For decades, the media has fed into unrealistic gender portrayals, shaped body ideals, and impacted how women view themselves and others, but in an extremely digital age, there are pressures everywhere that tell women and girls that they aren’t good enough. In fact, 80% of women say that, although it’s empowering to see strong women in the media, it makes them feel insecure about their own bodies and lifestyles.
I was raised to love myself and to never compare my body to anyone else’s, but all of society’s pressures make this extremely hard. I’ve heard stories of girls weighing themselves at sleepovers, complaining about their weight, and obsessing over their Instagram followers and, though I don’t join in, it’s hard to tune out these unwritten expectations of women that girls have drilled into their heads from a young age.
The average teenager spends 9 hours each day online doing activities such as watching TV, scrolling through social media, online shopping, or even doing homework. Ideals are everywhere, whether in commercials, selfies that are often heavily filtered, and even pop-up advertisements. If you factor in billboards, mannequins, and bus and bench ads, the time spent surrounded by clues of unrealistic body ideals is about half of the 24 hour day, which can result in low self esteem and a corrupted body image. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and even eating disorders. The average teenage girl spends 1 hour and 24 minutes preparing to take selfies each week and one fourth of girls delete photos if they don’t get enough likes on social media. With so much focus online, girls are editing their photos, filtering their already beautiful selves, and sometimes feel inferior when looking at other posts.
But body image is an issue in adults as well as younger kids as well. 42% of girls in first through third grade wish they were thinner, instead of celebrating the body they have. These girls are probably exposed to the media less, but still feel the effects of the subtle clues, like commercials and billboards. 7 out of 10 women don’t feel represented in images they see and feel compelled to conform to unachievable “beauty” standards, causing an “appearance anxiety epidemic,” as PR Newswire states. Instead of thinking, “What do I love about my body,” the question being fostered is “What do I wish I could change about my body,” what with ads for things like plastic surgery.
We live in an extremely digital age and photo-editing softwares are available to everyone, especially magazines. However, some celebrities were surprised to find their photos altered, saying that goes against what they stand for. Zendaya, whose waist and torso were slimmed down after a photo shoot, said “Anyone who knows who I am knows I stand for honest and pure self love.” Jameela Jamil’s skin was lightened and airbrushed and her arms were slimmed down. She said it was causing her mental anguish to live up to this flawless version of herself. Kate Winslet confronted a magazine with a before and after editing photo of herself, in which her legs had been reduced to a third of their size. “I don’t look like that and I don’t desire to look like that,” Winslet had said, and the magazine assured her that all of their photos underwent the same amount of edits, dismissing her outrage.
However, there are organizations looking to change all this. Dove, a body product company, has put together two projects to defy beauty stereotypes. The first one, The Dove Self-Esteem Project, is a web page filled with articles and videos about boosting self esteem and about media influences. The second one, Project #ShowUs, is a collection of images of real, unedited women and non-binary individuals from 39 countries so far. Their goal is to compile over 10,000 photos and, a year into the project, are already halfway to completing their goal. Project #ShowUs wants women to feel represented in advertisements, so their photos are open to all media for use. Dove’s goal is to show that beauty doesn’t fit into a box.
Another issue with female representation in the media is air time. Women are given much less time on screen, and if they are, it’s often in a stereotypical role. A quarter of all ads only feature men, while only 5% are solely focused on women. Another way to measure female representation in the media is The Bechdel Test, a satirical list of criteria that were popularized by Alison Bechdel. In order for a movie to pass The Bechdel Test, it must have at least two named female characters and those characters must have a conversation about something other than a man. Up to half of all movies fail to meet these simple criteria. However, The Bechdel Test isn’t a direct translation of feminism or lack of it; it’s just a way to show how so many movies are male dominant. In the original Avengers, there are lots of strong, female characters, but they never interact with each other. In How to Train Your Dragon 2, Valka and Astrid have one conversation, but it’s about Hiccup, and therefore doesn’t meet all three requirements. Other movies that didn't pass the test include Jumanji: The Next Level, Spiderman: Far From Home, and Avatar. All three of these movies have inspiring, female characters, but they don’t interact with each other, and if they do, it’s about another male character.
However, some companies are looking to restructure media standards. BBC, for example, has a goal of maintaining equal gender representation each month. The 50/50 Project, as it has become known, includes 500 BBC shows, all of which are factored into 100% of air time. This is a huge step toward gender equality and hopefully other broadcasters will join in soon.
The portrayal of women in the media is not always equal to that of men, and seeing edited realities can cause low self esteem among the real women in our community. Hopefully, with more organizations and women speaking out for both equal gender representation and unfiltered beauty, we can live in a society that is naturally more accepting of diverse, beautiful women.