Magazine ads and stories warp body images to unhealthy extremes, expert says
By Sally H.N. Wright
Both women and men are affected by negative body image messages, according to Utah State University nutrition counselor Cynthia Allen. She presented an interactive program about the influence of media on body image at Friday's body image fair in the Taggart Student Center.
"The number one magic wish for girls ages 11 to 17 is to be thin," said Allen, citing research of elementary and high school students across the nation.
A slide presentation featuring magazine articles and advertisements showed the audience just how pervasive body image messages are. Nearly every headline on the cover of the February issue of YM magazine related to readers' appearances.
"Let's see," said Allen. "We've got "Makeover Mania: 10 hot new looks," "What Makes a Girl Sexy" and "Are You Too Obsessed With Hotties."
"You should be concerned about this. Imagine a magazine cover with "How to Improve Your Test Scores" or "How to Get Along With Your Brothers and Sisters." There are just more important things to read about (than articles about appearance)."
Among the ads Allen showed was one promoting Loveable brand lingerie.
"Say hello to Loveable!" the ad copy read, touting bras and panties that are cute and "high-energy."
"I don't know about you guys," said Allen, "but I don't want my bra to be high-energy. It can just sit there."
Allen criticized the way the media objectifies women, showing only pieces of their bodies. The body part most often removed, said Allen, is the head.
"Do we ever just see a head? The intelligent head," she said, laughing as audience members pointed out the features most often displayed are breasts, legs and midriffs.
The majority of the ads Allen used features women or products designed for women, but she said she did not intentionally choose them that way.
"A 1992 study compared advertisements in women's magazines and men's magazines, and found that there were 10 times more diet and weight products advertised in women's magazines," she said.
"It's interesting to note that 10 to 1 is also the ratio of women to men who have eating disorders," Allen added.
Men, however, must cope with equally damaging stereotypes promoted by the media.
"They're having sex right after the football game, or they're renegades" and spend much of their time being emotionally distant, said Allen. A male audience member agreed.
"I think the time has come where men are receiving a lot of the same messages women are," he said. "There's a fitness craze going on right now and it has to do with men wanting to be bigger and buffer."
Allen said she is concerned about the media's equating food with emotional fulfillment.
"That is very, very dangerous," she said, saying that both men and women should value themselves for more than their physical appearances.
"You might think I'm being obsessive, but they (the media) are making this the norm. If you don't learn to examine these articles and advertisements, you'll absorb the information and it will become the truth for you," Allen warned.
Allen gave the audience nine ways to avoid becoming victims of the media's negative body-image messages. The list was adapted from the January/February 1997 issue of Psychology Today.
Develop criteria of self-esteem that go beyond appearance.
Cultivate the ability to appreciate your body. ("Especially for how it functions, not just how it looks," said Allen.)
Reduce your exposure to noxious images. (Allen suggested cutting back on television watching.)
Seek out others who respect and care about your body ("Find friends who don't always comment on how cute you are," she said.
Identify and change habitual thoughts aout your body ("Don't always think everyone's watching you, and say, 'Uh-oh, I know they saw the way my bum sits in this chair," Allen said. "Change your thought patterns."
Shift your focus from personal failure to media exploitation.
Control what you can, and forget what you can't.
Seek professional help.
Allen added one more suggestion to the list before she closed.
"Love yourself," she said. "You could spend the rest of your life
feeling bad about yourself, or you could spend the rest of your life