What’s the ideal body? Who says the media gets to tell us? A constellation of sociocultural factors that are making us sick.

We all know that gender roles in media affect people mentally, and consequently physically. During childhood and adolescence these media exposure events become part of a constellation of sociocultural factors that promote a thinness schema for girls and the muscularity schema for boys amongst other ideals.

Consider these facts about the development of body image which begins developing when we are just newborns. A child immediately begins to explore what his or her body feels like and can do. This process continues his whole life. A child’s body image is influenced by how people around her react to her body and how she looks. A pre-adolescent becomes increasingly aware of what society’s standards are for the “ideal body.”

It is long known that the media (television, movies, magazines, etc.) have, since World War II, increasingly held up a thinner and thinner body image, (and now ever more physically fit image) as the ideal body configuration for women. The ideal man is also presented as trim, but muscular.

the association of attractiveness and thinness was present in over 100 female characters appearing in 23 Walt Disney animated films (cel cartoons) produced over a 60-year period.

Thin female characters in television situation comedies were more likely than heavier female characters to be praised by male characters, and less likely to be insulted by male characters.

Since the 1980s magazines have increasingly depicted the male body in a state of objectified undress, such that a significant focus for the camera and viewer is raw, exposed (“chiseled” or “ripped”) muscularity. This might be the reason my oldest son was chomping at the bit at fourteen to gain permission to start working out. (He didn’t get that permission until he was sixteen, but at that juncture he jumped right into it, buying a gym membership and start working on a “six pack.”

Most working class adolescent girls are dissatisfied with their weight and shape. A study done by ‘Field, et., al in 1999, found that 70%  the girls stated that pictures in magazines influenced their conception of the “perfect” body shape, and over 45% indicated that those images motivated them to lose weight. Further, adolescent girls who were more frequent readers of women’s magazines were more likely to report being influenced to think about the perfect body, to be dissatisfied with their own body, to want to lose weight, and to diet.

Teen-age girls who viewed commercials depicting women who modeled the unrealistically thin (yet ideal by media standards), type of beauty, caused adolescent girls to feel less confident, more angry, and more dissatisfied with their weight and appearance. I wonder what the percentage is of girls that go on to form medical and psychological maladies like shyness, depression and others?

In a study on fifth graders, 10 year old girls and boys told researchers they were dissatisfied with their own bodies after watching a music video by Britney Spears or a clip from the TV show which showcased people thin “media ideal but uncommon in real life’ bodies.

In another recent study on media’s impact on adolescent body dissatisfaction, two researchers found that:

Teens who watched soaps and TV shows that emphasized the ideal body typed reported higher sense of body dissatisfaction. This was also true for girls who watched music videos. Reading magazines for teen girls or women also correlated with body dissatisfaction for girls.

Many children watch between two and four hours of television per day. The presence or absence of role models, how women and men, girls and boys are presented, and what activities they participate in on the screen powerfully affect how girls and boys view their role in the world. Studies looking at cartoons, regular television, and commercials show that although many changes have occurred and girls, in particular have a wider range of role models, for girls “how they look” is still more important than “what they do.”

In a 1997 study designed to study how children described the roles of cartoon characters, children (ages four to nine) “perceived most cartoon characters in stereotypical ways: boys were violent and active and girls were domestic, interested in boys, and concerned with appearances” (Thompson, 1997).

In another study, three weeks of Saturday morning toy commercials were analyzed. Within the sampling,
50% of the commercials aimed at girls spoke about physical attractiveness, while none of the commercials aimed at boys referenced appearance.
What are we teaching our young girls and boys?  Young males interacting with the toys or items being advertised, acted aggressively in 50% of the commercials aimed at them, while none of the girls behaved aggressively. Even voice-over for young male’s toys was overly presented with speed and aggression.

With regard to work roles depicted on television in a study doen by Sobiera in 1995, no boys had unpaid labor roles, while girls were mainly shown in traditional female jobs or roles of unpaid labor.

Dr. Nancy Signorielli, Professor of Communications at the University of Delaware examined the types of media most often viewed by adolescent girls: television, commercials, films, music videos, magazines and advertisements. While the study did find positive role models of women and girls using their intelligence and acting independently, the media presented an overwhelming message that girls and women should be more concerned with romance and dating (as it follows how they look and looks supposedly determine how successful they will be at their roles), while men focus on their strength, aggressiveness and occupations.

I would like to extrapolate out the conversation and ask you to consider the lasting effects of this ‘body image / gender moulding pre-occupation”. Can the high incidence in male and female dissatisfaction and deprssion be linked to these practices in our media or in a larger context, in our society?

Can we further say that physical maladies such as bulemia, anorexia and a host of anxiety disorders are a result of such seemingly unbalanced ideologies? I have to venture a ‘yes.’ Don’t forget about the boys.   Consider the boys who are twelve and thirteen and already asking for ‘muscle building supplements.’ or ‘chin up bars.’ All you have to do is visit any  MySpace profile pics for young boys and we see them flexing their muscles, which have yet to even finish developing!   Our society is sexualizing, under contextualizing / and gender moulding our children into very narrow roles causing them to see a narrow purpose that is connecting attractiveness with general personal worth.  These are dangerous times.  Kids are worried that they don’t fit in. Worried that they don’t measure up.  Some of them have acquired negative mental and physical manifestations of these anxieties and are killing themselves slowly or in a quick and deliberate way.

What can we do at a grass roots level? I invite discussion.



2 thoughts on “What’s the ideal body? Who says the media gets to tell us? A constellation of sociocultural factors that are making us sick.

  1. Very well-written and interesting. Most people don’t pay attention to the massive amounts of gender stereotyping that go into children’s television programming…and all other aspects of their lives for that matter. From the gender-specific toys parents purchase for their kids to the style in which they interact (rough-and-tough with boys and calm and demure with girls), parents unconsciously mold their children into cultural norms. It’s unfortunate when this distortion creeps into how a child feels about his or her body.

    I think one of the biggest grass-roots things that can be done is structuring one’s own home in a way where the child doesn’t feel the pressure to conform to any stereotype. Even better would be a home where those gender specific stereotypes are challenged. Create a blank slate for your children where they can develop their own opinions on what they should look like, what they should like and dislike, and what they should want out of life.

    If your son wants to take ballet and study theater in school, encourage this. If you daughter wants to become a physicist or play football, great. Children should never feel limited in life because of their gender and/or sex.

    I think if kids grow up in a home where they feel free be who and what they want; they will feel less pressure to conform when faced with pressure from society and the world outside their home.


    • VERY well said. Thanks for the comment! You nailed it. This is what parents and caregivers should strive for, but unfortunately most people do not think critically about the messages that our children are receiving. As you can tell, I believe that there should be more discussion about how to raise children in a more gender neutral and accepting atmosphere. Let’s all follow the child’s lead! How novel is that? They miss so much when they think, “oh this is for boys only…” or “I can’t do that…that’s for girls! They also suffer when they have unattainable expectations with regard to body image (thanks MTV or – place media input here)… Personally my father always told me I could do anything I wanted and that “boy stuff” was okay too! He told me that I could be president of the United States if I wanted to!” (at that time that was a very unpopular thing to tell a daughter! – who would’ve ever thought a woman could run for president at the time?) But I believed him! He also told me that I could join a boys baseball team because he could see that I loved baseball so much (and there were no leagues for girls), so I joined a boys team!, It was before anyone got the bright idea to create a whole softball culture for girls and women. Later I was offered the opportunity to join softball team and I wondered…’why do they need a ‘soft’ ball? because they are girls?” ‘ Why should it matter? that’s not fair, Dont’ they know that they can handle real baseball? …’If I can, then they can!’ I think that softball is a conspiracy to keep girls out of real baseball! But that’s another story!

      Basically parents need to recognize when media are setting / suggesting unfair, too mature or unattainable, or short-sighted standards. We need to talk to our children about what society is telling them in so many varied ways. Yes we can change the channel, or turn off MTV, but we don’t really want to filter out societies’ input either. So, we need to teach our kids to think critically about the messages they get. We need to educate them on gender identity and pride in self. Taking care of children also means helping them create a positive body image and learn that every opportunity in life is open to them regardless of gender.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s