By: Sydney Levine
The issue over the representation of women’s bodies in the media has been a conversation for quite some time now. The portrayal of women’s bodies and what is considered beautiful has changed drastically over the years. Strides have been made – when we scroll through our social media feeds and look at covers of magazines and beauty industries’ campaigns, we no longer only see stick thin models or what the media once deemed as the “ideal body type”. However, there are still many strides to be made with how body image is portrayed throughout the media we consume.
Media has the power to determine our reality. What we see, hear, and even believe can be altered by what the media chooses to present. Body image in media, including magazines, advertisements, and social media, has influenced how we as women view ourselves. 89% of young adults use at least one form of social media daily (Cohen, Newton-John, & Slater, 2020). This is concerning because social media is a very image driven platform – we get a glimpse into someone’s life by simply viewing their photos and stories. In regards to body image, viewing such appearance-focused content can lead to negative thoughts and an overall dissatisfaction with one’s body (Cohen, Newton-John, & Slater, 2020). According to research, most women generally express a desire to lose weight, even when they are not overweight (Henderson-King & Henderson-King, 1997). This is due to the media’s depiction of women that reinforces the importance of our physical appearance over anything else.
The notion of the “ideal” body type for women has changed throughout history. Before the 20th century, curvy and more full figures were emphasized (Howard, 2018). The corset became the popular garment during this time, as it accentuated a woman’s curves. Then, a shift towards thin and tall figures emerged in the early 1900s. As a result, eating disorders became prominent (Howard, 2018). Fast forward to the 1980s, there was a short-lived emphasis on strong, athletic bodies, only to go back to idolizing thin figures in the 90s. So, while corsets were left behind in the 1800s, extreme diet and exercise became the latest “accessory” to alter one’s body. In order to be accepted, attain the standards of society, and be considered desirable, you had to change your appearance. Media has played a huge role in shaping what society accepts as an attractive female body, and the more one sees thin bodies in the media, the more one is led to believe that this is realistic and that everyone must look like this. In fact, the average model shown in the media is 5’11’’ and 120 pounds, whereas the average woman is 5’4’’ and 140 pounds (Holmstrom, 2004). The “ideal” female body has shifted and changed throughout history, yet our bodies, our appearance, and our image is still always the focus. Even today, while we have this body positivity movement, there is still a highlight on appearance rather than other attributes. The body positivity movement is a movement that encourages people to accept more diverse body sizes and appearances and to reject the current societal standards (Lazuka, Wick, Keel, & Harriger, 2020). Body positive actors promote the movement on social media by posting more realistic images of their bodies and encourage women to be comfortable in their own skin no matter the size, shape, race, etc. This is a great step, but we still need to do more.
Our generation has grown up with such an emphasis on social media and technology. I believe that this has led us all to, at some point in time, compare our self-image to those figures we see on our feeds. We see a couple photos of girls with “perfect bodies” – bodies that we wish we had – and are led to wrongly assume that this is what every woman looks like. Sometimes it is so consuming that we believe we won’t be happy until we look like the girls that we see posting on Instagram, in the magazines, in the movies, and on the runway. If we don’t look like them, we must be doing something wrong, right? We must not be working out enough, not eating the right things, or eating too much. The media sets these standards for what an acceptable and ideal body should look like, and anything else is considered less than. So, us women are left feeling that we have this high expectation to perform and to try and attain this perfect body…but what really is the perfect body? Is it what the media has defined, is it who the fashion industry hires, or who the companies choose to feature in their beauty campaigns? Instead of this focus on our appearance, there should be a focus on health. Not only our physical health, but our mental and social health. Sure, someone may have a “perfect” body according to society, but the question should be, are they healthy? The portrayal of women’s bodies in the media is making progress. The body positivity movement inspires women to support women, to decrease body shaming, and to emphasize how all bodies are beautiful. There is still much work to be done, though. Rather than this focus on appearance, let’s focus on appreciating what our bodies do for us. Our bodies let us dance, run, create life, and so much more.
Cohen, R., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2020). The case for body positivity on social media: Perspectives on current advances and future directions. Journal of Health Psychology, 135910532091245. doi:10.1177/1359105320912450
Henderson-King, E., & Henderson-King, D. (1997). Media Effects on Women’s Body Esteem: Social and Individual Difference Factors. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27(5), 399-417. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1997.tb00638.x
Holmstrom, A. J. (2004). The Effects of the Media on Body Image: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 48(2), 196-217. doi:10.1207/s15506878jobem4802_3
Howard, J. (2018, March 09). The history of the ‘ideal’ woman and where that has left us. Retrieved December 20, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/07/health/body-image-history-of-beauty-explainer-intl/index.html
Lazuka, R., Wick, M., Keel, P., & Harriger, J. (2020, June 10). Are We There Yet? Progress in Depicting Diverse Images of Beauty in Instagram’s Body Positivity Movement. Retrieved December 20, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1740144519303894