Unrealistic Body Images in the Media and Physical and Psychological Diseases in Women
The interconnected world, thanks to advancements in science and technology, has made consumption of content from the media easier, accessible, and extremely fast. In today’s world of social and electronic media, smartphones and high-speed internet, accessing information and entertainment is the norm. However, the constant consumption of media content has had a great impact on women’s body image. Over the years, the body size of women portrayed in the mass media has gotten smaller, affecting women’s perception of their bodies (Park 595). Mass media exerts a significant influence on society, shaping people’s perception of issues affecting them. It is for this reason that the constant bombarding of images of super-thin female models in women’s magazines, movies, and social media has had women seeing themselves as too fat. The fact, however, is that the idealized female body image represented by the media is unrealistic and unattainable by most women. In their quest to attain the ideal body, women have developed eating habits that have directly resulted in physical and psychological disorders. The images presented by the media, therefore, create frustration and disappointment for women since they propagate unattainable ideal body standards, which eventually lead to physical and psychological diseases.
The importance of the media in society is unquestionable. The media plays an important role in shaping opinions, perceptions and views of people concerning different aspects of society. With reference to body weight, the media has been instrumental in painting images associated with the ideal body weight thus fashion models, celebrities and hosts are looked upon as role models in society. Many teenagers view these women in the limelight as role models, given that the women present a picture to them of what it means and takes to be successful and popular. Most teenagers, therefore, associate the women’s body weight, appearance and general outlook with popularity and wealth. Referring to this as the “thin ideal”, researchers have taken an interest in the presentation of the media and its effect on female teenagers’ perception of their bodies (Hargreaves and Tiggemann 352).
Under the “thin ideal media” the images perpetuated by the media in movies and popular shows are those of thin lead female characters. The bulk of box office successes with females as leads have most of the female characters played by inherently thin actors. Among the films and strong female characters include Mr. & Mrs. Smith starring Angelina Jolie, Cat Woman with Halle Berry, Gravity and Sandra Bullock, The Matrix featuring Carrie-Anne Moss, and Underworld with Kate Beckinsale, among others. All the women playing the lead characters in the films have these “ideal thin bodies.” With a constant depiction of these ideal lead characters in the media, the media creates value, belief and ideological soundness in thin bodies. Such depictions create values, ideologies, and beliefs, which then transform a physical body into a social body, as the ideal for societal acceptance (Sullivan 542). The thin ideal form in mass media also comes to women through fashion magazines, pop culture shows, clothing catalogs, fashion runway models, popular social media sites and in advertisements, among other forms of media.
The level of the media’s propagation of the ideal body is perhaps evidenced by looking at the decrease in the body weights of models, actresses and beauty pageant contestants over time. Research looking into the media’s role in women’s body weight indicates that there has been a significant decrease in the body weight of models, actresses, beauty pageant contestants, and runway models over the decades (Perloff 1; Spettigue and Henderson 17). Through such depictions, most of whom women see as role models, the media glorifies the thin ideal, emphasizing its importance, and the value of beauty and appearance for women.
The ideal thin depictions in the media, however, have a negative impact on the self-image of women. The result of the negative self-image is physical and psychological illness emanating from the desire to attain the ideal body as depicted by the media. The constant presentation of thin women in the media has thrown many women (both young and old) into body dissatisfaction. In a survey of teenagers between 11 and 17, where the girls were given three hypothetical wishes, the first wish that the girls expressed was to lose weight and prevent it from ever coming back (Spettigue and Henderson 17). In the same survey, more than half of the middle-aged women interviewed indicated that weight was the most important thing they would change in their lives. The surveys point to widespread dissatisfaction and obsession with weight among women, as a direct result of the media’s depiction of the ideal female weight, so much so that psychologists invented the phrase ‘normative discontent’ as an explanation of this normalcy in women’s discontentment with their weight (Spettigue and Henderson 17).
Negative self-image and body dissatisfaction, however, are not the only results of the ideal thin as presented by the media. Exposure to the ideal thin body image exposes women to negative feelings about themselves. The constant interaction with the ideal thin images results in feelings of unhappiness, shame, guilt, depression, and stress (Perloff 1). Combined, these negative feelings decrease the women’s confidence and self-esteem. Constant exposure to the ideal thin additionally distorts the perception women have of them, where most view themselves as bigger, fatter, and wider than they are in reality.
Perhaps far worse in this presentation is the objectification of the female body. The media has depicted the female body as an object of men’s lust and desire. The majority of media content in music videos and films among others represent women’s bodies as objects. Women, therefore, become so self-conscious to a point that their bodies become objects to themselves also. As objects, women criticize their bodies, constantly making a list of what is wrong with them.
Worse still is the development of eating disorders because of the negative self-image presented by the media. After bombarding women with images of ideal thin women (some of which are products of computer image editing software), the media leaves these women vulnerable to suggestions on attaining ideal thin bodies. Magazines and websites dedicated to eating disorders then take over, teaching the women how to deal with eating disorders including bulimia, anorexia, and purging (Lau 495). Dissatisfaction with their bodies leads these women to the information superhighway where they find tons of websites, social media sites, magazines, blogs, and other multimedia sources that guide them in the development of eating disorders. According to Spettigue and Henderson, in a study of Fiji, a relatively media-naïve society, there were relatively no eating disorders among adolescents before the introduction of and exposure to the media. However, after introduction to the media and exposure to Western culture through television, there was a marked increase in disordered eating and behavior (Spettigue and Henderson 18). The research reported more eating disorders among teenagers, particularly girls, who used the images presented by the media as the yardstick for measuring beauty, success, and the ideal body (Spettigue and Henderson 18).
The media does not stop at its depiction of the ideal thin body; it continually fuels the desire through constantly reinforcing “ideal” beauty. Women with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa constantly find new ways of rejuvenating the disorder, as magazines become their manuals for continued self-abuse. Sad is the fact that the media through fashion magazines encourage the anorexic yearning to limit, and equalize any suggestions from friends and family on their appearances and health through the promotion and endorsement of messages encouraging thinness and dieting (Spettigue and Henderson 19).
The media constantly airs images of the ideal body for women. The ideal thin body as propagated by the media is an illusion and largely a result of computer editing software. Moreover, through magazines, popular culture shows, films, and the fashion industry, the media constantly presents images of ideally thin women, which have a direct influence on the self-image, self-confidence and body satisfaction of women outside the media. The result of this exposure is a negative self-image, which then results in physical and psychological illnesses in women. By constantly presenting these ideal thin bodies, the media constantly reminds the other women of their shortcomings, pushing them to extremes in their attempt to attain the ideal body weight. The current obsession with body weight and the related psychological and physical effects are a creation of the media through the constant depiction of ideal thinness. These depictions have a direct effect on the psyche of the women, causing them to develop poor eating habits, which result in eating disorders. The images additionally have a direct impact on their psychology, causing psychological diseases including stress and depression. Indeed, the media’s presentation of these images adversely affects women and their view of their bodies.
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Lau, Evelyn. An Insatiable Emptiness. pp. 495, 1995
Park, Sung-Yeon. The Influence of Presumed Media Influence on Women’s Desire to be Thin.” Communication Research, vol. 32, no. 5, 2005, pp. 594-614, www.journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0093650205279350. Accessed 14 March 2017.
Perloff, Richard, M. Social Media Effects on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns: Theoretical Perspective and an Agenda for Research. Sex Roles, 2014, pp. 1-15. http://is.muni.cz/el/1423/podzim2014/PSY221P121/um/Perloff2014.SocialMediaEffectsBodyImage. BID.pdf. Accessed 14 March 2017.
Spettigue, Wendy and Katherine Henderson. Eating Disorders and the Role of the Media. Can Child Adolesc Psychiatr Rev., vol. 13, no. 1, 2004, pp. 16-19. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2533817/. Accessed 14 March 2017.
Sullivan, Deborah, A. Social Bodies: Tightening the Bonds of Beauty. Pearson, 2007.