The average teenage girl spends a combined 10 hours and 45 minutes per day on media consumption: on a weekly basis this translates to 31 hours watching television, 17 hours listening to music, 3 hours watching movies, 4 hours reading magazines and 10 hours online. By the time a girl celebrates her 17th birthday, she will have been exposed to a whopping 250,000 commercial messages, many of them damaging to her self-image and sense of self-worth.
The images and messages that teenage girls are exposed to that glamorize thinness and glorify the “bikini-ready body,” create an impossible ideal for girls, and in turn, fuel low self-esteem as well as unhealthy and sometimes dangerous behaviors to achieve this ideal. Low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders are the leading mental health problems facing girls today, and it can be said that it is being fueled not entirely but to a large extent by the messaging that girls are exposed to through the media.
The media’s ability to shape our societal views and opinions and its’ influence on female self-esteem is not a new phenomenon, however, its pervasiveness is becoming unparalleled. Today’s prevalence of social media websites and the diversity of platforms, such as Tumblr, Facebook and Instragram mean that media messaging is impacting teenage girls 24/7. How do we teach teenage girls to love their bodies and see their own beauty and self-worth in a mine-field of media messaging that is damaging to their spirit, psyche and body image?
Trending now on social media websites such as Tumblr, Instragram & Facebook are images and messaging that offer “Thinspiration,” also referred to as “Thinspro,” to girls seeking inspiration to look more like the images that they want to emulate from television and magazine advertising. Often initiated by anorexic (“pro-ana”) and bulimic girls looking for online community, these sites seek to “inspire” their followers to be thin and espouse that self-worth is measured by the space between your thighs. Messages that tout, “because the pain of looking in the mirror hurts more than starving,” and images that worship the “thigh gap,” a measurable space between a girl’s thighs when her knees are touching, are insidiously commonplace and are fueling extreme body fixation in young women. In truth, whether a woman’s inner thighs touch is largely dependent on bone structure, the shape of her pelvic girdle and how far apart her hipbones are. Aside from a small minority of body types, you have to be severely underweight for the thighs to separate, and since thigh gap is not a normal body shape for most women, achieving it often means severely altering behaviour.
The dividing line between internet searches for motivation to get fit versus a search to get skinny is grey indeed, meaning a teenager seeking fitness inspiration will invariably stumble upon damaging and often seductive images of attractive, slim and often sexy young women. Endless artistic photos of skinny girls can be hypnotizing and is luring our daughters to aspire to an unhealthy body image that is excessively thin and is encouraging damaging behaviors to achieve this impossibly perfect ideal. What’s frightening about this trend in social media is that it is girls who are creating the content and sabotaging the self-esteem of other girls, of their peers.
Last year, the “thigh gap” flooded social media; this year it’s the “bikini bridge.” Started initially as an online hoax, the “bikini bridge,” has, as intended, snowballed into a body fixation and warped measure of beauty for teenage girls. Urban Dictionary describes the “bikini bridge” as ‘when bikini bottoms are suspended between the two hip bones, causing a space between the bikini and the lower abdomen.’ More disturbingly, bikinibridge.tumblr.com refers to its home page as “a collection of photos dedicated to the graceful space created by a woman’s hip bones suspending bikini bottoms from their abdomens,’ in essence glamorizing skinny to a target market of impressionable young women seeking a sense of belonging and acceptance.
In the 1960’s, well-known Canadian philosopher of communication, Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village,” in reference to how electronic media has contracted the globe into a village. At no time has this been truer, with messages impacting us 24/7 and influencing our views and beliefs at an alarming rate. Blogger Kate L. shares her story on www.proud2beme, an online support network for girls created by NEDA, The National Eating Disorders Association. “Like thousands of other young girls today, I grew up in an environment that was constantly putting emphasis on the illusion that thinness was everything, that I would be much happier if only I could focus on losing weight. Technology’s influence multiplied this pressure tenfold, and I found myself spending more and more hours on social media websites like Tumblr and Pinterest, scrolling through “thinspiration”: images and “pro-ana” (pro anorexia) blogs, which encourage young girls to pursue disordered eating behaviours. I became oblivious to any other way of living, and within months found myself deep in an eating disorder that was constantly being reinforced by support on the Internet.”
Jean Kilbourne, author, speaker, and filmmaker who is internationally recognized for her work on the image of women in advertising, says that statistically only 5% of women are born with a model’s body type. “You can’t diet yourself into it any more than you can make yourself taller,” she says in her 1995 film called Slim Hopes: Advertising & the Obsession with Thinness. It’s a body type that excludes 95% of the American population, and yet she argues that it is the only body type that we ever see in the media that is deemed acceptable.
The media delivers the same destructive messaging over and over again making women believe that in order to be acceptable, they need to be painfully, unnaturally thin. It’s not surprising then that eleven percent of college women have bulimia nervosa and one in ten women in America have a serious eating disorder. In fact, alarming figures for hospital admissions for eating disorders rose by 16% in 2012. The most disturbing aspect of the statistics, released by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), were the ages of those being admitted. The biggest increase was amongst girls aged 10-15, up 69% from 2011 to 2012. One in 10 of all admissions were girls aged 15. Forty-seven percent of admissions were children aged five to nine. This is not to say that talking about “thigh gap” or being interested in it is in and of itself an eating disorder, but it does insidiously creep into dialogue that sets girls up to be unhappy with their bodies.
The teenage years are an age where girls are trying so hard to figure out who they are, whom they like and what they like. Acceptance and “fitting in” become paramount to all else. Combine that with raging teenage hormones and mood fluctuations and you have the perfect storm for girls to fall off the rails. In an effort to be accepted by their peers, girls will often loose their sense of identity and direction. Enter a “thinspro” website that feeds into teenage insecurities with messages that state “nobody wants a fatty,” and that “nobody will drop you when you crowd surf” if you’re skinny. Girls easily fall prey to this kind of messaging because being skinny is about control when your inner confidence and stability are crumbling.
Girls are getting messaging early on that they need to be impossibly beautiful in order to be accepted and that the thing that’s most important is how they look. Their value and self-worth depend on that and in turn boys get the message that that’s what’s important about girls. It is profitable for advertisers to make women feel terrible about themselves, so as a culture women are brought up to be fundamentally insecure. Every form of media- advertising, films, music videos, TV shows, video games and social media-propagates images of impossibly thin, beautiful women. And it follows, that no matter what a woman does, no matter what her achievements; her value still depends on her appearance.
In her film Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women, Jean Kilbourne notes that there is a hunger among girls and young women for leadership. In search of a sense of identity, young women and girls need more positive role modeling. They need a shift in the emphasis being solely on looks to being about their character, intellect and accomplishments. One such role model is Hunger Games actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who has stated unabashedly that she will never lose weight for a Hollywood role. “…I think when it comes to the media, the media needs to take responsibility for the effect that it has on our younger generation, on these girls who are watching these television shows, and picking up how to talk and how to be cool..,” she says.
This summer we have also seen positive messaging from advertisers such as Aerie, who now feature girls in their print campaigns who are not models and who are not retouched. Always’ recent Throw Like a Girl campaign seeks to empower girls by shifting the insulting school yard connotation of “throwing like a girl” to suggesting inner strength and confidence.
Girls need to feel good about themselves again and we need to help them get there. What is absolutely critical is that as parents and educators, we are aware of the influences of the media and social media and that we begin discussion on many of these issues. Mothers need to dial into and become aware of these trends and issues and open dialogue with their daughters about healthy behaviour and positive messaging. According the Dove Self Esteem Program for Girls, mothers and other female mentors (aunts, grandmothers, female educators) have the biggest impact on our daughters’ self-esteem, above models, actors, and sports figures.. Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive of Eating Disorders Charity Beat, says, “It’s a long-term goal, but we need to nourish a generation of young people equipped to be resilient to these pressures and critical of the society that promoted them.” The only diet teenagers need to be on is a media diet. They should turn off their devices and instead nourish their bodies with exercise, healthy eating and a huge dose of self-love.
Tiffany Moffat is is a certified Personal Trainer Specialist, Fitness Instructor Specialist, Pre and Postnaatal Specialist (Canfitpro certified) and freelance writer who has worked in the fitness industry for 25 years. tiffanysbeyourbest.blogspot.com.