Body Image & The Media:

The Unrequited Relationship.

by Alicia Napierkowski

Media across the headlines influences females to focus on “skinny.” Paper-thin models, ravishing women chased by men, all depict what the industry titles, “perfect.” This manner of objectifying women is what the media calls the “association principle,” usually correlating positive results with an unrelated but desirable object, which more than often is a tall, thin woman. Teaching girls from a young age they should strive to look this way is detrimental to their health, and more action must be taken to sway girls from growing up with an unrealistic way of thinking. This issue is causing negative self-images, resulting in an unhealthy society. Eating disorders are amongst the problems girls are experiencing, as well as Body Dysmorphic Disorder, with poor mental health as a result.

In a study done by Gayle R. Bessenoff, a group of one hundred and twelve women were exposed to “thin ideal” advertisements and asked to record their exact thoughts and emotions during the experiment. The participants were asked to answer questions based on measures which “included indices of body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and bulimic tendencies, as well as levels of mood, depression, and state self-esteem incorporating three subareas of self-esteem: appearance, social, and performance self-esteem. Additionally, participants indicated to what extent they were thinking comparison-related, weight-related, and weight-regulatory thoughts” (Bessenoff, 241). The results showed that women who were exposed to self-discrepant advertisements were significantly more discrepant towards themselves. This study also showed women tend to compare themselves to the media, creating negative thoughts, weight concerns, emotions, and a plummet in self-esteem.

The media has a psychological influence upon women, even before hormones develop. Women are unknowingly told striving for thinness will correlate with being successful, stimulating a weight-obsessed society to the oddity of underweight women dieting going unnoticed.

Ideas about body image can show distorted thinking. Surveys conducted throughout the 1980s and 1990s showed that more than half of the American women questioned expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies, especially their weight. Statistics, however, showed that less than one-third of all women were above the normal weights for their height set by insurance companies. During the 1990s, statistics showed that at any given time, 70% of the women in the United States were on reducing diets (Burke).

Seemingly insignificant body image distortions are an underlying aspect of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which can escalate to an eating disorder. An obsession with a defect in one’s appearance, whether imagined or real, is a characteristic of this disorder and it inhibits one’s ability to maintain a healthy social life and perspective of self. This societal obsession with weight influences women of all ages to become self-obsessed with their own appearance — longing for a skinny figure, regardless of what they see in the mirror.

Eating disorders receive an incredibly low amount of funding, only $28,000,000 with a rocketing prevalence of 30 million, in comparison to the outstanding amount other issues with lower prevalence receive. According to NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association, approximately 80% of Americans are aware of the seriousness of eating disorders and agree it is important to fund but unfortunately it is not getting the attention it needs. There are groups such as these who focus on informing people, and assisting those suffering.

The solution to this ever-developing problem would be to develop a more positive media, focusing on being healthy and self-loving, as opposed to the existing unrealistic expectations for young girls and women. The NEDA has developed a volunteering network of people who are on “patrol” for negative and self-deprecating advertisements, asking for the help of those who witness anything potentially detrimental to those exposed. A stronger effort to promote this type of media filtering would establish the severity and raise awareness towards the struggles women are facing daily. Rather than featuring women who are scantily small and statistically thinner than the average healthy women, advertisement agencies should focus on the message they are sending to who is receiving their message. According to The Telegraph, a highly acclaimed magazine in the UK, 96 percent of women wish for advertisements to reveal if they had and to what extent, they digitally altered the women in their advertisements. Rising from 74 percent in 2004, to 95 percent in 2009, the percentage of women who want to see “real women” used in advertising has dramatically increased.

Understanding this needs to be administered in a “careful and responsible way” is a key point to properly proposing a solution, gaining support from family and friends to fight the relentless war between media and its affects on body image. Spreading the awareness on a small and large scale is necessary to strengthen the solution for the media. The media must be made aware of the affects advertising has on society, particularly on women beginning at young ages. Programs such as Project Heal, strive for creating support to dissuade people from allowing small influences to advance into detrimental patterns with their message, “We want to diminish society’s obsession with body image by encouraging people to accept their bodies. People do not have to love everything about their bodies, but it is important that they learn to embrace their perceived flaws and ‘imperfections.’ We hope that by providing encouragement and support we can help those struggling with body image issues from developing full-blown eating disorders.” They focus on funding those who are suffering from an eating disorder and cannot afford to help themselves while striving to prevent others from becoming a victim. The founders of Project Heal also make real the possibility of healing and encourage sufferers and their support systems to take part in the campaign for awareness.

Awareness can continue to be spread by aiming towards the goal to fight the media for an understanding of the ways it has a negative counsel over the suffering women experience about their body image. Allowing no refutation by the fashion industry, which claims to not be responsible for affecting women’s responses to their advertisements, can begin to solve this devastating problem. The industry states sufferers are “stupid” for being prohibited from distinguishing between the fantasies of a runway and reality, and standing ground against their negative and incorrect claims and aiming towards government funding are the ways in which this problem can begin to be solved.

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