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.BACKGROUNDUnrealistic 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.MORE: Airbrushing in Ads: Yay or Nay?“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.MORE: Overcome the Media’s Distortion of Women
“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 SuccessCombatting 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 GROUNDMedia 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
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.