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Adolescent Girls and the Media: A Look Beyond the Mirror

Media & Girls Perception

Let’s face it- growing up female can be tough, but growing up female in this day and age can be REALLY tough.

There are a LOT (and I mean a lot) of unique challenges that adolescent girls face and one of them happens to be the “M” word. What is the “M” word, you ask? Here’s a hint: something that has the ability to impact girls’ perception of themselves and their body image? Any guesses? Well, chances are you probably said media. If you did (and I’m guessing you did) you are absolutely right.

Media can have a tremendous impact on how girls (and grown women for that matter) feel about themselves. Research has shown that girls who are exposed to unrealistic (and unhealthy and unattainable) images of body types cause them to feel inadequate and unsatisfied with their bodies. In a 1992 research study by Stanford University, 70% of women reported feeling worse about themselves and their bodies after looking at magazines.

I decided to do some research of my own to determine whether or not this is fact.

My very unscientific study consisted of me flipping through several magazines and paying close attention to the various images of beauty. Well, my unscientific study revealed that I need to hit the gym. After looking at countless images of beautiful faces, six-pack abs, flawless hair, I have to admit that I felt somewhat dissatisfied with the parts of my body that need extra work. Just think, if a 32-year old woman who has high self-esteem can be made to feel this way after viewing several magazines, how do adolescent and teen girls feel?

According to Media Awareness Network, the average North American girl will watch 5,000 hours of television, including 80,000 ads, before she starts kindergarten. Before she starts kindergarten?! Well we definitely have our work cut out for us don’t we? The truth is that negative images of women are not limited to magazines. Everything from video games, to television shows, to Barbie dolls can help shape a young girl’s body image. Good ol’ Barbie- since 1959 she has brought so much joy to the average American girl. Barbie has been at the center of controversy for quite some time when it comes to the issue of body image. In fact, if she were a real person, she would be 5 feet 9 inches in height, have a 36-inch chest, an 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips. Those are some pretty shocking stats! So much actually, that researchers state that Barbie would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat that she would need to menstruate (University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland).

Why is that even though adults know that a little 11.5-inch plastic doll is not an accurate representation of women, do they still buy them for their nieces, daughters, and granddaughters? The common response to this question is “it’s just a toy.” Well, this toy coupled with constant images of what a woman should look like in the media can take its toll. Perhaps Mattel felt the pressure to make Barbie more realistic since in 1997 the company updated the doll’s physique by widening the waist and lessoning the bust. Close but not close enough, Mattel.

The reality is we cannot rid ourselves of gender-biased toys or negative and sexist ads and video games but there IS something that we can do to help lessen the impact on the girls we work with.

First, offer ongoing conversations about the subject matter.

This may sound simple but we all too often overlook the power of dialogue with girls. It’s a proven fact- women use more words to express themselves than men. Why fight it? Including consistent meaningful conversations in your after-school program is the first step to providing female students with key information about media messages.

A simple way to start the conversation is to have girls flip through multiple magazines and identify the number of negative ads or words versus positive and healthy ads. A simple activity is to have girls create a collage of positive images and words from magazines. A discussion on how positive media messages can influence girls is a great way to have students think about ways to turn a negative into a positive in their own life.

Second, fight fire with fire.

By this I mean that you can incorporate media into your existing enrichment hour and have students dissect it. For example, you can show “Evolution,” the video by Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which demonstrates just how fake most magazine ads are. There are also several lesson plans on this website that can be downloaded for free. You can also search on Google (images) for airbrushed photos to demonstrate the point that real women have flaws that are easily wiped away with the click of a computer mouse.

Third, offer journal writing as a regular part of your after-school program or girls’ group.

Provide girls with a question prompt and let them express themselves through writing. Journal writing provides girls with an outlet to channel their thoughts, fears, or concerns about particular topics. Question prompts related to the issue of media and body image can include: 1) What do you feel/see/think when you look in the mirror? Where do these thoughts/feelings come from? 2) Fat means…, thin means…, 3) What are the physical characteristics you like about yourself? What do you wish you can change and why? The journal question can lead into a group discussion, which can include tips on identifying our positive qualities, healthy eating, media stereotyping, cultural ideas of beauty, etc.

Lastly, offer a lesson on media, stereotyping, gender-bias, body image, etc. at least 2-3 times per month.

Don’t worry! You don’t have to wrack your brain on developing these lessons- they ALREADY exist. The best part is you can download them from the comfort of your own laptop. Visit the Media Awareness Network website for sample lessons, background information and research, and educational games- all related to media (

As stated earlier, it’s hard to escape the negative images that bombard us. It’s hard to imagine a world without gender-biased and sex-filled media these days. Let’s ponder that for a second…what would our world be like with no sexist ads, racy magazine covers, rated R music videos? Hmmm…would people still read the magazines, watch the movies or play the video games? Would girls have higher self-esteem? Would they be less likely to practice fad diets and plastic surgery? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use media to only promote positive things? Well, one day when I’m queen of the world this will happen. Until then, I will continue to push for gender-specific programming to help girls figure out the lovely but often complex journey of being female…will you join me in this crusade?

Oh, and this morning I had scrambled eggs with soy chorizo for breakfast…yumm!!!!

Author: @gaby

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