In ancient times the Olympics were a time when all nations – all Greek nations, anyway – would put away their differences and compete in almost every human activity, from poetry to the ferocious no-rules wrestling event called pankration. Being the very best that humans could be was seen as the best way to honour the gods of Olympus. Though we’ve dropped the poetry and the blood sports, people watching the swimming or volleyball events might wonder if we’re on the way to bringing back the ancient tradition of competing in the nude. Revealing outfits – like those designed by Lululemon for the Canadian beach volleyball team – may be practical for those events, but they also shine a light on how dressing for sports can make us feel about ourselves. After all, it’s hard to feel good about your own body when you’ve just spent an hour watching the most perfect physiques in the world nearly naked.
Children are exposed to many unrealistic images of both men’s and women’s bodies through media. TV shows, music videos, ads, movies, video games, and even social networks can communicate ideas about what their bodies “should” look like. Techniques for manipulating images – from old-fashioned techniques like airbrushing to modern technologies like Photoshop – even make it possible for media images to go beyond what’s possible in reality.
In this lesson students are introduced to the concept of “avatars” and share their experiences creating and playing avatars in video games and virtual worlds. They then create avatars using a program that is intentionally limited in terms of available body types and gender markers, first creating an avatar of their own gender and then of the opposite gender, and then discuss the program and relate it to representations of gender and body image in games and virtual worlds and in other media. Students then create avatars using a much more flexible version of the program and compare that experience to the more limited version. Finally, students use the more versatile program to create avatars that represent how they see themselves and how they would like others to see them online and reflect on the choices that went into creating them.
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. The age of Snapchat and Instagram has perpetuated the notion that to have the ideal life you must have the ideal body type.
There’s significant evidence that media education can counter unrealistic media representations of men’s and women’s bodies. For example, a 2015 study found that girls as young as Grade 5 who had received media literacy education in school had higher self-esteem and body satisfaction.