Media and body image

Originally Published: June 17, 2011 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: February 20, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I am 21 years old and increasingly, the way women are portrayed on TV, movies, in magazines, ads, etc. depresses me. I've given up cable and all magazine subscriptions. The endless images of rail-thin girls with huge breasts, taut bellies, toned thighs, tight buts, 4-inch heels, long flowing hair, etc., makes me feel so inadequate. I'm sure all girls feel pressure sometimes, but it's so bad that as soon as I see something of this nature I HATE myself. I start to question my value. I start to doubt how the people closest to me view me. I feel like the entire world is against me. For instance, I went to see a movie with my boyfriend and when three of the actresses ended up prancing around naked, I was immediately insecure and upset. I left the theater, crying. I can't avoid pop culture entirely, and I don't know what to do.

Please help!

Dear Reader,

As you touched upon, pressures to look or act a certain way plague most people at some point in their lives. With seven out of ten women, according to one study, reporting that they feel more depressed and angry after viewing media images like those you described, you're certainly not alone. What is positive about your experience is that you recognize what triggers your feelings and are proactively lessening your exposure to them (i.e. images of women on TV and magazines). Of course, it is very difficult to altogether escape these "endless images," unrealistic ideals of beauty, and sexualization of females (as well as hypermasculinization of males). Outside of the media, you mentioned these ideals and expectations are reinforced by other social institutions and those around us. In order to address your insecurities, focus more of that can-do attitude you already have on replacing negative influences with stimuli that encourage you to celebrate your wonderful, unique features.

You're taking a great first step by simply acknowledging that this outside pressure is making you feel crummy. By recognizing how you react to these images and rechanneling that frustration, you have the power to do more than you may imagine. If it's your style, join a group or start a petition that aims to address these unrealistic portrayals of women in the media. There are certainly others around you who have or do feel similar. Check out campus groups if you're a student or activism communities online or in your local area to join forces with others who share in your frustration. About-Face, a non-profit organization that aims to help cultivate positive body image and take action against harmful media messages, is a great place to start getting ideas.

On a more informal level try the following to help turn your feelings of self-hate into self-love:

  • List what you like about your body (Do you have curves that won't stop? Are you blessed with luscious locks?), post affirmations around your home and enlist friends and family to add to the collection. Surrounding yourself with positive messages may help counter the negative images you see in the media.
  • Recognize the beauty in your talents and passions! There is a reason the adage "beauty is only skin deep" is so widely used. Are you a great cook? Do you pick up new languages super fast? Instead of being your own worst critic, become your own external and internal stylist and regain control over how the world and those closest to you see your beauty and worth.
  • Searching online or in stores, leverage your frustrations with the media into finding clothes and accessories that highlight the features you want to celebrate about yourself.
  • Even the people you see on TV, in movies, and in magazines probably have insecurities themselves but most of them have stylists, personal trainers, and other people constantly helping them look their best. Check out some of the Related Q&As below to learn more about how to become your own stylist and personal trainer.

As much as you repeat these self-love exercises, there will likely be moments where you still feel upset by images in the media. Even without the media, interactions at work, at school, or with friends and family may reinforce these insecurities. When these occur, take a few deep breaths and try to remind yourself what you love about yourself. There is no such thing as "normal" when it comes to beauty. Perfect, flawed, large, small - these descriptors are all relative. Keeping this in mind, do you notice that you're getting negative messaging from those around you? Surrounding yourself with people that celebrate you for all your unique attributes (and taking a break from those who don't) may help you do the same for yourself.

Theories abound about why and how the media affects people's self-image, but with a little practice and the help of your can-do attitude, hopefully you will be able to see your own unique beauty and share it with the world and those closest to you. And remember, it's okay to reach out for help like you're doing; you're not alone in feeling these pressures. If you continue to feel upset by these images in the media, consider attending body image support groups. Local counseling centers may offer opportunities to get together with others who share similar concerns. At Columbia, students can check out Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC). Remember, beauty is measured by the life you lead, not how similar you look to this "A list" movie star or that centerfold model. Everybody and every body is beautiful and worthy.

Alice

February 26, 2014

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I feel the same way as you do. It is hard to live up to the unrealistic standards that the media portrays women. I keep reminding myself that every single image in a magazine is edited and even the...
I feel the same way as you do. It is hard to live up to the unrealistic standards that the media portrays women. I keep reminding myself that every single image in a magazine is edited and even the models don't look that way in real life. It shouldn't matter what anyone else thinks of you as long as you are happy with your body and your life.