Girl Talk: Body image in the new media landscape

Girl Talk: Body image in the new media landscape (NetGirls, style bloggers, safe havens)

Happy girls c/o The Begin Within Blog
Sitting on the couch with my seven-year-old niece last weekend, she decided to bring up some video clips for me to look at on a laptop. As she logged onto Ninemsn to do her search, we were greeted by an image of a woman involved in a sex scandal. Her eyes gazed over the image as she waited for the search page to deliver the video link. I wanted to slam the computer shut. 

After a painstaking few seconds, the video came up: it was of the group of eight and nine-year-old girls performing "Single Ladies" in skimpy costumes, not unlike the one her hero Miley Cyrus wore performing in Brisbane this week, which started a media debate about premature sexualisation (or "adultification") – both in the dance world and pop-culture – last year.

"They shouldn't be doing those moves, should they?" she asked me, looking for approval as the girls bumped and grinded before us.

Happy to engage her in a discussion about judgeing girls (not good) v judgeing the product of industry standards for herself (good), I was still disheartened: media literacy and critical thinking is a positive thing, but we're not yet certain it can inoculate girls from the harmful effects of consumption of sexualised and otherwise fetishized images and behaviours conveyed by the media and entertainment industries, and more increasingly the internet. 

An interim report titled 'NetGirls: Adolescent Girls, The Internet & Body Image' produced by Dr Amy Slater and Professor Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University, published in September 2010, paints a revealing picture of girls' media consumption habits and their impact on self-image.

The study involving girls aged 11 to 16 found they have an average of three hours and 27 minutes of "screen time" per day (well above Australian guidelines of two hours for adolescents), including one hour and 40 minutes on the Internet (not for homework) and one hour and 31 minutes watching TV. They spend a further one hour 43 minutes listening to music, an hour doing homework, 37 minutes on their mobile phones, 35 minutes grooming, 18 minutes gaming and 12 minutes reading magazines.

Neighbours, Home and Away, Two and a Half Men, Gossip Girl, So You Think You Can Dance and Glee ranked amongst their favourite TV programs (almost 50% have a TV in their bedroom) and Facebook, YouTube and MSN were rated their top websites (43.5% have internet access in their rooms; 72.1% of girls upload pictures of themselves to the internet). Those with TVs and computers/internet access in their bedrooms spent significantly more time interacting with these mediums.

"We have research that says it’s not necessarily how much television, but the type of programming that has an influence: it’s not just quantity, but the genres," says Dr Slater. "Music videos, soap operas… the types of shows that have a high emphasis on appearance and thinness have been shown to relate to negative body image. Social internet use was also related to feeling worse about your body."

Misogynistic music lyrics, video clips and TV shows; the entertainment industry's raunch-culture standard for young women coming-of-age; the mainstream media's obsession with women's bodies; TV star weight control issues; materialistic messages via magazines; soapie storylines that give little hope for positive relational resolutions... girls are being fed a range of negative messages across multiple media platforms.

Worryingly, but not surpisingly, NetGirls found that girls who spent more time listening to music, grooming and on the internet (other than for homework) had lower scores for body image and self-esteem. Additionally, girls who wore makeup everyday were more dissatisfied with their bodies than those who didn't; girls who indicated they were "in a hurry to grow up" also reported low body satisfaction; and overall 40.1% were dissatisfied with their bodies.

Part of Girl With a Satchel's operating manifesto has to discuss media practises that enhance or diminish the inner lives of women whose bodies and personas have increasingly become fodder for mass public consumption as women's status in the public sphere and economy has grown. This was partly born out of a personal frustration with body images issues (we are naturally drawn to those areas which help us to unpack our personal politics), but also the growing body of evidence that hit my desk.

Thirty years on from Naomi Wolf's seminal third-wave feminist text The Beauty Myth came Courtney E. Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and Women's Forum Australia's Faking It. Then, as the Dove Real Beauty campaign went viral, mounting research by Dr Jenny O'Dea, Maggie Hamilton (author of What's Happening to Our Girls?), Melinda Tankard Reist (Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls) and a growing online community of feminists frustrated with media standards for the imagining of women's role in society (hot, sexy, airbrushed, one-dimensional... cue, combined with mounting media accounts that suggested an underlying misogyny and a desperate need for a new publishing paradigm.

Over the past five years, I've experienced frustration, fatigue and apathy (also expressed by Mia Freedman in regards to the Voluntary Body Image Code of Conduct), albeit with glimmers of hope. But we can't be apathetic: we have an absolute obligation to young girls, younger women, to see that things are put right. While it can be wearying, there needs to be a dialogue until we get it right. But this dialogue must be in love, not tainted by fear or cynicism, the approach adopted by Dannielle Miller in her beautiful guide The Butterfly Effect, as well as leading academics, educators and health practitioners, using all the tools we have at our disposal – education, information, dissemination, cooperation.

While there is discussion about body image and wellbeing happening within the pages of glossy magazines, the magazine industry's commercial imperatives and entrenched value system – informed in part by the fashion industry, part by an accepted inherent misogyny (even more pronounced in Australian titles than overseas) – take precedence over practises that might add greater value to the lives of readers (a value-add that could potentially buffer them against the commercial pressures of the internet age), thereby producing often contradictory and harmful products. 

This frustration is often earnestly felt by editors, something that I've sought to reflect on this blog. Some editors, often on the fringes but whose messages filter through the industry nonetheless, have been more empowered to act on what they believe. Kelley Sheenan of Peppermint magazine writes in her latest editorial:

"Body image issues are on the increase, eating disorders are on the rise and more and more young girls are wanting (or planning) plastic surgery images in the media of super-thin retouched models have been shown to contribute to these problems, which is why it's hugely important to us here at Peppermint to help battle these issues by showing realistic, natural models, with limited or no retouching. But often it's not easy, in an industry already set up to cater to these ideals. 

We've had to pull a cover at the last minute because the photographer refused to hand over the image unretouched, and we've had to cancel models because we just couldn't source so-called-plus-size sample garments from the designers (um, size 12, really?!). But it's something we tackle daily, as we believe that many people want to be seeing more realistic faces and bodies fronting the media, and that 'beauty' is in the everyday, the smiles of loved-ones, the extra-centimetre-curves, and the natural world with all its beautiful flaws."

Increasingly, I find it hard to recommend any magazine to young girls and women – the likes of Peppermint, Frankie and Enhance are an exception – because of the overwhelming skew towards editorial content focused on fashion, beauty, the body (and its sexual and decorative uses) and material consumption. It's my personal wish to see girls value themselves according to God's standards (see "Satchelism"), which is why, increasingly, GWAS churns out more God messages; less body messages (even positive ones)...  this site is evolving, too.

Which brings us to the omnipresent internet, which has thus far been self-regulating.

Magazines are now adapting to, and even reigning supreme (as per Anna Wintour's recent Webby Award for in the online environment, and still hold mettle in terms of the dissemination of the dominant messages and ideals from the fashion world. Similarly, Vogue Australia is now using multiple platforms – including its highly trafficked forum (it has 220,000 registered users), as well as Facebook, Twitter and image-heavy Tumblr where girls and women are immersed in fashion and beauty talk – to get its message out.

But fashion and personal style bloggers also have sway. At first so liberating, just like the spirit of magazines as conveyed in Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo – the online medium has been cannibalised by the same homogenising behaviours we came to abhor in traditional media, as far as women's issues and the female body was concerned, and has used them to turn a profit. As articulated by popular blogger Gala Darling in her series on body image, the wonderful free-for-all that was the personal style blog has become a survival-of-the-thinnest and prettiest Darwinian haven capitalized by the corporate powers that be.

"This is all egged on — often subconsciously — by the short-sightedness of most large companies," she wrote. "They’re used to working on campaigns with size 0 models, so it’s no big mental stretch to use a blogger — with a large audience & even bigger influence — who is model-size, or close. It’s the kind of beauty they can digest. It’s the kind of beauty they’re comfortable with, & those girls fit into sample sizes! Do girls who wear a “medium” even get considered? How often are plus-size models picked without making a big song & dance about it? (“Look how accepting we are!” Right?). I think that’s something that big fashion houses or cosmetics companies are missing. They don’t understand why blogs are so hot, they just know it’s a train they should jump on. What they don’t get is that the reason they’re so popular is because they are a depiction of REAL girls!"

Media producers would be silly to neglect a this palpable need to see real girls, and women, represented across the spectrum. It makes economic sense. But we find ourselves caught up in the belief that for something to be "aspirational" it must also be perfect... whatever perfect is. To my mind, perfection lies in the cultivation of one's inner self, intellect, creativity, personality and physical abilities, expressed in a variety of ways, the very thing that results in a healthy buffer against the unachievable constraints of the world "out there".

Journalist (and now medical practitioner in training) Lisa Pryor articulated the conundrum best for The Sydney Morning Herald last year:

"Encouraging the idea that bodily flaws are a universal female concern... seems to be a misguided way to improve the way women feel about themselves. It's still all about self-worth achieved through how you feel about how you look. It misses the point when it comes to negative body image: the focus on image is as much the problem as the word negative...  

Perhaps the better way to better mental health among young women is to shift the focus away from the image of the body, negative or otherwise, towards thinking more about the capacities and sensations of the body - achievements through sport; the pleasure of touch; the potential for reproduction; achievements of the mind."

On that note, girls in the NetGirls survey who reported spending more time doing homework had more positive feelings about their bodies, a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem and reduced feelings of depression. Much like the ethos of Miller's The Butterfly Effect and Enlighten Education workshops, says Dr Slater, there are protective mechanisms in a girl's life that can ensure she does not become ensnared by the trappings of sexualisation, materialism and vanity, nor body-beautiful perfectionism. Media literacy is a part of this, but so too is role modelling.

"It's important for parents to have a healthy opinion of their own body image, and that’s vital in transmitting those messages to your kids, and teaching your kids that their bodies are more than what they look like – that they are valuable for a whole number of things," says Dr Slater. "If we could get that into balance, that would be wonderful."

In her next stage of research, Slater will be looking to identify predictive factors in her survey group but also protective factors. "I’ve asked the girls about a range of activities they may or may not participate in – sporting activities, church groups, singing and drama, crafts… we’re hoping that there might be some protective factors. It won’t be simple, but maybe there are some protective mechanisms, and sport has often put out there in the literature as one way to show girls their bodies are useful and valuable for more than what they look like."

In response to the 2010 Girl Guides Say survey, Helen Geard, Girl Guides Australia's chief commissioner, commented that Girl Guides provides a space where young women can build the confidence to take control of their lives. "It has been estimated that young women see more beautiful images of women in one day than their mothers saw through their entire adolescence. At Guides we are inspired to be able to provide these young women with an environment where they can have fun and voice their opinions while feeling comfortable in their own skin."

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there could be magazine and online havens projecting a similar thing?

See also:
Glossy Talk: Teen Vogue's Best Body Issue 
Glossy Talk: ACP's Beauty Awards + Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image
Glossy Talk: Marie Claire, Madison and Magazine Dreams
Glossy Talk: The power and problem of Photoshop
Girl Talk: Growing up girl in a pop-culture world #2 
Girl Talk: Growing up girl in a pop-culture world #1
Glossy Talk: Raising the bar on body image
Glossy Talk: For the love of Dove
Girl Talk: Through the glossy looking glass
Glossy Talk: The Body Beautiful


Girl With a Satchel


Nickel said...

at least she talked to you about it! And our filter seems to block out those kind of images - so annoying when your kids are waiting for youtube or igoogle to load

DustyC said...

Professor Marika Tiggemann is my lecturer at the moment (we have an exam tomorrow!) and she is a great teacher. I've learnt so much about body image and dissatisfaction in her class.

Thinking about it, the time I've felt most comfortable in my own body and skin are when I was skiing in Japan. Doing something physically demanding all day and then going into the onsen at night was a very liberating experience. Even though I'm a hairy, uncooth westerner, I really enjoyed the positive experience of being naked around other women. It helped me feel like my body has a function other than being socially (un)acceptable. I feel that this sexualisation of young girls also hurts the older generations - because only those young girls match the expectations of a desirable body and raunch.

frangipani princess said...

I went to Miley's concert in Melbourne last night, and while, as a seventeen year old long-term fan I knew what to expect, I was shocked at the number of tweens there. Miley spent most of the concert in what basically adds up to be underwear, and as entirely fitting as it is when she sings "Bad Reputation" and "Can't Be Tamed", I couldn't help but cringe for all the six year olds there dressed up as Hannah Montana. Even more worrying, in a way, was all the twelve and thirteen year olds who were dressed much more provocatively than myself and my three seventeen and eighteen year old friends. Seeing Miley dressing like that will only encourage them to do the same thing, I fear.
I was surprised at myself, actually, when I found myself thinking "Oh why can't I be Miley?!" throughout the entire concert. She is absolutely gorgeous, has (and has had) beyond gorgeous boyfriends, a brilliant career...all while being only a year and a half older than me. Some days I feel that my obsession with teen stars and the internet (embarrassed to admit I spend up to nine hours per day on here D:) are not harming me at all, but then other days, like yesterday, all I can think is how unfair it is that I don't look like them, or have their lives and I can feel myself spiraling downwards, and it's not a good thing. I consider myself a pretty mature seventeen year old, so if I feel like I don't want to be at one of the concerts, or while watching their tv shows or seeing pictures of them on the internet, how much worse will it be for a tween?!


lor said...

Hi, I'm a 17 year old girl, and I totally agree! Body Image definitely plays a huge role in our society day. A lot of it is due to the publicization of it in the media, but in the end, it really does have a huge impact on your [my] self esteem. I think channeling stress into exercise is an excellent way of not only staying healthy, but to also clear your mind to a better way of thinking. Self-confidence comes from within. If you are satisfied with yourself, that's the only person you need to please, and you will find that you are beautiful no matter what anybody else thinks. Here's a link I found from Radical Parenting, a parenting website from the teen’s perspective where I intern at:
It also talks about how weight is a critical factor in self-esteem issues, but how most of the insecurity we feel, is internalized and exaggerated due to our inability to feel good about ourselves.