While women have made significant strides in the past decades, the culture at large continues to place a great emphasis on how women look. These beauty standards, largely proliferated through the media, have drastic impacts on young women and their body images. Arielle Cutler ’11, through a Levitt grant, spent the summer evaluating the efficacy of media literacy programs as a remedy to this vicious cycle.
Put simply, the beauty ideal in American culture is: thin. “Large populations of ‘average’ girls do not demonstrate clinically diagnosable eating disorders—pathologies that the culture marks as extreme and unhealthy—but rather an entirely normative obsession with body shape and size,” Cutler said. “This ongoing concern is accepted as a completely normal and even inevitable part of being a modern girl. I think we need to change that.”
Anyone who is familiar with American culture knows that many of these cultural standards are established in the media. “We are constantly surrounded by all sorts of media and we construct our identities in part through media images we see,” Cutler remarked. And the more girls are exposed to thin-ideal kinds of media, the more they are dissatisfied with their bodies and with themselves overall.
The correlation between media image and body image has been proven; in one study, among European American and African American girls ages 7 - 12, greater overall television exposure predicted both a thinner ideal adult body shape and a higher level of disordered eating one year later. Adolescent girls are the most strongly affected demographic; “More and more 12-year-old girls are going on diets because they believe what you weigh determines your worth,” Cutler observed. “When all you see is a body type that only two percent of the population has, it’s difficult to remember what’s real and what’s reasonable to expect of yourself and everyone else.”
As women have become increasingly aware of the effect of media on their body images, they have started media literacy programs to make women and girls more aware of the messages they are inadvertently consuming. “Media literacy programs promote an understanding of the effect media has on individual consumers and society at large. These programs aim to reveal the ideologies and messages embedded in the media images that we encounter on a daily basis,” Cutler said.
Advertising, she asserts, draws on people’s insecurities to convince them to buy a product, and few populations are as insecure overall as adolescent girls—which is why media literacy programs are so important for them. In programs such as that designed by national organization Girls, Inc., girls learn how to look behind the scenes and messages that advertisements are producing in order to reconcile their own bodies with the view of “perfection” presented by the media. The programs already in place have been found to be very effective; “College-age women have been the main focus, but 10-11 year-old girls are the most important target so that they can have these [critical] processes going on before internalizations of messages have really started,” Cutler explained.
But what sorts of standards do the media portray for women who are not white and not upper class, and how does this affect the body images of women in these groups? This question, Cutler has found, is one that is not always well addressed in the scholarly material she has read. “I realized at some point in my research that I had been universalizing the experience of a particular set of girls privileged by their race and, even more so, socioeconomic background. It did not help that this blind-spot was reflected back to me in some of my research,” Cutler said.
While she asserts that certain standards of beauty are universal throughout the country and across all demographics, Cutler believes that media literacy programs should take racial and socioeconomic backgrounds more into consideration. Different groups have different issues and concerns, she said. For example, overeating is a real issue as an eating disorder, especially for lower-class women. How does this fact change the women’s relationship to the beauty ideal? Cutler is reading studies about the body image problem among women in the U.S. as well as evaluations of media literacy programs. She recommends greater sensitivity to the concerns of non-white, non-upper-class groups in order to increase the effectiveness of media literacy programs.