Media and body image

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, four-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 mentioned, pressures to look or act a certain way affect a lot of people at some point in their lives — so you’re certainly not alone. Of course, it can be very difficult to completely escape these unrealistic beauty ideals and sexualization of females (as well as hyper masculinization of males and other gendered portrayals). With the ubiquity of social media platforms, it may sometimes feel even harder to avoid these types of images. While there have been some attempts to address these issues on a policy level, their effectiveness has mixed results. There’s also been pushback on these beauty portrayals, with a focus on promoting body positivity and self-love for all body types, though this approach may not be the best fit for everyone. In order to address your insecurities, you could try replacing negative influences in your life with activities that encourage you to celebrate your wonderful, unique characteristics outside of your physical appearance. If these strategies don’t seem to help, you may want to speak with a mental health professional about your experiences. They may be able to provide some additional support and approaches to help you manage the barrage of images.  

Feeling inadequate when seeing portrayals of people in popular media is an extremely common occurrence, especially when it comes to social media. While there’s limited research on the impacts of social media on body image for those who identify as men, transgender, and nonbinary, evidence demonstrates that those who identify as women are particularly impacted by the body ideals portrayed in media. Whether it's posting photos or viewing them, some women may experience feelings of anxiety or depression at the thought of comparing their bodies to others’. With the rise of influencers (microcelebrities who post their lifestyles for large numbers of social media followers) on social media apps and sites, feelings of inadequacy may be exacerbated. Some women may feel more compelled to edit the photos they share on social media to look more like the photos of the people they follow; however, research suggests that doing so can make self-confidence and body image worse.  

Speaking of image editing, it’s not uncommon for models, celebrities, and even the average person to heavily edit or retouch their photos before posting on social media. Some policymakers have acted by requiring companies to publish visible disclaimers that state when photos in advertisements have been edited. The thought behind these political moves was to remind consumers that the images weren’t entirely realistic; however, it seems to have done little to assuage negative feelings when viewing the image. Some researchers have suggested strategies such as tax incentives for companies who don’t use edited or retouched images for advertising — however, more research is needed to identify best practices. 

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. Some steps may include:

  • Getting involved: You could join a group or start a petition that aims to address these unrealistic portrayals of women in the media. It’s likely that others around you feel similarly frustrated. If you’re a student, you may be able to see if there are campus groups that you could participate in, or you can engage in activism in your local area or online to combat these portrayals in the media. About-Face, a non-profit organization that aims to help cultivate positive body image and act against harmful media messages, is a great place to start getting ideas.  
  • Considering countermovements: To address the portrayal of women in popular media, some countermovements have emerged. Body positivity focuses on loving your body regardless of what you look like, promoting a more holistic and healthier relationship with your body. There are many benefits to the body positivity movement — greater well-being, promotion of healthier habits, and greater diversity and representation of all body types, genders, and abilities. However, some critics have noted that body positivity still can put an emphasis on physical appearance, and it may not be an appropriate fit for everyone. Another movement is body neutrality. Rather than focusing on liking or disliking your body, body neutrality focuses on changing how physical appearance is valued at all. Instead, emphasis is on accepting the body as it is and what it can do, rather than having feelings about how it looks. While this may fit well for others, some may find it difficult to have no feelings about their body when surrounded by constant body imagery. Considering either or both of these movements may be a helpful approach to how you view your body and how you’d like to think about it moving forward.  
  • Reflecting and regrouping: To help you deal with images in the media, there are a few strategies you might find useful. Instead of being your own worst critic, you could become your own external and internal stylist and regain control over how the world and those closest to you see your internal beauty and worth. Are there hobbies or issues you’re passionate about? Do you have certain skills that you’re proud of or are unique? You might also 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 television, in movies, and in magazines probably have insecurities themselves. However, many of them have stylists, personal trainers, and other people constantly helping them look their best.  

As much as you repeat these 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, you could take a few deep breaths and try to remind yourself what you appreciate about yourself. There’s no one "normal" when it comes to beauty. Keeping this in mind, do you notice that you're getting negative messaging from those around you? If so, taking a break from these individuals and instead surrounding yourself with people that celebrate you for all your unique attributes may help you do the same for yourself.  

It's okay to reach out for help as you’ve done; you're not alone in feeling these pressures. If you continue to feel upset by these images in the media, you may want to consider attending body image support groups. Local counseling centers may offer opportunities to get together with others who share similar concerns. You may also find it helpful to speak with a mental health professional to address your individual concerns. Remember, beauty is measured by the life you lead, not how similar you look to an "A list" movie star or model. 

Last updated Aug 20, 2021
Originally published Jun 17, 2011

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