Women’s Self Image and the Media

 Women’s Self-Image and the Media:
Trends from the 1960’s to Today
Communication In Society

Many general audience magazines, television, webmagazines and social websites (geared towards both men and women) promote longstanding sexual stereotypes of weakness, dependence and body type for women in Western society. As a result, the portrayals can lead women to attempt to live up to these unrealistic beauty standards. Young women especially develop skewed body images that can contribute to eating disorders, early onset puberty and encourage women to take certain societal roles and careers. As a result many women lower their expectations, even when they are in demanding professions.


Girls are surrounded by the concept of body image from a young age. There is a 0.003% chance that a girl will become a lawyer, but a 42% chance that by the third grade, the girl will wish that she were thinner. (Fit vs. Fiction). In every supermarket and convenience store in the United States, children and adults alike see thin models and actresses on covers of magazines; if an actress is heavy, the headline in disparaging or focused on her weight-loss program. Even before girls know what ‘anorexia’, ‘bulimia’ and ‘eating disorder’ mean, they understand the concept from the thin Disney princesses. Today, the average Body Mass Index (BMI) of a runway model is 16 (the average woman is between 18 and 25), but in 1960, the average model was 20.2 (USA Today). Today, the average person is exposed to up to 3,000 ads a day, but in 1964 they were exposed to 76 ads a day. (AAAA/ Kilbourne). Many people say that Marilyn Monroe took some of the most notable model shots of the century, but forget that Marilyn Monroe was a said to be 5’5 tall and 120- 140 pounds, putting her BMI at between 20 and 23.

Rarely do people see an average sized woman on a magazine cover. Young girls see thin and Photshopped women with sour expressions, who they try to emulate. Every year, the percentage of girls that will be diagnosed with an eating disorder rises, as does the number of advertisements for diets, diet sodas & lean foods, tummy tucks and, most recently, lap band surgery. On average, 10 million people suffer from eating disorder a year, nearly double what it was in the 1960’s. This can be partially attributed to better diagnosis, (fortunately there is now significantly less mental health stigma than in the 1960’s). (Mirasol). The advertising goal is not better health through long-term goal setting and discipline but through quick fixes that can be purchased.

Girls intuit from advertising that any weight above model thin is bad and thin girls and average girls in equal numbers are just as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. (Fat vs. Fact). Clothing manufacturers have added 00 as a size to reflect a more common body type.


Girls increased continued pressure to wear more makeup and start earlier in life due to Little Miss Beauty pageants and their coverage in many grocery counter media.

More girls think that they need to wear makeup in order to be considered “sexy” or “pretty”- fewer girls thrive to be “pretty” and more thrive to be “sexy”, but never look to the subliminal messages that are engrained in advertisements. Budweiser commercials focus on a girls breasts and not their face. Men are swooning over the scantily clad woman like she’s a piece of meat and not like she’s a person.  Few advertisements or programs show men appreciating a woman’s mind or physical endurance unless it is in a scantily- clad body.  Social networking sites such as Facebook are notorious for online bullying not only students outside the social norm, but also snidness about popular and good-looking students; the bar is set impossibly high.


Due to better nutrition (and probably toxins in the foods) children are of both sexes are entering puberty earlier than ever. This is not simply an advertisement problem, but also has roots in parental expectations and peer pressure. More children than ever are being fast-tracked by parents from pre-school to college for better careers. As young adult novelist John Green says:

Did you know that for pretty much the entire history of the human species, the average life span was less than thirty years? You could count on ten years or so of real adulthood, right? There was no planning for retirement. There was no planning for a career. There was no planning. No time for planning. No time for a future. But then the life spans started getting longer, and people started having more and more future. And now life has become the future. Every moment of your life is lived for the future–you go to high school so you can go to college so you can get a good job so you can get a nice house so you can afford to send your kids to college so they can get a good job so they can get a nice house so they can afford to send their kids to college

Children are told that they need to be and to have “x,y and z” or they’re not good athletic or talented or pretty enough. Then, they try to supplement this with bravado, drugs, alcohol, makeup and boyfriends to appear more grown up. Girls suffer from more unrealistic expectations than boys because they see more thin girls than boys on magazines. True boys are encouraged to be “macho”, but there are less magazines geared towards teen boys than teen girls.

Young women are especially conflicted as they try to reconcile the willowy, helpless, sexy body-type with the independent career-bound adult that can simultaneously take on all type of traditional home responsibilities.

After the 1960’s woman’s movement, more women started working the double shift – at home and at work. While initially empowering, the impossibility of being all things to all people soon overwhelmed them.

As girls’ societal roles are developed, so are boys. From an early age, boys are exposed to tons of media that says that they’re supposed to look at girls as being less capable and at women as sexual objects. Without strong familial and community support, both men and women who are guided primarily by commercial media that caters to the lowest common denominator are likely to form poor relationships based on objectification of others and become more likely to abuse, verbally and/or physically Unfortunately, studies show that children who are abused are more likely to be abusers as adults.

Fourth, these girls live in a time where they are told “not to get raped” but boys are not taught “not to rape”. In order for gender roles to be entirely equal, they have to be different but equal. As history has shown us, separate but equal does not truly work.

In society, many women are picking up the “double shift”- working a day job, then cooking, cleaning and caring for their family as well. As previous history has said, men are supposed to be the breadwinners, while woman are supposed to tend to the man and children. One notion that feminists tend to forget is that true feminism allows for woman to work if they want to, but also to stay home if they want to. Now more than ever, there need to be programs for girls that promote the education of women. Studies show that the more education a woman has, the fewer children that she will have on average. This allows for fewer mouths to feed and more career opportunities open to the woman.  The sisters of Mercy specifically have program to help educate girls. Population is growing at unprecedented rates and we as a world are not prepared- population leads to global warming. If more people are working skilled- based jobs, not factory jobs. If woman get educated, then they will be less likely to have to work in the factory or prostitute to sustain themselves and their families. Part of this is that math and science careers need to be displayed to girls from an early age- they need to have more opportunities for girls to dip their hands in those waters.

In order to help combat this, you should consider joining groups such as Mercyhurst Equality of Women (MEOW) or National Organization for Women (NOW), both of which are organizations that educate people on women’s rights and activism for equality.

In conclusion, the issue is not only affecting people on a personal level, but also on a societal level, and the issue hits at all levels of society




American Association of Advertising Agencies. How many advertisements is a person exposed to a day? Retrieved from: http://ams.aaaa.org/eweb/upload/faqs/adexposures.pdf

Hellmich, Nancy.  (2004). Average weight up 25 lbs. since 1960. USA Today. Retrieved rom http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2004-10-27-taller-heavier_x.htm

Kilbourne, Jean. (2000). How advertising changes the way we think and feel. Retrieved from http://www.jeankilbourne.com/cantbuy/

Mirasol. (2011). How many people have eating disorders? Retrieved from http://www.mirasol.net/eating-disorders/information/eating-disorder-statistics.php

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