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

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.”


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.”

MORE: The Spirit Junkie's Secret to Loving Your Body

“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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