Research Debate: Do You Feel Better Knowing She’s Airbrushed?

Media literacy might help, but it needs to be part of a bigger solution.

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| December 21st, 2011

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.”

MEET THE MIND: Renee Engeln-Maddox Talks Body Image

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.”

MORE: Parents and Media Not to Blame for Anorexia, Doctor Says

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.”

STUDY: Women Think Thinness Equals 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.

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