Kristal asks: What would you say to a young child who compares herself to what she sees in media? (First published HERE)
Dear Kristal, You are right to be concerned about this! Research has shown that when young and teen girls are exposed to media celebrating the “thin ideal” for women’s bodies—such as mainstream magazines, TV shows, and advertising—they experience increased body dissatisfaction, greater negative mood, higher levels of depression and lowered self-esteem. And these negative experiences aren’t limited to girls. Thanks to images of hyper-buff men in both media images and in “action figure” toys, 33-35% of boys aged 6-8 indicate their ideal body is thinner than their current body, and research further shows that boys exposed to hyper-sexual images of women may develop unrealistic expectations for romantic relationships with women. In other words, media matters.
But what can we actually do to counteract the negative effects of exposure to unrealistic media images? After all, it’s practically impossible to prevent kids from seeing these images, and even if we could lock our kids in the house watching only re-runs of Free to Be You and Me until they’re 18, they’d enter the adult world ill-equipped to deal with the social world. It’s a tricky situation, but here are my suggestions.
1) When kids start talking about media and comparing themselves to what they see, rather than simply disagreeing with them (e.g., “well that’s just not true!”) I encourage you to ask questions about what they’re seeing and how they’re thinking about what they see. What media are they viewing? Do they think the media is trying to send a particular message? What do they think of that message? Rather than being told what to think, asking questions encourages reflection and critical thinking. Also, try to avoid reinforcing unhealthy beliefs when talking about beauty. When a child comes to you distraught about not looking like what they see on TV, it’s tempting to say “well I think you’re beautiful!” or “don’t worry, you’re not fat!” but these types of statements, while soothing in the short term, ultimately reinforce the idea that it’s important to be beautiful and thin. I encourage you to instead celebrate the natural diversity of bodies in the world, of different shapes, sizes, colors, ages, etc.! Ask the child to think about all of the “real” people he or she knows and loves, and how different they all look. Reality is, after all, the best “reality check!”
2) Find alternative media. Avoid media that perpetuates gendered stereotypes or unrealistic body image, and seek out alternatives. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a fantastic book about the “pinkification” of girlhood, points out that when searching for media alternatives we will be most successful if we “fight fun with fun,” and includes a great list of toys, clothes and media designed for girls aged 3-9 on her website. There also great alternative resources for boys. For example, a good friend of mine wanted to share his lifelong adoration of comic books with his 3-year-old son, Owen, but wanted to avoid violence, sexism and unrealistic images of hyper-muscular men and hyper-sexual women. It took some online research, but he found some promising options and went to the comic book store ahead of time to scout out the situation before bringing Owen along for comic-book bonding time. Oh, and let’s not forget that designating toys and media as “just for girls” or “just for boys” reinforces gender stereotypes, so by all means, mix it up!
3) Talk to your child’s school about including media literacy in their curriculum, whether through curriculum changes, by starting after-school clubs, or by bringing in workshops. A few great resources to learn more about this are about-face.org, commonsensemedia.org and therepresentationproject.com, which are organizations focused on media literacy. Finally, encourage your child to make his or her OWN media, by writing stories, drawing pictures, directing and starring in their own plays and (for older kids) using age-appropriate social media to share their media with the world. When kids create their own media they not only enjoy the power of writing (or rewriting) their own stories, but they also develop a more intuitive understanding of media as created rather than just appearing as some sort of "truth" about how things are or should be.