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The Media’s Influence on Adolescents’ Body Image

Adolescence is a time for learning and growth.  This time can be easier to handle by some than others.  For some it can be a revelation of new experiences and ideas, while adolescence can also be a difficult, stressful time for those trying to discover themselves.  This can affect themselves as well as those around them.  During this time, adolescents are likely to identify with those around them, their peers.  Identifying with peers can help adolescents along by giving them the opportunity to see how others deal with problems similar to their own and by offering their own advice to those who need it.

Along with this, adolescents are liable to worry about their body image, and may want to conform to those who have achieved the desired image.  This image may be thin, muscular, or just average.  Nevertheless, some adolescents will go too far to achieve this image, usually this is done by adolescent females who wish to become thin.  This can be attributed to medias portrayal of women.  The majority of women in ads, television and movies are thin and are seen as attractive because of this.  Adolescent girls will see these women and may want their image as their own, and some will go to any lengths to acquire this.  This in turn could lead to the idea that during this process of change and growing up, adolescents are often concerned about their physical image, which is influenced by the media.

Adolescents may want to change their body image for a number of reasons.  During adolescence, they may feel unsatisfied with their bodies and want to change how they look just to fit in.  Fitting in with their peers is an important part of adolescence.  It gives young people a sense that they belong; the need for peer influence is a necessary part of growing up as peers can offer advice and insight to anything that may be troubling adolescents, including how they feel about their image.  Also, adolescents look up to a number of people, namely celebrities, and try to adopt their style as their own in hopes of being able to fit in.  Many celebrities are thin.  There are those who need to have that small body frame, such as some athletes.

Gymnasts would be an example of this because they need to keep their body this way in order to perform their gymnastic feats; a gymnast will never again be seen as just average since the 1972 Olympics, when crowds were awed by the daring moves performed by the tiny Olga Korbut.  Since then, one requirement judges were looking for was the tiny build commonly found in adolescent girls (Cahn 341).  Therefore, when the petite gymnasts are shown on television during gymnastics competitions, young people who wish to become gymnasts see the need to have a petite but muscular frame.

The media widely popularizes the female figure as very thin.  The majority of actresses throughout the history of media have been thin, as shown in a study by Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, and Kelly of photographs and movies from the early twentieth century to the present (Botta) and sometimes an aspiring actress would not even have the chance at becoming famous if she did not have a lean build, since that look was desired.  Many of todays personalities are thin, and with the newer shows and movies coming out, it is often rare to find an actress with an average built body.  Because of this fact, many people will be influenced by shows whose characters are stereotypical of women; all are thin and viewed as beautiful.  In the popular show Friends, the 3 female leads, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow, all have thin builds.  Also, the more popular movie actresses, such as Catherine Zeta Jones, Cameron Diaz, and Gwyneth Paltrow, are very thin.  One might conclude that only those who are thin will become famous.

This may appeal to adolescent girls because they may want to be thin if they see that this seems to be the norm in society.  Adolescent girls need someone to look up to, and if they look up to celebrities and want to be like them, they may do anything to do this; Roberts expresses this view as whenever an adolescent faces a particular issue, it can almost consume him or her in the sense that it simultaneously creates a deep thirst for information about the task of the moment and a filter that influences interpretations of perceived events and messages (173).

A popular pastime of adolescent girls is reading magazines.  In these magazines they look for ways to make themselves more attractive to others, sometimes by wearing the latest fashions or wearing makeup.  Magazines today are full of models and advertisements.  It is rare to find a model that is not tall and thin, given the fact that most designers tailor to the needs of tall, thin women.  Famous designers usually base their designs on celebrities bodies, and since the majority of them have slender builds, their designs will be specifically for those who have similar builds.  Many advertisements operate the same way.  Whenever a woman is in an advertisement, she is usually wearing the latest fashions, whether or not the advertisement itself is for fashion.

Usually she is very thin, as models are used in advertisements, and, in order to be a model, a slim build is almost next to necessary.  It is hard to miss any of these things, especially in an advertisement on a billboard.  Billboards are a good way to advertise because as people are driving, their eyes are drawn to the billboard, and the advertisers want to make every detail possible so that the passersby will be interested in what the billboard has to say.  Often advertisers will use pictures of models who are thin to attract even more attention to their service or product.  The medias representations of these have an impact on adolescents that the Journal of Communication calls body image disturbance (Botta).

Adolescents are then concerned with their own image when seeing others their age as they are depicted in the media and believe that that is how they should appear to their peers.  A theory by Festinger further is explained this in Journal of Communication; he calls it the Social Comparison Theory and it is based on six hypotheses, including body image disturbance is directly influenced by the comparison of ones body with anothers and the thin ideal endorsement is a factor toward body image disturbance (Botta).

[I]n our current cultural context thin has come to represent much more then physical beauty.  A thin body has become synonymous with self-discipline, success, and control (Dworkin).  This ideal that has become so common in society can often lead vulnerability.  Kathy Bruin is the founder of an organization called About-Face whose goal is to try to provide a place where a womans worth is isnt weighted in weight; where we begin a discussion where all of us participate in creating more inclusive, healthy images about women.  With all of the models in the media spotlight, sometimes they are so made up that it is not their beauty that attracts an audience, but that certain look that a company is trying to get across.

About-Face wishes to chastise these companies who do this.  One particular campaign launched by Calvin Klein in an Obsession advertisement does just that.  In the ad, the model Kate Moss is shown as weak and scared, cadaverously thin, and above all, sooo vulnerable (Bruin, Models).  Because she is seen this way, the general public may view Kate Moss as having these qualities; they may only believe in this because that is how the advertiser depicts her.  Bruins argument is not about how thin Kate Moss is, but that other photographs taken of her in relatively the same time frame show a much healthier Moss.  Calvin Klein gives her this manufactured appearance to achieve the look that he wants in the advertisement, and therefore displays a negative body image.

Another advertisement of Mosss that can be contrasted with this is the got milk campaign where famous people are pictured with milk mustaches basically saying that we drink milk, so should everyone else.  In this advertisement, the caption underneath the picture of Moss reads, Bones.  Bones.  Bones.  Maybe so, but unlike seventy-five percent of women today, theres one way Im taking good care of mine.  By getting lots of calcium.  How?  From drinking lots of milk.  1% ice cold.  And besides, havent you heard that the waif look is out? (Bruin, Models).  This directly contradicts the Calvin Klein ad she had previously done.  In response to this, About-Face made a statement that said Emaciation Stinks, and provided their members with the proper definition of emaciation which reads, abnormal thinness caused by lack of nutrition or by disease (Bruin, Models).  Emaciation should not be a public standard.

Bruin notes another prime example of attracting attention with the use of popular public figures in the well-publicized weight roller coaster upon which Oprah Winfrey rides.  Over a photograph of Oprah on the cover of Vogues October 1998 issue reads the headline Oprah! A Major Movie, An Amazing Makeover (Bruin, Oprah).  The editor of Vogue includes an article in which herself and Oprah discuss why Oprah lost twenty pounds both for the shoot and for her movie version of Toni Morrisons classic novel, Beloved, in which she starred in it as well as acting as producer with Jonathan Demme as director.  In this same article, Demme talks about Oprahs numerous qualities as an actress as well as a businesswoman, and [h]e acknowledges that she is gifted, driven, emotionally rich, funny as hell (Bruin, Oprah).  He also comments about Oprah that even though he loves her, she is just too big for the movie.  The article continues on telling of Oprahs weight-loss efforts.  Oprah admits that she knew that she needed to lose weight for the movie by a certain deadline, but it seems as if that was her only reason for losing weight (Bruin, Oprah).

The media can have certain effects on people.  About-Face recognizes some of these effects as becoming everyday norms in our culture and society and criticizes the media for instilling these unachievable images the minds of young people.  Dittrich supports this stand and substantiates it with a compilation of media-related facts.  Ninety percent of all girls ages three to eleven have a Barbie doll, an early role model with a figure that is unattainable in real life (Dittrich).  Sixty-nine percent of female television characters are thin, only five percent are overweight (Silverstein, Peterson, Perdue, and Kelly).

The average person sees between four hundred and six hundred ads PER DAY  that is forty million to fifty million by the time s/he is sixty years old.  One of every eleven commercials has a direct message about beauty (this isnt counting the indirect ones) (Dittrich).  In another study, the incidents of anorexia nervosa during a fifty year period and found that the incidence of anorexia nervosa among ten to nineteen 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 (Lucas, Beard, Fallon, and Kurland).

Everyone is exposed to these cultural pressures, but some people are more susceptible than others to allow poor self-esteem and emptiness to take over their lives.  Vulnerability leads to emotional eating or starvation, which does not fulfill the need of acceptance.  This is how eating disorders usually begin.  Adolescents see these unrealistic images and believe that they should look like that.  When someone is constantly worried about how he or she looks and is afraid of becoming overweight so they will never eat, they suffer from anorexia nervosa.  The anorectic will often prepare a full meal, but will refuse to eat any of it.  They may exercise strenuously every day in addition to this simply to burn off calories.

Some of the effects that this has on the body are insomnia, hair loss, slowing of pulse, decrease in blood pressure, and the decay of the bodys vital organs.  Bulimics usually go through periods of binge eating immediately followed by purging, either vomiting or using laxatives; this process repeats itself.  Their mood can fluctuate, and they may feel helpless or like they have lost all control (Conte).

Some adolescents may be content with their body image, despite these findings.  Those who do admit to having a problem have numerous ways that they can go to for help.  Conte cites several options for help in his course outline entitled Eating Disorders and Adolescents: Conflict of Self Image.  Among these popular forms of therapy, psychotherapy is often used to treat those who suffer from eating disorders, among other disorders.  Eating disorder clinics offer programs for those who have eating disorders; some types of programs include counseling and group therapy.

A self-help group can help in addition to therapy as a free, volunteer meeting time.  Two programs designed to help victims of bulimia cope with their disorder are Overeaters Anonymous and workshop programs.  Victims families can help also with a type of therapy called structural family therapy, which encourages the increase in positive interaction within the family.  A program to help those survive with their problem is behavioral therapy; patients are taught ways that they can get their lives back in order.  Another program that goes in accordance with behavioral therapy is cognitive therapy; its aim is to overall give the person a positive attitude about life and themselves.

There are so many places to turn to for help, and also so many people who offer advice for those who need help.  The Bloomington (MN) Health Division and the Division of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota joined together to create a program called Taste of Food, Fun, and Fitness which was aimed at young girls to teach them good eating and exercising habits and how to keep a positive image about themselves to overcome dieting pressures imposed by the media and societal norms (Coller and Neumark-Sztainer).  The majority of the girls greatly enjoyed the different activities offered to them, such as playing games, making and playing their own quiz shows, and performing skits based on what they learned at this program (Coller and Neumark-Sztainer).  Another program is based around how faculties at schools can help prevent eating disorders among students.  This program is called Weighting for You!.

The three goals are to increase awareness of their own weight related attitudes and beliefs, knowledge about weight-related disorders, and skills in providing support and assistance to students at risk for, or experiencing, a weight-related disorder (Toledo).  In breaking down this program, one can see the different sections that the faculty trains for.  The participators were initially asked to review their own understanding of weight-related disorders in order to find ways of increasing their understanding of this topic.  Finally, they discussed ways in which to incorporate what they have learned into the academic curriculum to teach students ways for prevention (Toledo).

Many adolescents can be influenced to have a positive body image despite all of the negative media influences.  Many magazines designed especially for adolescent girls, such as American Girl, focus on positive outlooks on the young girls lifestyle.  Such resources can be enough to combat the daily battle that adolescents must fight against such things that may be credited to peer pressure.  In response to finding ways of conquering eating disorders, DUrso-Fischer offers this advice: I think we could all use encouragement to take care of ourselves, love ourselves, take the time to eat well.  Give up rigid rules about eating, look for variety and balance, and respect the body by eating when youre hungry and stopping when youre full.  Do what makes you feel good!  The rest of it comes naturally (Dworkin).

Works Cited
Botta, Renee A.  Television Images and Adolescent Girls Body Image Disturbance.  Journal of Communication  49  (Spring 1999):  ISSN 00219916.  Online.  ProQuest.  16 Nov. 1999.

Bruin, Kathy.  Its Not about the Models.  Bear in Mind.  15 April 1998.  About-Face.  15 Nov. 1999 .

Bruin, Kathy.  Oprahs Vogue Shoot  Weighing the Pros and Cons.  Bear in Mind.  15 Nov. 1998.  About-Face.  15 Nov. 1999 .

Cahn, Susan K.  Youve Come a Long Way, Maybe.  Creating America:  Reading and Writing Arguments.  Ed. Joyce Moser and Ann Watters.   Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.  339-44.

Coller, Tanya G. and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer.  Taste of Food, Fun, and Fitness:  A community-based program to teach young girls to feel better about their bodies.  Journal of Nutritional Education  31  (Sept./Oct. 1999):  ISSN: 00223182.  Online.  ProQuest.  13 Nov. 1999.

Conte, Frances F.  Eating Disorders and Adolescents: Conflict of Self Image.  1998.  Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.  13 Nov. 1999 .

Dittrich, Liz, Ph.D.  About-Face Facts on the MEDIA.  1998.  About-Face.  16 Nov. 1999 .

Dworkin, Niquie, Ph.D.  Food Fight:  Understanding and Recovering from Eating Disorders. Conscious Choice (May 1999):  15 Nov. 1999 .

Lucas, Beard, Fallon, and Kurland.   50-Year Trends in the Incidence of Anorexia Nervosa in Rochester, Minn.:  A Population-Based Study.  Dittrich.

Roberts, Donald F.  Adolescents and the Mass Media:  From Leave It to Beaver to Beverly Hills 90210.  Adolescence in the 1990s:  Risk and Opportunity.  Ed. Ruby Takanishi.  Teachers College Press:  NY, 1993.  171-84.

Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, and Kelly.  The Role of the Mass Media in Promoting a Thin Standard of Bodily Attractiveness for Women.  Dittrich.

Toledo, Toni M. and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer.  Weighting for You!:  Training for high school faculty and staff in the prevention and detection of weight-related disorders among adolescents.  Journal of Nutrition Education  31 (Sept./Oct. 1999):  ISSN 00223182.  Online.  ProQuest.  13 Nov. 1999.

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