The media appears to be young women’s greatest challenge in North America today. The media displays the “ideal” woman, and how can any real woman possibly commit to meeting such standards? It is not physical conflict with oneself, but a mental and emotional battle as well. The average American will see 3,000 ads a day and up to three years of commercials, but generally does not feel uninfluenced. With commercials that promote not only
products, but images, values, and normalcy, advertising tells who we are and who we should be (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 123). It is ludicrous for young women in North America to feel inadequate based on images from popular magazines or television commercials. Though the struggle is difficult, it is one of great importance that offers strategies to confront and overcome these challenges.
The most significant struggle young women in North America face today is how they are viewed by their society. The media sets impractical ambitions that few women can aspire to; however, beauty ideals are not the only challenge young women face. Sexual orientation and inferiority to men are all limiting factors in young women’s lives. Young women use cultural expectations from advertisements as a model for their lifestyles and this can result in damaging, and sometimes fatal consequences. In a society where many young Americans have unlimited access to the media, how, in their time of development, can young women be expected to ignore magazines that target girls and young women and convince them that in order to be successful in life, they must fit the particular mold society has formed for them? Women of color or disability, women who are heavier or tanner, women who have blemishes and scars are all viewed in our society as less than attractive people. Why? Because the media defines the accepted and always changing representation of beautiful and perfect, women feel as though they must sacrifice their identity to gain acceptance and approval in their culture. Because we are living in a culture that still breeds sexism, racism, and homophobia, the media can easily discourage a great number of young women. Ashmore, Englis, and Solomon tell us that 30% of teens commit suicide on the sole basis of fear of not being accepted by society. If the media is contributing to the loss of young women in North America, then how can we expect society to maintain its broad range of diversity among young individuals?
Most young women look to society through media, whether it is for a reaction, to gain approval, or at times, simply because it is so hammered into our minds that acceptance from our society is necessary. Starting at a very young age, television program commercials display ads for Barbie Dolls, and girls in North America immediately bombarded with images showing what women should look like. Recent research has shown that the exposure to the ideal female as presented in advertising directly contributes to body image disturbance among young women (Posavac, Posavac, and Weigel 324). The media, with its emphasis on beauty and thinness as an ideal standard of female attractiveness, has been singled out as the most potent messenger of societal pressures, according to Ashmore, Basil, and Solomon. Young women engage in social comparison unknowingly when viewing models in magazines or watching them on television. After comparing themselves to these media images of ideal female attractiveness, an apparent difference between their actual beauty and the media’s standard of attractiveness is likely to result, leaving our young women feeling inadequate. According to Kirk and Okazawa-Rey, by college age, one in eight women in the United States is bulimic imaging herself to be fatter than she actually is (122). Magazine articles and feature photos that are airbrushed or enhances to show flawless models and actresses set a standard for women to learn to inspect their bodies critically as to fit the mold of what beauty has come to mean in North America.
With the growing awareness of sexual orientation, another conflict is introduced to young women in North America. Young women who watch the news on television or read the newspaper learn about hate crimes that still exist in our culture. A fear is placed in these young women who are confused or undecided about their sexual orientation, placing a heavy burden on them. According to Kirk and Okazawa-Rey, thirteen years old is the “median age when gay and lesbian youth become aware of their feelings of difference” (173). At such a young age, girls are introduced to an uncommonly accepted dilemma, one which is confusing and life-altering. Because of growing debate on homosexuality shown in the media, many young women are unsure of how they will cope as a lesbian or bi-sexual in a world with such opposition to homosexuality. Young American have access to movies such as Lee’s film, Brokeback Mountain which first aired in 2005 or Pierce’s film, Boys Don’t Cry which first aired in 1999. Both are love stories that capture the fear of homosexuals yearning for a relationship that is socially unacceptable and the hate crimes that lead to their ultimate deaths. Though horrific, these films show courageous young men and women whose lives have been stolen from them, solely because of their sexual orientation. These films, though graphic and horrifying, show an inevitable truth that, unless addressed and fought, will continue through generations to come.
Young women’s feeling of inferiority when compared to males in North America is an intimidating struggle. Kirk and Okazawa-Rey found that “gender creates the social difference that defines “women” and “man”. In social interactions throughout their lives, individuals learn what is expected, see what’s expected, act and react in expected ways” (25). These expectations are socially influenced and lead young women constantly berating themselves because a male influence, whether it is their partner, their father, or other male controllers in society, offers no equal opportunity and allows no chance or fairness. The media displays men as enforcers. Men are viewed as strong and able, never petite or weak, like the trophy wife displayed next to them. Women are sometimes viewed as unequal in a relationship, forcing them to obey their partner’s requests of them. Young women especially are reduced to sex objects as viewed as in pornography. “There are two jobs women receive a higher pay than men: prostitution and modeling” Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 104). If the media is so apt to put down young women’s ambition and society is so quick to refuse to respect them, how are they supposed to succeed in their societies?
No solution will fit to aid the wants and needs of all members in a society. The media is our source of education. It updates and informs Americans. How would we know America’s political standing in Iraq or be informed of an upcoming film in theaters? The media is not just a source of information, it is our main source. The media is a source of entertainment, too. Articles we read in these magazines may be located on the corresponding page of a supermodel, but are humorous and enjoyable. Young Americans watch television shows for entertainment. If a disabled woman is placed on the cover of a magazine, would young women buy the magazines, hoping to aspire to be similar to her? Diversity is hard to come across in advertisement. Are young Americans apt to choose to purchase a magazine with a heavy woman or thin woman on its cover? If a billboard is promoting a health product, the man or woman in the ad must look healthy to convince consumers that the product is worth their money. Market researchers are watching their audience, and beauty magazines such as Cosmopolitan or Vogue attract young readers rather than older men and women who are less apt to buy high fashion magazines. The media is everywhere. It is not a simple task to change it based solely on the insecurities of young women in North America, but perhaps to encourage self-esteem in out young women, we could add successful old and young women who do not fit society’s beauty ideals.
The answer to this dilemma is simple: break the cycle. Intrigue young readers with reality. Marilyn Monroe, an icon in North America, wore a size twelve dress. Ellen DeGeneres, a humorous and successful talk-show host, is a lesbian. After finally admitting her sexuality, her first on-air series failed, forcing her to work her way to the top again. Oprah Winfrey, a brilliant talk-show host who does no typically fit the stick model version of inspiring women, is a successful, unmarried, woman of color. With the broad range of entertainment today we see J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter series, who fought for the right to read for pleasure and is one of the most successful women in North America. Ali Hewson, though married to international superstar, Bono, is an activist for human rights and global sustainability. Why do we not look to these women as role models? Though young women are, in fact, being influenced by society’s interpretation of beauty, everyday beautiful, inspiring women are introduced to the media, reassuring these young women that individuality can lead to success. Women such as these motivate younger women in North America to dare to be different and to embrace themselves. The struggles faced by these women are that of dire importance and with more of an assortment of women, who possess the power to change minds in this country, we will see a result of young women accepting themselves, too.