Body Image – Girls

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.

Best Health magazine coverWhy are these impossible standards of beauty being imposed on girls, the majority of whom look nothing like the models that are being presented to them? Some of the causes are economic: by presenting a physical ideal that is difficult to achieve and maintain the cosmetic and diet industries are assured continual growth and profits. It’s estimated that the diet industry alone brings in $60 billion (U.S.) a year selling temporary weight loss[1], with 80 per cent of dieters regaining their lost weight.[2] Marketers know that girls and women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes and diet aids. This business strategy has worked over the ages, as 9 in 10 girls are now saying they are unhappy with their bodies due to this perfectionist culture.[3]

These messages are so powerful and widespread in our culture that they affect girls long before they are exposed to fashion or beauty ads or magazines: three-year-olds already prefer game pieces that depict thin people over those representing heavier ones.[4] Girls are also becoming exposed to beauty messages more easily through access to social media on their personal electronic devices. The need to constantly be tuned into social media allows messages about the need “to have a picture-perfect life” and “to look pretty all the time” to infiltrate every part of their lives.[5] 

The effects of exposure to these images and messages goes beyond influencing girls to buy diet and beauty products. Exposure to images of thin, young, photoshopped female bodies is linked to anxiety, depression, loss of self-esteem and body dissatisfaction in girls and young women.[6] 

Example of an image manipulated to make the model appear thinnerAs media activist Jean Kilbourne puts it, “women are sold to the diet industry by the magazines we read and the television programs we watch, almost all of which make us feel anxious about our weight.” [7] The barrage of messages about thinness, dieting and beauty tells “ordinary” girls that they are always in need of adjustment—and that the female body is an object to be perfected. In some cases, this can be a factor in girls developing eating disorders and a barrier to recovering from them. Dr. Robbie Campbell, professor of psychiatry at Western University, points out that while multiple factors contribute to eating disorders, “the media is driving the one thing that seems to keep it in front of us all the time… the media serves as a constant trigger as we’re trying to move these girls towards wellness.”[8]

Kilbourne argues that the overwhelming presence of media images of painfully thin women means that real girls’ bodies have become invisible in the mass media. The real tragedy, Kilbourne concludes, is that many girls internalize these stereotypes and judge themselves by the beauty industry’s standards. This focus on beauty and desirability “effectively destroys any awareness and action that might help to change that climate.”[9]]

Given the serious potential consequences, it is essential that girls and young women develop a critical understanding of the constructed nature of media representations of women’s bodies on all platforms and the reasons why these images are perpetuated. More importantly, they need to be empowered to challenge these representations and advocate for more realistic representations. Because girls’ exposure to these messages starts so young, it is also vital that this education starts at an early age.




[1] The U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market. Marketdata, May 2011.

[2] Priya Sumithran, Luke A. Prendergast, Elizabeth Delbridge, Katrina Purcell, Arthur Shulkes, Adamandia Kriketos, Joseph Proietto. Long-Term Persistence of Hormonal Adaptations to Weight

[3] Royal Society for Public Health. (2017, May) Status of mind: Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Retrieved from

[4] (Harriger, J.A., Calogero, R.M., Witherington, D.C., & Smith J.E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin-ideal in preschool-age girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609-620. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9868-1)

[5] Girl Guiding UK. Girls Attitude Survey. 2019.

[6] Sherlock, M., & Wagstaff, D. L. (2019). Exploring the relationship between frequency of Instagram use, exposure to idealized images, and psychological well-being in women. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(4), 482–490.

[7] Kilbourne, Jean. Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Touchstone, 2000.

[8] Gollom, Mark. “Vogue ban of too-thin models a ‘huge’ step.” CBC News, May 4, 2012. <>

[9] Kilbourne, 2000.