November 17, 2008

The Media & Body Image

by Anna Waterfield

The phenomenon of the media has always held a strong power over society since the beginning of its existence. From newspapers to television to advertisements to movies to radio to magazines to the internet, in today's world it has become virtually impossible to stray from the mainstream. While the mass media can be used for advocacy, enrichment, education, information, and entertainment, they are also capable of influencing the way we think in a negative fashion.

Thanks to the media, we are constantly bombarded with a series of images, most of which portray beautiful, happy, thin people. Seeing these people on a daily basis has the effect of pounding a standard body image into one's head.

Even though obesity is a growing problem in America, with the percentage of people who are considered overweight or obese due to their body mass index rising from 28% in 1980 to 64% in 2000, the models and actors we see every day do not reflect this progression. In fact, twenty-five years ago the average model weighed 8% less than the average American woman; now, the average model weighs almost 25% less than the average American woman. Basically, the average woman is getting fatter as the average model is getting skinnier, all while women and men across the country are being told to love themselves and their bodies as they are. These contradictory messages only serve to increase instances of things like low self-esteem and eating disorders.

So why do the media buy into this idea of a standard body image? The answer is largely economical. When consumers are convinced that they have to wear a certain size of clothes or have certain facial features in order to be at the so-called "normal," then they are more likely to purchase diet aids or cosmetic products in order to attain these goals. Therefore, cosmetic and diet industries are more likely to thrive.

Advertisements for these and other products also employ a standard body image in order to appeal to consumers. Ads on television and the internet, in magazines, or even on billboards frequently feature a thin, beautiful model wearing or using a certain product. When consumers see these people, they get tricked into thinking that if they wear the right clothes or eat the right foods then they too will be thin and desirable like the model in the ad.

There have been attempts to reform the perception of thin being beautiful. Unfortunately, many have failed. At Milan's Fashion Week, models were required to maintain a Body Mass Index within the healthy range (18+) to participate, but this spawned an outcry from models who said that their "natural" body weight could not be helped and designers who felt that their artistic creativity was being imposed upon.

n 2004, Dove launched its more successful "Campaign for Real Beauty," choosing to feature everyday women in their ads as opposed to models in an effort to widen the definition and discussion of beauty and thus make women feel more beautiful every day.

n terms of their weight, Americans need to find the right balance (no pun intended): not striving to be unhealthily thin, but not allowing for high rates of obesity either. In order for the image of health to become the new ideal body image, the media need to begin to promote it. Encouraging the media to follow the Dove company's example and present a greater variety of body types, with depictions of real people and more positive messages about self-image, will not completely eliminate the potential for eating disorders in the United States; however, the pressure individuals feel to conform to a certain body type will surely be decreased. If healthy men and women who celebrate their differences are portrayed more frequently in the media, then we will have a healthier country both physically and mentally.

(Photo by Christi Nielsen of Los Angeles, CA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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