Oct 08, 2012
Whether or not we like to admit it, the images of beauty generated by the media have a profound impact on our own self-image, and go a long way toward bolstering – or depleting – our self-confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem.
Only a few decades ago, the standards of beauty to which millions of American women struggled to conform were set almost exclusively by the über-thin, airbrushed models depicted in fashion magazines (incidentally, the average American model is 5'11" tall and weighs 117 pounds; the average American woman is 5'4" tall and weighs 140 pounds). Similarly unrealistic images of beauty still exist today, but now in addition to magazines, we are inundated with them in movies, on TV, and on the Internet, which streams into our consciousness not just through our home computers but through iPads and smart phones that accompany us wherever we go.
We are now living in an era when, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the majority of 8- to 18-year olds spend upwards of ten hours a day gobbling up media-driven content, and in the process consume as many as 5,000 advertisements each day. There is no denying that our culture has reaped countless benefits from the digital age, but these advancements also have a dark side: The 24/7 deluge of advertising sends a powerful and often deeply destructive message to women in particular. There are, of course, many variations on this theme, but the message goes something like this: Thinness equals beauty, and you must be beautiful to be loveable.
Media-driven messages affect us all to some degree, influencing the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, and the brand of breakfast cereal we eat. But young women – whose identities are still so malleable and who succumb so easily to insecurities about their appearance – are especially vulnerable. The constant reinforcing of the message that thinness equals beauty, acceptance, and success compels a frightening number of young women to strive for this ideal at any cost.
As an eating disorder specialist with 30 years’ experience treating anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and related disorders – and as someone who overcame my own battle with anorexia in my early 20s – I understand well the relationship between media pressures and the onset of eating disorders. In the United States alone, an estimated 24 million people are fighting a life-threatening battle with an eating disorder, and a shocking 40% of newly identified cases of anorexia occur in girls 15 to 19 years old. While these statistics are disturbing, they are not surprising. Merchandisers actively seek out this demographic of women, often using sales tactics that prey upon insecurities about the size, shape, and overall appearance of their bodies.
When actor and activist Ashley Judd came forward with her bold and articulate essay [hyperlink to http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/12/ashley-judd-share-your-puffy-face-moments.html ] that railed against our culture’s “pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic" expectations of beauty which, according to Judd, “affect each and every one of us in multiple and nefarious ways”, I forwarded a copy to everyone I know. We may not have the power to stop the messages that permeate our airwaves, but we do have the power to stop listening to them. We can judge ourselves against the image of beauty so often depicted in the media, or we can appreciate the distinctive features that make us uniquely ourselves: our curly red locks, lanky torso, crooked smile... When we look for our particular brand of beauty, we find it – and the lens through which we view ourselves is cleansed.