People who make their living producing images, such as photographers, stylists, publicists, directors and pop idols, learn how to use those signs to convey the impression they want to make. Although teen girls who are trying to send a signal to their circle of friends and pop music producers who are trying to send a signal to an audience of millions are working on different scales, the principle is very much the same. Depending on your audience, you need to tailor the signals you send out very carefully. Even your age can have a certain amount of wiggle room when dressed in the right signs.
It’s been a rough couple of months for a brat. Or rather for Bratz – the giant-headed, almond-eyed, scantily dressed dolls that have been giving Barbie a scare for the last few years. One of the toy success stories of the last decade, the Bratz juggernaut now shows signs of slowing down: first, a $100 million judgment against the dolls’ manufacturer, MGA Entertainment, which ruled that the original designer first drew them while still under contract at Mattel; then a successful campaign by parents to keep Bratz books out of the Scholastic catalogue, which places books in thousands of schools across North America; and, most painfully, reports that stores have cut shelf space for Bratz by as much as 50 per cent.
Music is a significant medium in a young person’s life, particularly during the teenage years. While other media may occupy a greater number of hours, it is most often from music that teenagers define their identities and draw cues about how to dress and to behave.
Despite the popularity of the Internet, movies and TV still dominate young people’s media use (though they are increasingly watching both online).  Given this widespread appeal, these media may have an indirect effect by influencing how groups or cultures view body image.
Traditionally, most of the concerns about media and body image have revolved around girls, but more and more, researchers and health professionals are turning their attention to boys as well. A growing body of research indicates that although boys are less likely to talk about their insecurities, they too experience anxiety about their bodies.
Advertising, particularly for fashion and cosmetics, has a powerful effect on how we see ourselves and how we think we should look. Women’s magazines in particular have a tremendous influence on body image, with researchers reporting that teenage girls rely heavily on them for information on beauty and fashion, valuing their advice nearly as highly as that of their peers.
Photo manipulation, once the preserve of a small number of airbrush-equipped artists, has become commonplace in the fashion, publishing and advertising industries thanks to the introduction of photo-editing software such as Photoshop. (This program, first introduced in 1990, has become so widely used that “photoshopping” is often used as a synonym for photo manipulation.) As a result, heavily retouched photos – of men as well as women – have become nearly universal: a single issue of Vogue was found to contain 144 manipulated images, including the cover.
Images of female bodies are everywhere, with women and girls – and their body parts – selling everything from food to cars. Popular film and television actresses are becoming younger, taller and thinner. Women’s magazines are full of articles urging that if you can just lose those last twenty pounds, you will have it all: the perfect marriage, loving children, great sex, and a rewarding career.
Digital media such as the Internet and video games have become increasingly important in the lives of children and youth. Even when young people are consuming other media, such as TV, music and movies, they are likely to be doing it through the Internet. As well, nearly all the media they consume, from TV shows to toys, have Web pages, virtual worlds, video games or other digital spinoffs associated with them.
There are few media to which youth are exposed to as early as toys, which make up an important part of their media consumption throughout childhood: despite competition from electronics, half of children 14 and younger asked for toys for Christmas in 2011, a number that likely rises for younger children. As a result, the messages about body image that children get from toys may come at a time when they are still forming ideas about gender identity.