Having two girls, today’s headline ‘UK Girls Are Becoming More Miserable’ grabbed my attention. It turns out that this ‘misery’ stems from issues with body image and poor self-esteem. The Children’s Society ‘Good Childhood Report’ gives evidence that girls as young as five worry about their size and appearance, and hearing parents talk about ‘dieting’ really doesn’t help.
I have a huge issue with my body image. Although I don’t disclose the true depth of my feelings I, like anyone will chat to friends about ‘feeling fat’ and ‘needing to go on a diet’. This is part of the social dance that we women play. But, understanding the complexity of body image (from personal and professional experience) I’m so careful to steer conversation away from even ‘light-hearted banter’ when little ears are listening.
While body image has been an issue for women across time, in our supposedly advanced and equal world these problems are exacerbated by one prevalent source – mass media.
Research carried out by Dr. Anne Becker, a Professor at Harvard Medical School, studied a population of young Fijian girls who had never been exposed to media. She compared their attitudes to body image before and after Western media was introduced. The results: the key factors associated with eating disorders increased significantly and the girls reported a much greater interest in losing weight and modeling themselves on celebrities. Broader research confirms that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to messages and images conveyed through media.
Mass media affects us all, but as adults we have the knowledge and experience to step back from information rather than let it saturate our thinking. Social media isn’t something we learnt to interact on as teenagers; it’s something we just ‘use’. For young people today it is part of their social infrastructure, it is intertwined with who they are and how they operate. They are in effect drowning in it.
MP Caroline Nokes, who fronts a campaign called ‘Be Real’ says young girls “can make decisions not to look at magazines and TV, but social media networks are the primary way they communicate and their main channel to the outside world.”
It’s a tall order protecting youngsters from the distorted world we live in. At only 9, I find that simply ‘watching what I say’ isn’t enough to protect my eldest. For example:
- People Compliment Her – why is this a problem? –I certainly don’t want people to stop telling her she’s beautiful (it makes me feel good too) but it worries me that outer beauty will become something she depends on. Looks are so fleeting and their judgement so subjective. It’s like watching my child balancing on a knife’s edge and I don’t want to see her fall.
- Peer Group Pressure – we’ve just been on holiday and she’s worrying that she hasn’t ‘got enough of a tan’. The girls at school will be sharing tan lines and comparing who got the most sun. I slather her in SPF50 but consequently have to reassure her that ‘getting a tan’ is dangerous for her skin, not something to be proud of. I fear this is just a slippery slope of judgments, evaluations and comparisons.
When these two ancient psychological drivers, looks and a need to belong, become entangled with social and mass media the results are toxic and potentially lethal.
What Can We Do?
Given the reality of our world, there are some pragmatic interventions (I ultimately believe a larger scale solution to this problem needs to be sought which I talk about in my book, but for now):
- We can encourage schools to run media literacy programs – research shows that these enable youngsters to evaluate the content of programs and advertising more objectively rather than being drawn into it.
- We can expose our youngsters to positive campaigns – such as ‘Be Real’ which aims to ‘change attitudes to body image and help all of us put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.’
- We should urge schools to empower young girls – providing them with realistic role-models and helping them understand how to appreciate their individuality, their unique talents and their contribution to the world.
- We need to watch what we say – ‘praising children for acts of kindness rather than for their looks’, not talking about our own body woes or commenting on the appearance of other people carelessly. This may sound too ‘nanny state’, but whilst we have mass media to contend with our comments carry more weight than they have in any other generation.
Last but not least, it’s important to remember that while girls are more likely to be affected boys are also impacted, particularly given the increasing prevalence of mass media.
What are your thoughts on this – I’d be really interested to hear?
Links and References:
Becker AE, Burwell RA, Gilman SE, Herzog DB, Hamburg P. Eating behaviours and attitudes following exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002;180:509–14.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education Media Education (RE9911) Policy Statement. Pediatrics. 1999;104:341–3