Girl Talk: Media body obsession

Watching Home and Away with my five-year-old niece this past week, I found myself having to answer a question about 'why the girl is putting food in her bin', as one of the characters (Melody) has an eating disorder (amongst a slew of other psychological problems ostensibly caused by her control-freak mother). Oi vey. Just prior to that episode airing, there was also a story on Today Tonight about celebrity weight-loss techniques (diets are a favoured TT topic, as is cosmetic surgery, supermarket savings and penny-pinching pensioners).

In addition, the new 90210 and its cast of skinny-minis (photographed eating this past week – great PR idea!), Rachel Zoe's new TV show (which clearly shows how undernourishing one's body can cause anxiety issues), Keira Knightley's recent red-carpet appearances and the international fashion shows have put size-0 right back on the agenda, while celebrity mums continue to flaunt their impossibly thin post-natal figures, much to the delight of the gossip mags and disdain of columnist (and new mum) Mia Freedman. Britney's new body (see Who magazine's 'Back In the Zone') also continues to attract press, as do Madonna and Gwyneth for their grueling daily exercise regimes.

The latest issue of gossip mag NW bears the cover lines: 'YOU'RE TOO FAT FOR TV' and 'Jessica Alba's Post-Baby Body', while Famous gives us: 'Celebs' True Weights Exposed!', a four-page feature story that tells us how much Victoria Beckham, Jessica Alba, Taylor Momsen, Jennifer Aniston, Miranda Kerr, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney and Eva Longoria weigh (yes, I'm sure these scales stats have been verified – not), so we can measure ourselves up against them (compare and despair, ladies!).

Over the weekend, body image and its related issues scored a slew of press:
  • "Pre-schoolers as young as four are worried about their bodies – and mother and teachers are to blame," reported Claire Weaver in The Sunday Telegraph. An Australian study published in the European Eating Disorders Review journal says that parents and teachers are unintentionally planting "dangerous ideals about body image into young minds." The research conducted by Professor Marita McCabe of Deakin University found that mothers would cut down a daughter's diet if she were to put on weight, while half the mothers surveyed reported their daughters making comments about body size (those with older sisters were more affected).
  • Vogue Australia editor Kirstie Clements wrote a column for The Sunday Telegraph discussing the dichotomy between underweight models and Australia's obesity epidemic. She writes: "[Queensland Premier Anna Bligh] has introduced a million-dollar incentive for the town that comes up with a solution to combat obesity... On the other end of the scale, we have the issue of underweight models and, as much as the industry tries to make us believe that they are all normal, healthy girls who eat like horses, many are not." Clements says designer sample sizes demand that models adhere to super-skinny standards, while agencies are often neglectful of their girls' health. "There is a very big difference between being a glowing Miranda Kerr or Jennifer Hawkins and some of the skeletal girls you see on the catwalks of Milan or Paris," says Clements, who was happy to see healthier looking models in NYC and food backstage.
  • In response to a Newspoll survey commissioned by Dove, which found that fewer than one in six girls aged 10-14 think they look "good", Julie Thomson of The Butterfly Foundation, which runs the BodyThink program in schools, says it's important for children to be educated in media literacy, particularly about the way in which images are manipulated: "We know that kids are not going to stop reading magazines and watching telly. That is part of pop culture and growing up." In relation to the negative impact of watching shows like Make Me a Supermodel, Thomson says: "There are certainly some young people that may watch those programs and they could contribute to making them feel inadequate and upset about their appearance because they fell as if they cannot match up." (Source: The Sun-Herald)
  • An interesting juxtaposition of agendas in The Sun-Herald's 'S' section this past weekend. While Jonathan Pease (style director on Australia's Next Top Model and 'executive ideas director' for Naked Communications) trumpets the return of Erica Packer and her svelte post-baby figure to the social scene ("I had to check the hospital records to confirm that Erica actually did have baby Indigo only two months ago because all signs of post-baby weight seem to have evaporated. Packer's never looked better..."), Mia Freedman (who's just had her third child) lets loose on celebrity mums, and their gossip mag accomplices, a page over for the impossible standards they set for your average lactating new mum:
"I have not blitzed my baby weight. And apparently, this makes me different to every celebrity mother who has ever drawn breath. That's what the magazines shriek at me week after week and I hate them for it... Somehow, famous women and the mags that chronicle their bodies have turned post-partum weight loss into a spectator sport. And along the way they've recalibrated our idea of What A New Mother Looks Like, one pair of tiny white jeans and one triathlon at a time. Well done! Society now has a totally warped perception of how a female body should look after giving birth."

Read Mia's hilarious-because-it's-true column here.

As someone who's personally suffered from disorderly eating issues (in part fuelled by the over-consumption of magazines – a girl suffers for her art), I find this persistent focus on body image unsettling. Yes, it's good we're talking about it. Like depression, which was once a taboo social topic, eating disorders – whether they be anorexia, bulimia, overeating, anorexia athletica or orthorexia – should be discussed (in the right environment – gossip mags add no value to the debate), but is all this coverage having the negative effect of legitimising and normalising warped eating and exercising behaviours, as well as super-slim physiques? And what effect does this filter-down effect have on young girls, like my five-year-old niece?

Obviously, as Mia also suggests, we choose to consume media – I don't have to buy the gossip mags or fashion magazines or tune into Today Tonight or 90210. And a woman of a certain age and intellect must certainly derive her sense of self from other inner stores, making her immune to the whims of a media obsessed with bodies. Surely.

It's typically a combination of factors which leads a woman down the wrong mental path (for model Imogen Bailey, it was her modelling career, an unfaithful boyfriend and being surrounded by other anorexics which caused her anorexia) but constant reinforcement of certain media images (Kate Moss in her skinny jeans; models backstage with collar bones on display; Britney's slimmed down physique; Jessica Alba in a white bikini just weeks after giving birth) has to take a toll.

While there is much good being done to equip young women with media literacy skills, through programs like BodyThink, there seems to be no media, or magazine, 'safehouse' where they can go for positive reinforcement (at a stretch, I'd say Frankie magazine is doing good things in this department, by refusing to cover health/nutrition/diet, though the models used in fashion shoots are often thin).

I truly believe that if we were to switch off the media machine (or, at least, edit our 'diet' of magazines, blogs and TV shows down to those which don't deflate our self-esteem), and take refuge in a good book or long walk in the park, we'd all feel much more contented with the bodies we have and people we were created to be. But will this vicious cycle of media-instigated self-flaggelation come to an end? How many models will perish before the fashion industry deems sub-zero models are 'out'? How many young women will rigidly follow the personality-sapping diet and exercise regimes recommended by magazines or restrict their food intake to look like Rachel Zoe before we say 'enough's enough!'?

Imagine a world where media laws were enforced to protect the interests of women – where publishing trashy celebrity diet stories and pictures of the uber-thin became the equivalent of smoking in a restaurant or drink driving. Or where discussing the weight of a female celebrity/co-worker/family member was tainted with the same pariah stick as admitting you refuse to recycle/vote/shower. Where women were celebrated more for their achievements and contributions – at work and home – than their ability to drop weight. I'd buy a first-class ticket.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Unknown said...

Yeah this is a really interesting topic and one I am passionate about..

We have to complete an 'enterprise project' for my degree next year, and I am seriously considering writing a unit type thing that crosses media literacy, critical thinking, fashion, body image, etc type issues to be implemented in middle years of schools. I am passionate about teaching them to be media wise, rather than scrutinising every form of media available and over Christianising everything... so could be a tricky task.

Any ideas anyone has would be openly welcomed and greatly appreciated! :)

CJ said...

In year 11 & 12 I was fortunate enough to do a subject called 'film and television' with an amazing teacher, Mrs Henden. In that subject we learnt about how to analyze news and media - specifically the tricks used to present a particular point. The teacher showed us one documentary which has stuck with me ever since and made it impossible for me to believe anything I see or read ... it was 2 x 20 minute pieces about Sydney suburb, Redfern. 1 piece told the story of what a great place it was to live with low camera angles, blue skys and happy interviews with residents. The other piece presented it as a dumpy place to live, with high camera angles, dirty lighting and interviews (with the same people) talking about how much they hated the place.

It certainly is long overdue to offer this type of subject or education to ALL students in primary or high school as it seems media, advertising and entertainment are now a bigger part of our life than education and family. We need to arm kids (and adults!!) with the tools to look past the surface of what is presented to them and decide for themselves what is important.

I'm 31, have been photo retouching in photoshop since 1995 and still can't look in a mirror without noticing how much my butt is sagging ... but I'm healthy, and that's all that counts.

Unknown said...

I agree cj! As Erica mentions the staggering statistics of little kids having body image problems, I think it's necessary to teach kids from primary school about these issues.. as clearly they are already being over exposed to a whole lot of media.
I'd love to get hold of those Redfern documentaries, would be a fantastic teaching tool!

Anonymous said...

i was just wondering how much it said taylor momsen weighs?

frangipani princess said...

Melody has way too many problems for a seven o'clock time slot. Can't they limit her to just one mental disorder?
We get fed an image that we are supposed to look like, and when we don't look like it, that's when problems start to occur. Magazines are teenage girls number one enemy, no matter how much they want them to be their friend. No matter how many times we diet (or starve ourselves) we will never, ever look like that celebrity in the magazine. Thanks Photoshop for that one. This was really interesting Erica, and like Olivia said, a topic I too am passionate about...

gg xx

Anonymous said...

I've been sucked into 'Make Me A Supermodel', and am slightly disturbed that the contestant Sheridan has to constantly defend herself as not fat. She's a finalist on a nation-wide model search competition, one of 14 chosen as a potential supermodel - how on earth can that be considered to be fat?! If I had a dollar for every time she's had to defend herself, saying she's big-boned and wide-shouldered and not fat...I could possibly buy a new top.