I’m willing to bet that every single American woman has struggled with negative self-image. We see media images everywhere that reinforce dangerous ideas about beauty (that we should all be white and unrealistically thin). We’re told that we should be able to snap right back to our pre-baby bodies because hey, Kim Kardashian and all those other celeb mamas did. We are constantly bombarded not only by visual representations of what our society thinks we should look like and be like but we get it from every form of media (radio, print, websites).

And even media geared towards older women is no better. You would kind of hope that as we get older there’s less pressure to fit into this white/thin/perfect media created ideal but during my undergrad years at UConn I participated in a study that showed the opposite. I was a psych major and helped a professor who was doing research about whether the models used in ads in magazines like Oprah, Good Housekeeping and the like are of a more average weight (because these publications are geared towards an older population). I sat there coding magazines for hours and hours only to conclude that those magazines use models of similar weight and body composition to magazines like Cosmo. Mind blown.

This coming January I’m going to be speaking to a group of teenage young women as part of my day job. The topic is body image and the media, something that really gets me going. There’s been more and more talk in the past few years about the importance of loving our bodies at any size and that is absolutely wonderful. But I think there’s a huge missing component that you don’t really hear people talk about much, and that is media literacy.

It’s one thing to say, geez, it really sucks that there’s this unrealistic, unattainable standard around beauty in our country but it’s important to investigate this further. To question WHY there’s this ridiculous standard. And the answer is this: it’s all about Benjamin’s baby ($$).

The key component of media literacy is being able to consume media with a critical eye. To remember that everything we read/see/hear is trying to sell us a message/product/image. To me, that is media literacy at its core. Once we realize this, we can be better media consumers because we can then remind ourselves that we don’t have to buy into whatever other people are trying to sell us.

And it really is all about money. If we feel badly about ourselves we are way more likely to buy products that claim they can make us feel better. Hate your wrinkles – get this new wrinkle cream! Hate your stomach – buy this new weight loss pill! Companies are constantly telling us that we aren’t good enough, attractive enough or perfect enough if we don’t have xy&z so that we’ll go out and buy their products. And that is total bullshit.

Now that I have a daughter of my own I’m already working on teaching her to be media literate. We just got cable a few weeks ago (we did a Netflix/Hulu combo before but scored a great bundle deal and switched to real TV) and the biggest difference is that we now have to watch commercials. I’ve seen how this has impacted my 3-year-old. One day I was sitting with her, watching one of her favorite shows, and each time a commercial came on she’d say “Mommy can we get that?” Literally, at every single commercial (sidebar- I don’t think advertising should be allowed on kids channels but that’s a whole other topic).

While I’m sure this concept is far beyond her comprehension, I just always respond by saying “Sweetheart we’re not going to buy that. These are just people trying to sell us things we don’t need.”  She now has the same disdain for commercials that I do – I’m happy to report, and we try to watch DVR’d programs when we can so that I can simply fast forward through them. I want her to know from an early age that she should question the images/messages she’s given because I want her to grow up with a more positive attitude about her body than I did.

So when I speak to these young women in a few months I hope I can give them a message that I’m striving to also give my child.  That it can feel really overwhelming when you want to do something to combat the media’s negative beauty standards but the one thing we can all do, starting today, is to become more media literate, and that starts by simply remembering that in a consumeristic society, the media is trying to sell us something and we don’t have to accept it. We can take the power back by not buying in.

(For more information about this topic check out the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood & The Media Literacy Project)

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