg

I have a six-year-old cousin who thinks she’s fat. This whole idea is really disturbing, because I didn’t even realize six year olds were aware of the concept of being overweight. I remember being young and playing make believe with dolls, and not being

conscious of the concepts of sexy, or skinny, or hot. Now my cousin and her six-year-old girlfriends play make believe ‘adult’. They dress up not as princesses or pirates, but as adolescent girls, wearing mature dress up clothes and ‘playing make-up’.

She is already aware of the media pressure to look a certain way, which subsequently makes her feel fat. She does not come from a family environment where weight is a topic discussed in terms of value or appearance, only of health and nutrition. In fact, the words ‘fat’ and ‘overweight’ aren’t used around her. For a normal six year old girl to start worrying about being skinny makes me wonder how strong these media messages are, and why are they more powerful than the primary messages she receives at home.

There was no direct moment when these thoughts became a subject of conscious awareness, rather, after many visits to my Aunt’s home I became hyper vigilant to the different questions my cousin would ask, and the various responses my Aunt gave. When the topic of weight came up, my Aunt immediately censored the conversation to not contain any hot words like ‘fat and skinny’ rather she used words like ‘healthy and unhealthy’. When my cousin would come home from school, excitedly explaining some new piece of clothing all the girls are wearing, my aunt doesn’t discourage her excitement, but challenges her to why she would want to wear a revealing halter-top. Instances like these started to become a subject I would think about quite often on my visits, and I soon felt very overwhelmed with what I perceived as the intense pressure to look a certain way from such a young age.

I realize now, that my Aunt is trying to envelop my cousin in an environment where value doesn’t lie in your outward physical appearance, specifically in your weight. Health is what matters, as well as taking into account how you feel about yourself, as opposed to how the media and her media influenced peers judge. My Aunt is trying to challenge the media messages my cousin receives multiple times on a daily basis. This is no easy task, and one that quantitatively she will not succeed in.

The mass media has a devastating effect on what women and young girls perceive to be as the attainable ideal body type, which can often have detrimental psychological consequences such as depression, eating disorder symptamology, and distorted self-concept.

The mass media generally associates good with beautiful and bad with ugly. Being thin is associated with happiness, success, and youthfulness. Being overweight means laziness, no self-control, and fat.

This paper will discuss the mass media and body image in terms of its history, body image and the mass media in present day, research about how the media effects our perception about the ideal body type, effects on pre-adolescents, cultural changes, and the counter-culture that has emerged out of the effects of the media.

A quick reference to classical art will tell you that the feminine ideal throughout most of history was much fleshier and round then what is ideal now, great examples being the curvaceous body of Botticelli’s Venus rising from the waves, to the buxom forms painted by 17th century master Peter Paul Rubens. Voluptuousness is still referred to today as ‘Rubenesque’. In the past the most sought after female body types were represented by a curvy figure with a great deal of plumpness by today’s standards, which equated to a well-fed and healthy woman during what could be difficult times. No women during the plagues could probably be found obsessing over their weight, unless it was in terms to wanting more food, and wanting to be fatter. It’s important to note, that while there was not a preoccupation with the excessively thin ideal we see today, the pursuit of an ideal feminine figure has been recorded throughout history. Dr. Norman Bridge wrote a paper on the psychology of the corset and found that:
The desire of womankind to shape the female figure according to standards of beauty must have begun almost with the savage. In the ruins of Palenque, in Mexico (of which there is not a scrap of written history), was found in stone a bas-relief of a woman with bandaged waist. Circular and transverse folds and loops—strips of cloth used to compress the form- are clearly shown in the sculpture.

In the 19th century, Victorian women were laced and pulled into restrictive corsets to achieve their present ideal form: the hourglass figure. The gradual tightening of a corset would eventually take a 27 inch waist (which in perspective is already relatively small) down to a waist that measured a hand span. Cracked ribs were not uncommon and fainting resulted because of the lack of oxygen to the lungs (Prasch192-202). This shift from the 17th century to the 19th century is something that should be seen as dramatic, even though people have always been concerned with outward physical appearance, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that it was documented enough to invade popular society either through advertisements for corsets, or various creams and tonics to help achieve this unnaturally hourglass idea (192-202)

Although not entirely analogous, the extent to which women suffered with the restraining corset can now be seen today in women with eating disorders. The things women will suffer to be considered beautiful have changed over time, but there is a constant theme that for a woman to achieve the popularized ideal figure, she must endure some sort of physical anguish. The message continues to be that women are not okay and beautiful naturally, and that something must be done to remedy this.

During the 20th century, the most dramatic shifts occurred in what is considered the ideal feminine form. Women were slowly making a mark on society by demanding equal rights, and as women’s activities increased, so did the ideal body type. Women fighting for the right to vote took them to a public arena, where their ideas as well as their bodies were on display. Coming from an age where women barley had a right to speak in public, this newfound public display also started sexualizing women. The slim, sexy, Gibson Girl of the turn of the century, what Catherine Warren refers to as “the first mass-media stereotype”, reflected women’s new interest in athleticism. This occurred at a time when science and medicine were starting to focus on body weight and the concept of calories (219-223).

The most dramatic look and body type of the 20th century was that of a flapper girl. She had short hair, and more importantly, a boyish, athletic figure. This was a sharp contrast to the tight-laced figures of the Victorian era. By this time, women were slowly starting to work, which gave them personal economic power for the first time. This new found responsibility and liberation reflected in how women looked and dressed. The first breast-reduction procedures occurred during this time to allow women to achieve the much sought after flat chest of the boyish, athletic figure and breast binding was certainly not uncommon. The flapper girl was the beginning of an era in regards to the ideal feminine figure, with every following decade in some way embracing skinny women with only a short shift of attention to the curvier figures in the 50’s (Warren 219-223).

During the 30’s and 40’s, the Great Depression and WWII stunted any real shift that could have been made and women remained athletic looking and slim. Women did however gain some important ground in their shift out of the home, as women started working more and more in factories. It wasn’t until the 50’s that the next shift took place, with post-war abundance bringing back female curves as the new ideal figure. The perfect personification of this would be Marilyn Monroe, a size 14. This look carried into the next decade, as more women went to work in the 60’s and were liberated even further, with the first birth control pill going on sale in 1961 (Newman ,226). A waif-like, underweight, and lanky ideal took stage during this time with the likes of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy. From then on, slim was definitely in. The 70’s saw women burning their bras and obtaining even more liberation from their role in the home. The correlation between fitness and health was increasingly becoming more apparent and was reflected in the changing shape. By the 80’s, diet and health influenced every aspect of the beauty industry, and subsequently the media.
Into the 90’s, little had changed. Ironically, a super-sized, processed diet and increasingly sedentary lifestyle means there are more overweight people than ever, but a weight-obsessed media has ensured that the thin ideal remains. Throughout the recounted history of the ideal feminine body type, socio-economic factors influenced what was considered ideal, and not until recently has the mass media had such an impact on what is considered beautiful. Often misunderstood, the actual ranges of body types from the past are no different than what is around today. There have been no genetic changes that have allowed for a more slim body type to emerge.

What has changed however is what the ideal is. In the Barnard/Columbia Women’s Handbook, a study shows that 25 years ago the average American model weighed 8% less than the average American woman. Today’s models weigh 23% below the national average (Banard/Columbia Women’s Handbook). The fact that the models that represent the ideal are 23% more underweight than the general population isolates women and denies the natural range of body types and appearances especially from culture to culture. Instead of recognizing and celebrating the diversity of one another, person-to-person, culture-to-culture, we compare ourselves with these models, thus objectifying our own and other women’s bodies. This social idea that we have all powerful control in achieving this ideal weight and figure is presumptuous on the fact that we can completely control our body size but “in fact, the size and shape of our bodies are as genetically determined as skin and eye color.”. (Douglas pg. 30-42) People are predisposed to a certain body type, and the amount of fat a person stores in their bodies has a lot to do with family history. Yet, the media continues to push a message that through diet-pills and the right exercise any woman can look like the models and actresses that we idolize on magazine covers and in film. When many women learn that despite their most consistent efforts they are still not thin enough, their feelings of body dissatisfaction can have detrimental psychological results.

Twenty-five percent of fashion models today meet the American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines for anorexia nervosa (Hesse-Biber, pg.3). There is something almost intrinsic about our society in promoting this unhealthy ideal. One aspect of this may be that mental illness is still stigmatized to such a degree that people with eating disorders are looked at as if their problems aren’t real, and since “limits on desirable thinness have not been set, the popular notion is that, as long as a woman isn’t “badly” anorexic, being thin is not hazardous” (Feminism and Women’s Studies). Nowhere in intelligent societies is it looked upon admirably to be a little cancerous, but somehow the media and its effects on society have made it acceptable to starve oneself and sacrifice one’s own health to just be thin. The resulting physical and psychological effects of an eating disorder are widespread. It’s a disease that the media is marketing as a good thing. This is not to say that every woman who experiences some sort of body dissatisfaction will develop an eating disorder.

There is no direct correlation of cause and effect that can state that mass media portrayal of underweight women leads women to have eating disorders. However, the portrayal of these underweight women does send out the message that thin, often underweight women are the ideal, and when women try to obtain that ideal and fail, their feelings of self-worth and self-esteem suffer. In a study preformed by Lucas and his colleagues entitled “50-year Trends in the Incidence of Anorexia Nervosa” it was found that the “incidents of anorexia nervosa during a 50-year period and the incidence of anorexia nervosa among 10-19 year-old girls paralleled the change of fashion and its idealized body image. The thin ideal preceded the times when the rates of anorexia nervosa were highest.”

Content Analysis (where the frequency of portrayal of particular images is recorded) has shown that women are portrayed as abnormally thin in the media whereas men tend to be portrayed as a normal weight. For example, Silverstein et al. (1986) “found that, in thirty-three television shows, 69 percent of female characters were coded as ‘thin’, compared to only 18 percent of male characters. Only 5 percent of female characters were rates as ‘heavy’, compared to 26 percent of males.” Silverstein also found that models in high fashion magazines such as Vogue had become increasingly and radically thinner since the 1930’s, stating that: “…present day women who look at the major mass media are exposed to a standard of bodily attractiveness that is slimmer than that presented for men and that is less curvaceous than that presented for women since the 1930’s.” (Silverstein et al., 1986: 531)
Marjorie Ferguson (1985) studies women’s magazines from a sociological perspective and argues, “ …that women’s magazines contribute to the wider cultural processes which help to shape a women’s view of herself, and society’s view of her. Women’s magazines are read by a large proportion of women with each copy seen by many women (on average, each copy of Vogue is read by sixteen women)…” Since so many women read these magazines, they are inherently exposed to the standard of being slim that Silverstein analyzed.

From a young age, girls are constantly taught that their self worth is wholly dependent on how they look. Case and point: the fact that women earn more money than men in only two jobs- those being modeling and prostitution (Wolf, 1992).

More alarmingly, children are being exposed to the effects of mass media at a much earlier age at present, and therefore pre-adolescent girls are now becoming the target cohort for body dissatisfaction. In earlier years, adolescent girls were primarily the targets of body image research, but now girls as young as six are being documented with the desire to be thinner according to Dohnt and Tiggemann (2006). In fact, in their study, “40 percent of 6 year old girls reported wishing that they were thinner.” Historically a response to body dissatisfaction with one’s body type has led older women and female adolescents to diet, and now in the same way, pre-adolescents girls are reporting attempts to diet, or they are in the very least aware of the concept of dieting. The effects of the media now have a more powerful link to children than the children’s primary sources of their parents, friends, and community.

Disney movies including the ever-popular Beauty and the Beast (the title says a lot), Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, seemingly innocent, depict almost every female lead as skinny and beautiful, with the bad guys often being overweight and ugly, an example being Ariel from the Little Mermaid and her nemesis Ursula. This is a huge obstacle because, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “in an year, the average child spends 900 hours in school and nearly 1,023 hours in front of a TV.” It’s of course, unrealistic to try and restrict this magnitude of exposure to the media, especially since most children not only get exposure from the TV, but within their peer-groups at school, the topics seen on TVs are discussed that reinforce this exposure (kidshealth.org).

Children’s toys are also made and marketed in such a way that we quickly become desensitized to what it real and normal. Barbie, for instance, is a staple in most girls lives from a very young age, and even those parents who restrict these types of toys can’t possibly confiscate them from schools, daycares, and friends houses. It is probably near impossible to prevent exposure to Barbie for most young girls. Barbie is a cultural icon in America, and what’s so disturbing about this fact is that she is a most dramatically disturbing ideal. G.G Fein discusses Barbie in the article “Toys and stories” and describes her as:
Not only would she be 7 feet 2 inches tall, but she’d also boast an impressive 40” bust line, a tiny 22” waist, and 36” hips. In addition to these absurd, and physiologically impossible statistics, her neck would be twice the length of a normal human being. On top of that, Barbie would not have enough room in her tiny waistline to have full sized organs, nor would she be able to menstruate. Due to her proportions, she would have to walk on all fours because her body would not be able to adequately support her. (153)

Barbie’s body is literally completely out of range from what all girls and women can attain. When Mattel did try to change Barbie’s body type and market a more life like doll, it did horrible in today’s marketplace and the demand for this Barbie was significantly lower than that of the unrealistic body type Barbie (Fein, 1995). It can be speculated that society rejected the realistically proportioned Barbie because we are already conditioned to respond and strive for a thin ideal whether in ourselves or in our toys.

In our society, we can become desensitized to all the information the mass-media puts out about weight and image, but the fact that girls as young as six are aware of this social pressure is quite disconcerting. Most research shows that girls at 4 and 5 show little signs of this sort of body awareness, but attitudes toward weight and being thin shift when a girl enters kindergarten. This suggests that it’s not only the media alone bringing out these attitudes about weight and image in young girls, but also the discussions and relationships these girls have with their peers.

In earlier years there was a correlation being that the younger a girl was with body image discrepancies, the more likely she was to be Caucasian. But even this gap is now closing according to Clay, Vignoles, and Dittmar, with girls that are of a minority matching the rates of girls who are white in their views of body dissatisfaction or lack there of. Hispanic girls in fact, are now being reported at a higher rate with complaints of body dissatisfaction than any other group. It can be hypothesized that this is greatly a consequence of the trends in Hollywood to be skinny, which has caused Latina role models like Jennifer Lopez and Penelope Cruz to become more ‘Americanized’ ( Clay, Vignoles, and Dittmar, 2005).

Waif-like fashion models and movie actresses are hard to avoid in glossy magazines and even the regular evening news (read: Paris Hilton) and these images are obviously detrimental to girls still forming their identity and self-concept. This perfect, thin, and sickly ideal is something that is a cultural construct, being that not only do women not really look like this as proven by the statistic of underweight models, but those who try, usually can’t achieve this ideal, meaning that “merely being a women in society mean feeling too fat” (Rodin, Silberstein, and Striegelmoore., 1996).

We can now understand that the media has detrimental effects on what women perceive as an ideal body type, but we are still largely in the dark as to why the media popularizes this body type and why women strive to attain it. Many theories and counter-cultures have emerged through this speculation, and one of the more prominent ones being that of the Fat Feminists. Our society has drawn a line between fat people and thin people, similar to (but not exactly like) the lines it has drawn based on gender, skin color, sexual orientation and class. (Lehman, pg. 13)

The Fat Feminists basically materialized out of the Feminist Movement, because they felt that they were isolated and marginalized for their weight even amongst their peers who fought for equal treatment and rights across gender. They are a sub-culture amongst today’s women and Susie Orbach a founding activist of the movement and author of “Fat is a Feminist Issue” states that Fat Feminists, “believe that one’s size has nothing to do with one’s value as a human being” (Lehman, pg.13).

This culture of women, make up the size-acceptance movement sometimes referred to as the fat liberations movement. It really started as a grassroots effort by people who identified as Fat Feminists and wanted to change societal and media views of fat people. Different groups and organizations such as The National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), and the International Size Acceptance Association (ISAA) formed throughout the diet-crazed years in the 1980’s and 90’s and advocated a “health at any size” approach to the medical treatment of obese people. These groups also point out the discrimination that fat people endure, such as the fact that employers still tend to react negatively to large job applicants.

The Body Positive organization, which was founded to, “to create a cultural shift in people’s attitudes about weight, health, movement and beauty” conducted a recent study, which found, “that among their business school graduates, fatter or shorter executives earn less than their thinner and taller counterparts”. The authors of this study noted that they could not draw any significant conclusions about large women, because there weren’t enough large female business school graduates.

In present, we now are living in a society where the ideal body type is literally unattainable to most women. The media isolates millions of these women from feeling normal and beautiful by perpetuating this ideal thin body type. The effects from the media have intensely damaging psychological and physical effects and this has prompted a new counter-culture to emerge and fight for the acceptance of fat people.

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