As the mom of a tween, and as a middle school teacher, I’m all too aware of the media representation of girls and women and the impact it has on fragile adolescents’ self-esteem. Objectification, body shaming, and glorification of thigh gaps and jutting collar bones should not be the purview of 13-year-olds, but there is no doubt that these issues impact them daily. What can we do about the onslaught of images that face our daughters, and how can we arm them with the information that will free them from these narrow constraints? In celebration of Women’s History Month, I have a three-part call to action I’d like to share:
Reveal the media “magic”
With so many images flying at them every day, it is crucial for young girls to recognize that the media—magazines and advertisements in particular—are a construct. The ideas young girls collect about themselves are in comparison with what they see in these media, yet most of the time they have no idea that the images they are viewing are photoshopped, use special lighting, gobs of makeup, and the subjects have a team of handlers to create these “magic” images. Dove’s Self-Esteem Project is an absolute must for anyone wishing to educate young girls about body image and loving themselves. In particular, this video called “Evolution” shows the transformation of a “regular” person into the model they see in a magazine. It’s only a minute and a half, but it is instantly clear that we’re all fooled regularly by the “natural” looking girls we see in magazines.
Watch your words
As much as we’d like to place all the blame on the media—and there is certainly quite a bit to go around—we’d be remiss to place even the bulk of it there. In fact, “Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image,” said Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of Mayo Clinic’s eating disorders program and a child psychologist, in an article in USA Today. “Even if a mom says to the daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I'm so fat,’ it can be detrimental.” In order for our daughters to be more forgiving of their bodies, as adult women we must be kind to ourselves as well. Focusing on the amazing feats our bodies accomplish all the time will boost confidence, and many psychologists say to cut out all conversation about externalities and focus on what our girls do—deliver a really funny joke, nail their math facts, or run a great relay race.
Although Women’s History Month is a good time to remind ourselves of our obligations to our daughters, it certainly shouldn’t be the only time. Share My Lesson has some great resources that we can integrate throughout the year. Discover Human Rights’ lesson plan “Challenge the Media” is an excellent resource to share with colleagues, as the basis of a single lesson or even a mini unit. I particularly like the layout of this PDF because it delivers a ton of information in a short document. Another resource, this one put out by the Anti-Defamation League, “Stereotypes of Women and Girls in the Media,” is another excellent resource to combat the negative and weak portrayal of females.
These three action steps can make a difference in how young women see themselves. We need to call out ridiculous images when we see them. When our daughters are flipping through magazines, we should point out the eyelash extensions, the obvious photoshopping and the impractical fashions that are clearly not meant to be functional for women. It works wonders to pull back the curtain and show exactly how contrived magazines and other media can be. This also means we should be gentle with ourselves. We must not place an inordinate value on our daughters’ looks or our own. When we obsessively diet, belittle ourselves, or fawn over a girlfriend because she looks so skinny in a particular outfit, we are creating an echo for our daughters to hear in their most formative years. Finally, we must be vigilant in regularly educating girls about these issues, knowing that the lesson might not sink in the first or second time, but sticking with it because the topic is important enough to keep giving it the space it deserves.
Image credit: Word It Out