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.”
According to some research, programs like Hathaway Brown’s may be an essential step toward protecting young girls’ self-image.
In 2006, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty released a video called “Evolution,” showing a model’s progression from bare face to billboard:
Emma Halliwell, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of the West of England, studied that video’s impact on young girls and saw positive results.
Typically, women’s body satisfaction dips after looking at media images. But when Halliwell showed the Dove video to a group of 10 and 11-year-old girls, she found that they were more resilient. In fact, their body satisfaction didn’t take a hit at all.
A 2006 study found that long-term, multi-session media literacy interventions can decrease body dissatisfaction, and that short- and long-term interventions decrease women’s tendency to internalize unrealistic ideals.
But Renee Engeln-Maddox, Ph.D., a professor and body image expert at Northwestern University, isn’t so optimistic. “In grad school, I really thought it was going to be the answer,” she says. “I look back and think I was kind of naïve.”
SIDE 2: Media literacy is not enough.
Halliwell agrees that media literacy may not be enough, despite her success with the Dove video. “Generally, media literacy interventions are successful at increasing media literacy but fail to have an impact on body image,” she says.
That’s exactly what Engeln-Maddox found when she conducted a study on media literacy. Comparing women with high and low levels of media literacy, she found that it had no effect. Women in either category were just as likely to have low body satisfaction.
For many women, thoughts challenging a distorted image may happen “after a psychological war has already been lost,” says Engeln-Maddox. “They look at it and feel bad, then they try to erase the bad feeling by intellectualizing it. But I don’t think it’s helping on an affective level. It doesn’t actually make you feel better.”
In some contexts, attempts to boost media literacy might even have a negative effect.
A 2003 study found that when parents discussed television characters’ appearance with their children—even if they did it critically—the effect on body image was negative. No matter their intentions, the message is still that beauty matters.
“Generally, media literacy interventions are successful at increasing media literacy but fail to have an impact on body image.”
– Emma Halliwell, Ph.D.
“Some women are more vulnerable to negative effects from media images than others,” says Halliwell. “Specifically women who buy into the idea that thinness is a source of value and success.”
Combatting that belief system is a lofty challenge and experts point to programs encouraging cognitive dissonance as the most effective tools to date. Unlike media literacy, cognitive dissonance requires that women actually engage in arguments against the thin ideal. By forcing them to argue a point that contradicts their own belief, they nudge a little closer to the middle.
That’s not to say that media literacy has no place in women’s lives.
“I’m all for informed media consumers. It’s important politically and socially,” says Engeln-Maddox. “But I’m not sure that deconstruction helps women relate to their bodies in a healthier way.”
THE MIDDLE GROUND
Media literacy may be most effective as part of a broader culture of empowerment.
When Engeln-Maddox’s media literacy study failed to show any effect, she was surprised. She called in the subset of girls with the highest media literacy and body satisfaction to see what they had in common. “It was a really small sample,” she concedes, “but the impression I got was that they had been women who from a very young age had been raised in a really pro-feminist household. They saw the images as irrelevant.”
“It’s one thing to tell women to stop hating their bodies and another thing to show women how to like their bodies.”
– Renee Engeln-Maddox, Ph.D.
That kind of core strength is the goal. “What we want is an internalized filtering system,” says Jolls. “All the things you can use to filter out negative images are no substitute for what’s inside of you."
For the girls at Hathaway Brown, the school aims to show them that their skills and abilities matter more than their looks. “We hope they’ll walk away from here realizing that the sum total of their value has very little to do with what they look like and much more to do with what they contribute,” says Dubow.
That requires strong role models and persistent messaging that beauty goes beyond the ideal. Engeln-Maddox reminds us: “It’s one thing to tell women to stop hating their bodies and another thing to show women how to like their bodies.” Hopefully, that's the direction we're headed in now.
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