More Realistic Physical Representations in Media Will Support Youth Mental Health

More Realistic Physical Representations in Media Will Support Youth Mental Health

For many years, parents, child advocates, and mental health professionals have expressed their concerns about the influence of mass media on children and adolescents’ perceptions of body image, body satisfaction, and self-esteem. Over the past decade, with the rise of digital media and young people’s nearly constant engagement with media and technology, there has been an increasing alarm. Sadly, the media is filled with unrealistic representations of what our bodies should look like and do not accurately reflect the range of body shapes we see within our society—female characters and models often have bodies that are smaller and thinner than average, and males are often shown as physically strong and muscular. On top of this, these characters are often portrayed as being successful, accepted, sexually desirable, and happy while overweight characters are commonly used as comic relief, are often ridiculed in social situations and regarded as unattractive. 

recent report looking at children’s television in both the US and Canada showed that the majority of human characters in children’s television, especially females, were portrayed as thin or very thin. In addition, female characters were nearly twice as likely to be sexualized in the US based on factors such as revealing or flattering clothing, long eyelashes, and sensual lips. 

While many things can contribute to one’s body satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and self-esteem, several research studies have established that children and youth are indeedvulnerable to mass media images and messages that encourage and reinforce distorted body images and unhealthy perceptions about dietary health. 

In one striking example, a landmark study over the period that television was introduced to a community in Fiji demonstrated the dramatic effect these images had on young adolescent girls, showing how they internalized the Western images of beauty, resulting in disordered eating habits and patterns. Moreover, a meta-analysis of 25 experimental studies examined the immediate effect of exposure to a variety of images and found that body image, especially for females younger than 19, was significantly more negative after seeing thin media characters than after seeing average or plus-size media characters or inanimate objects. 

Exposure to hundreds and thousands of these inaccurate and unrealistic images over time sends the message that they are common and normal within society, when in fact, they are difficult if not impossible for most people to achieve. In fact, these images are almost always digitally manipulated, modified and enhanced to achieve this ‘ideal’ body image, creating an even larger gap between reality and what we see in the media. The impact of not being able to look like these characters in the media is associated with decreased self-esteem, body satisfaction, depression, and eating disorders.

Moreover, exposure to sexualizing media leads to self-objectification in both men and women – which feeds a destructive cycle of measuring self-esteem by physical appearance. At a time when rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are on a steep rise, especially among young women and girls, putting a stop to these distorted media representations is long overdue and more important than ever.

While the problem remains significant, we have seen some positive improvements in advertising and marketing campaigns in recent years. For example, Aerie, the lingerie retailer, created a campaign, #AerieREAL, which intends to promote body positivity by using raw, unretouched images that feature models of different racial backgrounds and body types and more recently, models with disabilities and other medical issues. Similarly, Dove’s Girls Self Esteem campaign has a similar mission. Many popular retail brands, such as Target, Old Navy, Nike, and Forever 21, have followed suit by incorporating a diversity of body types and/or scaling back on re-touching photos in their advertising. 

In TV and film, avoiding these distorted physical stereotypes is still the exception, not the rule. There are a handful of shows making a solid effort to promote more “body positivity” through inclusion of a variety of body types and characters, but they are unfortunately few and far between. We need to see much more of this – and urgently – especially for any hope of stemming the tide of rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among our youth. 

Inclusive and realistic portrayals can promote body acceptance and reinforce self-esteem – and wellness should be prioritized over ratings. If done well, the ensuing culture shift should open the door for a new era of creative, representative content that viewers can relate to and embrace. 

To contribute to positive body diversity in media, here are some actionable insights for content creators:

  1. Offer more realistic cultural standards of beauty through a diversity of body types and experiences.

  2. Avoid characters fixating on weight loss and beauty. 

  3. Create characters who model body positivity and acceptance. 

  4. Deviate from cultural norms of women needing to be slender and men, strong and muscular.

  5. Offer an alternative narrative to one featuring women and girls as sexual objects and men as fixated on female physical characteristics above all others.

  6. Show characters who deviate from the cultural norms of beauty as romantically desirable and socially accepted, not just as sidekicks or comic relief. 

Vicki Harrison, MSW

Program Director, Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing

Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing

Adrianna Ruggiero

Senior Research Coordinator for CSS

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