How The Media Defines The Perfect Woman

By Yerin Kim

Tall. Symmetrical. Shiny. Thin. These are the words that come to Amanda Etkind’s mind when she pictures the perfect woman. She blames this image on mass media’s influence on society.

According to the Journal of Social Issues, though “sociocultural pressures” come from various sources, mass media are “the most potent and pervasive communicators of sociocultural standards” such as thinness and beauty.

Etkind, senior magazine major and Zipped magazine executive director, criticized mass media for pressuring women to fit this “unrealistic stereotype.”

“Women feel that they need to change their bodies by dieting and exercising to an extreme, or even alter their faces with plastic surgery or makeup techniques,” Etkind said. “There is such a lack of diversity in the fashion industry, making women feel uncomfortable in their own skin.”

Harriet Brown, magazine journalism professor and author of Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia, believes that media is a “triggering factor” but not the cause of women’s eating disorders and body image issues.

“Eating disorders are not caused by media,” Brown said. “They are actually genetic and neurobiological…. so not everyone has the predisposition toward an eating disorder. But media affects all of us. You don’t have to have a clinical eating disorder to be affected by it.”

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt agreed that media “cannot be blamed outright for the development of the serious and complex illnesses,” but they still influenced society.

“While Photoshop may not cause eating disorders outright, the bottom line is that we all stand to benefit from more positive and realistic bodies in the media,” said Kate Clemmer of The Center. “After all, individuals who feel better about their bodies take better care of them, regardless of weight, shape or size.”

The Journal of Social Issues also said mass media are communicators that “generate messages designed for very large, heterogeneous, and anonymous audiences with the goal of maximizing profit,” so they set societal standards.

Therefore, Angela Montague, retail management major and fashion blogger, believes that while media previously encouraged the pressure to be thin, they are now moving in a more positive direction.

“Women are now striving to be fit rather than skinny because the popular celebrities look healthier and the fashion trends show athleticism,” Montague said. “There is definitely still a desire to be thin but the ideal image is changing as the major faces of media are changing.”

Lydia Chan, junior magazine major and Equal Time magazine style and beauty web editor agrees that, lately, the media are more accepting.

“Look at the front covers of magazines and see the kind of body type that graces each cover,” Chan said. “This media influence is especially hard on younger girls, but media nowadays is trying to be more inclusive of different body types. While this is definitely still new, I think if the media moves more so in this direction, women will be more positively affected.”

Despite Chan’s perspective, the National Eating Disorders Association reported that almost 70 percent of American elementary school girls said pictures in magazines shaped their notion of the ideal body shape. Almost half said the images made them want to lose weight.

Though Danielle LaRose, freshman magazine major and fashion blogger, agrees that mass media are influential, she believes that social media are setting the standards while traditional mass media simply address the “cruelty that comes from one woman to another through the safety of an anonymous screen.”

“The perfect woman mass media try to embody now is one who accepts herself regardless of media representations,” LaRose said. “A lot of what triggers body shaming or the thigh-gap craze originates from Tumblr and other social media outlets where women with one type of body can promote one thing and degrade the other.”

In a BBC News interview, Caroline Nokes, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, also said that social media hurts young girls’ body esteem because it “cannot be ignored.”

“[Young girls] can make decisions not to look at magazines and TV, but social media networks are the primary way they communicate and their main channel to the outside world,” Nokes said.

Regardless of the ultimate cause of women’s desire to be thin, Brown hopes for media to push for more “diversity on every level.”

“It’s the media’s responsibility to represent a wider range of all kinds of people,” Brown said. “… This sort of hegemonic view of “skinny white blonds” does not represent our society. We aren’t that society. We never were that society. But we’re really not that society now and that hurts us all.”

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