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 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.[1]

A meta-study of programs that have been designed to help youth deal with body image and eating disorders has shown that media literacy programs are one of the most successful strategies for dealing with these issues. [2] In the 2014 Report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the House of Commons, the chair noted that “prevention campaigns can use…media literacy components, which help youth to rebuild confidence …and improve critical thinking related to media messages”The committee also noted that media literacy should be used to “counteract unrealistic images of beauty and thinness.” [3]

Similarly, a 2018 study revealed that critical thinking “with media use [is effective] as a form of protection from the mindsets that lead to eating disorders.” [4] Other studies have found that being able to think critically about techniques that are used to fabricate and make digitally manipulated photos has been found to be associated with positive body image. [5] This critical thinking skill is learned through a media literacy education program, as youth are able to develop their own skepticism and understand how to use it properly in the digital world.

“Each respondent who stated that ‘media”’ had the most influence on how she viewed her body also said ‘yes’ when asked if she had ever tried to change how her body looked.”[6]

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. [7]

The digital and media literacy key concepts listed below are 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 realityAsk:

  • 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 implicationsAsk:

  • 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 implicationsAsk:

  • What is the commercial purpose of this media product (in other words, how will it help someone make money?)
  • What kinds of “conventional wisdom” about what kinds of body shapes are attractive to audiences (for instance, that consumers will reject models who are not thin, or that movie audiences expect male actors to be muscular) might influence media makers’ decisions?
  • How does this influence the content and how it’s communicated?
  • What were the costs of making and distributing this product?
  • How do those purposes influence the content and how it’s communicated?

Audiences negotiate meaning in mediaAsk:

  • How might different people (for instance, men and women, or people who do not have “ideal” body shapes) 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?
  • If you had a chance to speak to the people who made this media product, what would you ask or tell them?
  • If you had a chance to make a similar media product, how would you do it differently?

Each medium has a unique formAsk:

  • 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?

Digital media are networkedAsk:

  • How are you expected to interact with this message (Like or Favorite it, share it, etc.)
  • How might the expected interactions have influenced how it was made? (For example, how might it have been posed, selected or manipulated to get more likes?)

Digital media are shareable and persistentAsk:

  • How did this product get to you? Was it because you are mutual friends with the maker, because you follow the maker, because someone else shared it with you, or because you found it in a different way?
  • If you made the product, how did you share it? How did that influence how you made it?
  • Was the product meant to be shared widely? If so, what did the maker do to encourage others to share it? If not, what did the maker do to try to limit people’s ability to share or copy it?

Digital media have unexpected audiencesAsk:

  • Who was the intended audience for the product? How did the intended audience influence how it was made? (For example, how would a photo you post for your friends to see be different from one for your parents, or a romantic partner?)
  • How might the product be interpreted differently if it was seen by an audience other than the one it was meant for?
  • Were you the intended audience for the product? If so, how did that affect how you responded to it? If not, how did the product reach you?

Digital media experiences are shaped by the tools we useAsk:

  • What tools were used to make and distribute this product?
  • What are the tools’ affordances – in other words, what does the tool let you do? (For example, are there limits on how many photos you can post to your account at one time? How much freedom do you have to modify your avatar in an online game? Are there tools like filters that let you manipulate a photo?)
  • What are the tools’ defaults – the things that the tool lets you do without having to specifically choose them? (For instance, photos self-destruct by default on Snapchat, but on Instagram you have to choose to do that. Some online games allow you to choose your avatar’s body shape but give you an idealized shape by default.)  

Interactions through digital media can have a real impactAsk:

  • Was the product made by someone you know offline or someone you don’t (like a celebrity?) How does that change how it makes you feel?
  • How does it make you feel to make and share pictures online? How do the things you do to make or choose the best pictures make you feel?
  • What are the norms of your online communities when it to how people represent themselves? (For example, what will make a photo more likely to be shared? What kinds of photos will get negative comments? Do you often see photos or avatars that look like your own body shape? Will people react differently if you use an avatar who is less idealized?)

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. [8]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. [9]

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. [10]


[1] Matthews, H (2016). The Effect of Media Literacy Training on the Self- Esteem and Body-Satisfaction Among Fifth Grade Girls. Walden University.

[2] Levine, M (2016) Media Literacy as an effective and promising form of Eating Disorders prevention. Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue. Retrieved from

[3] House of Commons Canada (2014 November). Eating Disorders among Girls and Women in Canada. Standing Committee on the Status of Women.

[4] Kagie, M. (2018) Preventing Eating Disorders by Promoting Media Literacy and Rejecting Harmful Dieting Based Mentalities. The BYU Undergraduate journal of Psychology. 13(1) 64-80.

[5] McLean et al. (2016) Does Media Literacy Mitigate Risk for Reduced Body Satisfaction Following Exposure to Thin-Ideal Media? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45 (8). 1678 - 1695. 

[6] Hohn, T. (2015 October). Media Literacy and Body Image. Canadian Teacher. Retrieved from

[7] Piran et al, “GO GIRLS! Media Literacy, Activism and Advocacy Project,” Healthy Weight Journal (November-December 2000): 89-90.

[8] D’Arcy Lyness. “Encouraging a Healthy Body Image.” KidsHealth, May 2009.

[9] 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.

[10] Levin, D. E., & Kilbourne, J. So sexy so soon: The new sexualized childhood, and what parents can do to protect their kids, 2008.