Media Education and Body Image

There’s significant evidence that media education can counter unrealistic media representations of men’s and women’s bodies. For example, a 2010 study found that showing the video Evolution (which was created by Dove to show how media images of women are manipulated) significantly reduced negative effects on confidence and body satisfaction of young girls when they looked at pictures of ultra-thin models afterwards. [1]

A meta-study of programs that have been designed to help youth deal with body image and eating disorders has shown that media education is one of the most successful strategies for dealing with these issues. [2] Similarly, an evaluation of Go Girls!, a media education program created by the National Eating Disorders Association in the U.S., found that media literacy skills helped high school girls increase their self-acceptance and feel more empowered when viewing media images of women’s bodies. Other studies have found that even brief, peer-guided workshops can effectively counteract messages that perpetuate unrealistic body images and promote unhealthy eating. [3]

To be effective, media literacy interventions need to be long-term; focus on critical thinking, questioning and discussion; invite active involvement through activities, rather than direct instruction; and teach key concepts of media literacy. [4]

The key concepts listed below are very helpful for framing discussions about media representation and body image. For each one, a series of questions has been provided that encourage youth to challenge media messages about how we should look:

Media are constructions that re-present reality. Ask:

  • Who created this media product?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What assumptions or beliefs do its creators have about body issues?

Media have social and ideological implications. Ask:

  • What body shapes are shown more positively or negatively than others?
  • Why might these body shapes be shown this way?
  • Which body shapes are not shown at all?
  • What conclusions might audiences draw based on these facts?

Media have commercial implications. Ask:

  • What is the commercial purpose of this media product (in other words, how will it help someone make money?)
  • How does this influence the content and how it’s communicated?
  • If no commercial purpose can be found, what other purposes might the media product have (for instance, to get attention for its creator or to convince audiences of a particular point of view.)
  • How do those purposes influence the content and how it’s communicated?

Audiences negotiate meaning in media. Ask:

  • How might different people see this media product differently?
  • How does this make you feel, based on how similar or different you are from the people portrayed in the media product?

Each medium has a unique form. Ask:

  • What techniques does the media product use to get your attention and to communicate its message?
  • In what ways are the images in the media product manipulated through various techniques (for example: lighting, makeup, camera angle, photo manipulation)?
  • What are the expectations of the genre (for example: print advertising, TV drama, music video) towards body shape?

While the classroom is a natural place for media education (you can access MediaSmarts’s resources on body image and related issues here), it’s essential that education start at home. The importance of parents being positive and supportive of their children, both in terms of their physical appearance and their personal qualities, and in setting a good example when it comes to body shape and fitness is well known.  For instance, one study found that just talking to their mothers about breast size actually made college-age women less likely to undergo breast augmentation surgery. [5]

Less well known is the importance of parents helping their children understand media messages about how we should look. Parents who engage in media alongside their children, and who encourage them to question or think about what they see or hear are setting the groundwork for healthy media habits. As well, we can teach kids to ‘talk back’ to media through creative play, art and writing to help them work through the media messages they receive, and take charge of representations of themselves. [6]

[1] Halliwell E, Easun A, & Harcourt D (2010). Body dissatisfaction: Can a short media literacy message reduce negative media exposure effects amongst adolescent girls? British journal of health psychology PMID: 20687976.
[2] Zali Yager and Jennifer A. O’Dea. Prevention programs for body image and eating disorders on University campuses: a review of large, controlled interventions. Health Promot. Int. (2008) 23(2): 173-189.
[3] Piran et al, “GO GIRLS! Media Literacy, Activism and Advocacy Project,” Healthy Weight Journal (November-December 2000): 89-90.  
[4] Piran et al, “GO GIRLS! Media Literacy, Activism and Advocacy Project,” Healthy Weight Journal (November-December 2000): 89-90.
[5] Carney, M., “Using Media Literacy Education for Health Promotion: A Qualitative Meta-analysis of Effective Program Components.” Cable in the Classroom. 2006.
[6] D’Arcy Lyness. “Encouraging a Healthy Body Image.” KidsHealth, May 2009.
[7] J. Robyn Goodman & Kim Walsh-Childers, “Sculpting the Female Breast: How College Women Negotiate the Media’s Ideal Breast Image,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 81(3) Autumn 2004: 657.
[8] Levin, D. E., & Kilbourne, J. So sexy so soon: The new sexualized childhood, and what parents can do to protect their kids, 2008.