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Hungry for Change: Why Media Literacy Alone Won't Make Women Love Their Bodies

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Last November, the Girls Scouts Research Institute, in partnership with the Dove Self Esteem Fund, asked one thousand teenage girls about fashion, the media and body image. The recently released findings are worrying. Eighty-eight percent of girls surveyed said that the media "place a lot of pressure on teenage girls to be thin." And it seems that that pressure is having an effect: 60% of teenage girls say that they "compare their bodies to those of fashion models" and 48% say that they wish they were as skinny as the models in fashion magazines.

Taken alone, these findings aren't all that surprising. We have known for decades that the vision of female beauty presented in the mainstream media is, figuratively and literally, a narrow one. The women we see on television, in magazines, on billboards and on magazines are overwhelmingly young, white and thin, with fine features and clear skin. And we have known for quite some time that exposure to that vision can cause people, and young women especially, to feel like they don't measure up.

What is surprising, and particularly worrying, about the Girl Scouts findings is that of the young women surveyed, 65% think that the female bodies they see walking the runways and gracing the pages of fashion magazines are "too skinny" and 63% think that such a body shape is "unrealistic." Forty-seven percent say that "the fashion industry body image looks unhealthy" and 28% say it looks "sick." Fashion models, these girls believe, are too skinny, unrealistic, and look unhealthy and sick. And yet 48% wish they could look just like them.

This is, to state the obvious, a serious problem. It's one thing to want to be beautiful for beauty's sake. It's quite another to want to be unhealthy for beauty's sake. Sadly, it's a desire that many young women are acting on, at great risk to their own health. The new findings indicate that about a third of young women have starved themselves in an attempt to lose weight. Compared the findings from other studies on the subject, that number is quite low: One study found that more than half of adolescent girls had "engaged in unhealthy weight control behaviours such as fasting, skipping meals, vomiting or smoking" in the past year. That's half of the adolescent female population, high school and middle school girls who are obsessing over their weight, going deliberately hungry, stunting their own growth, skipping class to throw up in secret, hurting themselves in the pursuit of an ideal that is simply unattainable for 98% of the population.

What's fascinating about the new findings is that they seem to indicate an increased awareness in young women that the ideal presented by the fashion industry and by the media is unrealistic and unhealthy. This is, I suspect, the result of increased media literacy of the kind encouraged by the Media Education Foundation, which produced the series Killing Us Softly. The series, begun in 1979 by researcher Jean Kilbourne, examines how women and female beauty are depicted in advertising and other forms of media. The fourth installment is due out in April of this year. Teaching young women to think critically and analytically about the impossible images of women with which they're bombarded every day is an important tool in reducing the pressure that they feel to emulate those images. Teaching women to think about the deeper meaning of advertising coping like "The more you subtract, the more you add," the tag-line for an Armani Express campaign featured in Kilbourne's documentary, is an important weapon in the battle against eating disorders and poor body image. But as the new findings demonstrate, media literacy isn't enough.

The young women in the Girl Scouts study are media literate. They view the images they see in magazines and on television with critical eyes. They know full well that what they see presented as beautiful is all but impossible to achieve. They even suspect , rightly, that some of the women they're seeing are sick. And yet, they still think those women are beautiful, and they still want to look like them.

It's clear then, is that changing how we see fashion models is only half the battle. That so large a proportion of the women surveyed in the Girl Scouts study were media literate, and were able to view fashion critically, represents enormous progress. But until we change what's considered beautiful in our culture, until we broaden the definition of female beauty to encompass more than 2% of the population, young women will continue to emulate the current ideal, even as they know it to be unrealistic and unhealthy. The other equally important half of the battle, though, is to change how we see beauty, to expand the definition beyond young, white and painfully thin. If we can do that, we can create a world in which young women who want to be considered beautiful by media standards, who want, like all teenagers, to be accepted and liked, don't feel the need to starve themselves in order to do so.