Girl Talk: Q&A with Dr. Amy Slater

Girl Talk: Q&A with Dr. Amy Slater
Following on from 'Body image in the new media landscape', a Q&A with Dr. Amy Slater, author of 'NetGirls: Adolescent Girls, The Internet and Body Image'...

GWAS: Tell us about your research project 'Growing Up Too Quickly: Body objectification in adolescent and pre-adolescent girls (teens and tweens)'.
Dr Slater: “I work primarily with Professor Marika Tiggemann – she’s my collaborator on this; it’s her grant. Our studies have mainly been looking at media use and body image and in the past that’s focused on TV and magazines because they were the primary media sources at the time. But now we’re moving into how girls are using the internet – social networking, Facebook, MySpace and those sorts of things – and how that relates to how girls feel about themselves and view their bodies.

The first round of data focuses on almost 1100 girls in Years 8 and 9, and while we’ve still asked about television and magazines, we’ve also asked about their internet usage – how much time they’re spending online and how they’re using it – and media consumption. And we asked them about self-esteem, body image, disordered eating, depression.

The next stage is to follow these girls up, and that will be happening in September this year. As many of them as we can get will do another questionnaire for us so we can look at how these things change as these girls get older, and it’s really the only way we can tell how one thing influences the other. Because at just one point in time, you can’t tell whether one thing is predictive of or causing something else, so you can’t really say, ‘If you spend this much time on Facebook, you’ll feel this way about your body’, we can just say they’re related. Of course, it could be the other way as well; that girls feel a certain way about themselves do partake in particular activities. That comparative component of the research will allow us to say, ‘Well, this occurred before this’.”

GWAS: Your interim report, NetGirls, found that the girls who spent more time thinking about/interacting with Internet or online or grooming had a higher incidence of body image dissatisfaction…
"Yes, that’s what we’ve found so far. 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. Music videos, soap operas… the types of shows that have a high emphasis on appearance and thinness have been shown to related to negative body image. And the internet for homework purposes was not. It’s that social internet use that was related to feeling worse about your body.

GWAS: What do you think of music videos made by the likes of Arc Music Factory, who churn out clips for YouTube starlets like Rebecca Black and Jenna Rose?
“It’s just very disappointing that this is the image of young girls that one, they want to display of themselves, and two, that people are consuming it. It sends terrible messages to young girls that they’re to be valued on their appearance and to be popular or successful or liked that they have to look or behave a certain way. The dancing in the video [for Jenna Rose's "OMG"] is extremely sexual and not what I’d want my daughter to be wearing or doing. Her other song, the whole song is about “My Jeans”, it’s just very shallow and it sends the message to girls that that’s all they can be or aspire to. But in terms of it being damaging, we’re still working out the effects of that.”

GWAS: What does premature sexualization mean?
"Two things. One is where you might think a child is behaving in an adult or sexualised manner before they’re actually sexual creatures; the other one is from the top down where adults are actually viewing children in an adultified way. And that’s the pageants – making children into very adultified creatures before they mature."

GWAS: To what degree does the child’s consciousness about behaving in sexualised ways affect their behaviour? Is it because it leads other people to treat them differently?
"We don’t know… People are making the assumption that this has negative consequences for girls and women. And there is evidence that would suggest that’s the case. But there’s actually limited research into the effects of premature sexualization. It’s either done with young adult women, or adolescents, but there’s little hard evidence of the impact of premature sexualization on young children. That’s what we’re hoping to do in the next couple of studies. I think inherently we think this is not a good thing for our children to be doing and experiencing, and to be cautious, we don’t actually know. People will say little girls have been dressing up and putting on mum’s makeup forever. But the cautious answer would be, we don’t know."

GWAS: In the NetGirls study, they are adolescents...
"It’s a nebulous term – where does adolescence start? Is it puberty? That’s another issue in itself – the onset of puberty seems to be getting younger, which means while these girls might be physically developed, they’re not psychologically developed in the same way.

GWAS: Are there certain control factors, in terms of what kind of homes the girls are coming from, that tie into their media consumption and body image?
"We have a measure of socio-economic status, which is only based on postcode, which correlates with what the Australian Bureau of Statistics use in their census data. Based on their postcode, we can make an inference about their SES. Girls from lower SES backgrounds are more likely to have TVs in their bedrooms, for example. Other research suggests that kids who have TVs in their bedrooms watch more TV, are less active, their sleep will be poorer… so only at that level so far."

GWAS: So, to make a sweeping judgement, maybe people from certain lower socio-economic areas don’t have the same education, or are too busy working, and therefore their parents don’t set the same parameters…
"I think that’s a fair assumption. We asked them about parental rule setting in the home, including what and when they can look at the internet. There’s a huge variation. Some have no rules and they can do whatever they want; others are just not allowed to look at porn or anything naughty or inappropriate; others had very clear boundaries about the amount of time, or only in this place, or only if mum looks at and approves the sites I go on."

GWAS: As a psychologist and researcher, how do you look at teen and tween magazines and shows like Neighbours and Home and Away? Do alarm bells go off for you?
"Yes, absolutely. There’s been research that has looked at the content of tween magazines and has analysed that and has found it’s mostly about appearance and looks and how to look your best and how to dance in a particular way how to get a boyfriend like so-and-so. If girls are consuming large amounts of this type of media, then it would be easy for them to start to believe that appearance is all that matters to them, and that can to lead them to feel bad about they look themselves and not value their bodies for other purposes.

I think that similarly with the television shows that put a high emphasis on how someone looks, and how women are portrayed...the majority are very thin and very attractive and much thinner than the average woman and the average girl, and they are often very successful or happy in this portrayal, and often other people perhaps aren’t – like in TV shows where larger people are the comedy element. And, with boys, this also influences how boys then treat girls, that is it is the purpose for women to be attractive for others."

GWAS: So boys have preconceptions based on pop-culture about what their ideal woman or girlfriend should look like…
"We know it’s more of a problem for girls, though boys are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their appearance. And their cultural ideal is to be bigger with muscles and a thin waste. But the portrayal of women in the media doesn’t help boys in their expectations of what a woman should look like and be like and act like, so that’s going to be damaging for them as well."

GWAS: Where are young girls getting their values?
"Something we’ve got in the questionnaire is we asked girls to name the three most important characteristics of a successful woman, and to name a woman who they look up to admire, and a woman who they’d like to be like. This was to see how much that celebrity culture had impacted on the outcomes. We'll be looking into that in the next stage of research."

GWAS: Your thoughts on the Body Image Code of Conduct released in 2010?
"I think it’s a nice idea and I support the ideals; yes, it would be great to have a broader representation of women in the media, in terms of size and ethnicity. I think it would be great if we could have less manipulation of images. But I don’t know how a voluntary code can achieve this. So, yeah, nice idea."

GWAS: As a mum and a psychologist, what are some of the outcomes you'd like to see from your research?
"I guess media literacy is important. I’d like girls to be active and critical consumers of the media, and that can start from a very early age – talking to young boys and girls about advertising about what it means and what it is. As a parent, there are things I choose to do to limit my children’s exposure while they’re young developmentally…

But I also appreciate that it’s really difficult for parents. We don’t live in a bubble. People who argue back against this who say it’s up to parents and they don’t have to watch or consume these types of images. I’d say that’s very difficult in today’s society. Yes, I can not let my children watch television or buy them particular magazines. But if you choose to go out in the world, you will be exposed to all sorts of images you might not like your children to be exposed to. I’d like to see more work being done there. Like images on billboard and in shops – it’s difficult to get away from particular types of messages.

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 – they are value for a whole number of things. If we could get that into balance, that would be wonderful."

GWAS: [Dr Slater will soon be conducting an online survey of parents on behaviours they may be seeing in their young girls, aged 4 to 10 years old]
It's so we can get some actual data on what we’re seeing in the media. That’s going to be in the next couple of months. We’re just going to do mothers, and anyone can participate – I’m hoping we’ll get a large sum.”

GWAS: [The follow-up to NetGirls will be released in 2012]. Are there some positive messages you hope to glean?
"We’re looking at predictors of negative body image and depression and self esteem, but we’re also interested in those things that might also be protective. 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."

Dr Slater [BPsych (Hons), PhD (Clin Psych), MAPS] is a psychologist with clinical and research experience in child and adolescent health. As a clinician, Dr Slater has worked in both community and hospital settings with children and families with speech and language difficulties, developmental delay, attachment and relationship concerns, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. 

She completed a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Flinders University where her research focused on gender differences in adolescent sport participation and body image issues. Dr Slater has a particular research interest in establishing ways to support parents to encourage healthy lifestyle habits in their children and was part of the team who created the CSIRO Diet for Kids. 

She is currently undertaking research at Flinders University on a project entitled 'Growing up too quickly?'. This project is examining the impact of the premature sexualisation of girls as well as adolescent media use (particularly Internet use) and how this may relate to body and self image.


Anonymous said...

This is THE BEST post on body image and media that I have read in a long time. The internet has escaped from blame for far too long. Tweens and teens these days have replaced magazines with Tumblr and fashion blogs, which are over-saturated with images of incredibly good looking white kids, models, and the infamous 'topless tuesday' shots. I have a tumblr account, and I consider it a sort of digital scrap book for inspiration. I 'follow' a lot of other tumblr accounts, and many of these girls tend to book-end their tumblr posts with desires to be thinner, diet recommendations, etc. I love bloggers like Style Rookie, Lady Melbourne and Sea of Ghosts whose posts focus on fashion/culture rather than the girl in the threads.

Maggie said...

Good to see projects like this. However, what I woud like as the mum of a teenage daughter who spends hours a day on Fb, has her own Tumblr full of pics of models, and has developed a major depression based on poor self esteem and body image is a project which gives assistance to parents and others in handling these issues. I am a feminist mum who has tried to instill positive messages, only to see my beautiful daughter full of self hatred and doubt. HELP!!!!