Are your hips smaller than your head? Is your head tacked on to a digitally rendered body? Is your face perfectly wrinkle-free after 40?
Of course not! (Well, we hope not.)
But every single one of those physically impossible feats has shown up in ad photos. (You may have seen the above impossibilites in Ralph Lauren’s infamous window display, H&M’s online swim campaign and Lancome’s banned ad featuring a heavily airbrushed Julia Roberts.)
Images like those are obviously altered, but the minor tweaks—erase a blemish here, shave a pound there—present in every ad you see may be harder to detect, and even more insidious.
Unrealistic images are thought to contribute to body dissatisfaction among men and women, as well as rising rates of bulimia. How to protect body image in a culture that promotes an unattainable ideal is the million-dollar question du jour.
Many are turning to media literacy (also known as media deconstruction), meaning the ability to understand why and how media images are constructed, as a possible solution. Supporters of the Self-Esteem Act aim to pass a US law requiring that altered photos be labeled, celebrities are speaking out against airbrushing, and a new software program aims to detect how drastically an image has been altered.
“The underlying message of media literacy is that all media messages are constructed,” says Tessa Jolls, president of the Center for Media Literacy. “That means somebody made them up. It’s someone else’s interpretation of the world. It’s up to us to have the skills, knowledge, and self-determination to decide if that’s how we want to look at the world.”
The message is empowering, but does media literacy really work?
SIDE 1: Media literacy protects young girls’ body image.
At Hathaway Brown, a girls-only PreK-12 private school in Cleveland, OH, media literacy has been an integral part of the curriculum for ten years. The girls learn media literacy for everything from food marketing to politics, but as middle school hits, they zero in on body image.
“It’s up to us to have the skills, knowledge and self-determination to decide how we want to look at the world.”
– Tessa Jolls, President, Center for Media Literacy
In media literacy classes, students deconstruct the way girls are presented in the media, and create documentaries about what being a girl means to them. Media literacy teacher Terry Dubow says that girls often come back after graduation to tell him that the class had a lasting impact. For him, it’s enough to know that they remember. “It’s about how loud these voices are in their ears,” he says. “I worry when the volume is turned up so high on popular culture images and not other messages of value.”
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